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Palm Sunday: Preparing

(Today’s scripture readings can be found at the end of this post.)

Best wishes for a joyous Palm Sunday! And since I won’t be with you next week, a Happy Easter in advance!

Today we celebrate once again, with believers all over the world, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the praises of all the people: a great festival of palms and singing.

Today also brings our final installment in the Lenten sermon series Return to Me with All Your Heart, and today’s message focuses on Preparing. Palm Sunday is a good day to think about preparing.  We are preparing for Holy Week – for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  We are preparing to remember the day Jesus saved the world. We’re also preparing for Easter when we rejoice in his resurrection.  We are preparing to follow Jesus through the darkness of this week and into the light of next Sunday.

But it occurred to me as I was looking at our scriptures for today: in the events of this week, God is also preparing us – preparing God’s people – for everything that lies ahead.

Our reading from Luke begins with the words “after [Jesus] had said this, he went on ahead to Jerusalem…” – which of course begs the question ‘after he had said what?’

Just before Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem, he had been teaching the people, and the subject of his lesson was this:

“the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This is the framework and the backdrop to all the events of Holy Week.  Jesus, in his teaching, was helping people understand what God was planning all these events.  As the week unfolded, and things went from praise to grief, and from joy to despair, the disciples would have some way to understand why.

Jesus also talked about God’s desire to seek and save the lost in answer to some people who had been criticizing Jesus for his choice in friends: specifically Zacchaeus the tax collector, as well as other notorious sinners.  Jesus drove his point home by telling the parable of the talents. You may remember the story:

A nobleman travels to a far country to receive royal power – that is, he was like a prince traveling to his coronation. Before he leaves, he gives money to his servants and says “do business with this until I return”.  While he’s away the citizens of the country rise up and say, “we don’t want this man to rule over us!” – which of course doesn’t change the fact that he will be king, but it points out the people are in rebellion.  When this new King returns, the first servant comes up to him and says “Lord, your talent has made ten more” and the King replies, “well done! …take charge of ten cities.”  And the second servant comes and says, “Lord, your talent has made five more” and the King replies, “Well done! Take charge of five cities.”  The last servant comes up and says “here is your talent. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, because I was afraid; because you are a harsh man: and you reap what you did not sow.”  And the King says, “I will judge you by your own words. Why did you not put my money in the bank, so that I might have it with interest?” And he takes away the one talent and gives it to the man with ten.  And then King puts down the rebellion, and makes an end of the people who said they didn’t want him to be king.

This is a strange story Jesus tells.  It’s an odd parable, unless we remember that the king in the story is in fact not a harsh man but the most merciful and the most wonderful of kings; and his kingdom is a joy without end.

Jesus tells this story as he is preparing for the last week of his earthly life, because Jesus knows he is that king.  Jesus knows – better than even the disciples know – that he is the king of kings, and that his kingdom is coming. Jesus is looking ahead to the other side of the cross.

Jesus is saying to the disciples: I’m about to leave you. I am going to my coronation. And while I’m away, people will rebel against God. But be faithful with what I’ve given you, and when I come back you will share in my joy. 

And having said this, Jesus then leads his disciples in the direction of Jerusalem. They are approaching from the east side of the city, passing through Bethany (where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived) then through Bethphage, and to the Mount of Olives.

And what happens next is an unusual series of events!  Jesus says to a couple of the disciples, “go into the village” (probably Bethphage) “and you will find a colt tied up, one that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it here. And if anyone asks you why you’re taking it, just say ‘the Lord needs it.’”

It is true, as scripture says, that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; so if Jesus wants something, he has a right to it. On the other hand, to just walk up and walk off with someone’s mode of transportation, without saying so much as a word, would have been as unusual back then as it would be today.  I mean, if you walked out of church today and saw a stranger getting into your car, and you tried to stop them and said “what are you doing?!?” – and the person said to you, “The Lord needs it” – what would you do? (I would probably say ‘funny, the Lord didn’t tell me about that! Get out of the car!’)

But in this case the owner of the colt didn’t object. Maybe he was a man of faith. Maybe God had already told him someone was going to borrow his colt that day.  Maybe he knew Jesus, and for him Jesus’ word was enough. We don’t know, and Luke doesn’t say.  We do know from the other gospels that the colt was returned to its owner at the end of the day.

So that’s the first unusual thing.  The second unusual thing is: this colt had never been ridden.  Those of us who have been around colts, or at very least have seen some old cowboy movies, are amazed to see Jesus climb onto a colt that has never been ridden.  Colts usually object very strongly to being ridden… at least until they get used to it.  But here in Luke’s gospel we see an example of how Jesus truly is the Lord of all creation, including colts.

So with everything in place, a huge crowd of disciples and followers of Jesus gather around.  They spread their clothes on the ground under Jesus and the colt as he rides; they spread out palm branches; and they keep on doing this as the crowd travels down the side of the Mount of Olives.  As they wind down the hill they pass through an orchard of olive trees, and down further they pass through the Garden of Gethsemane, and then across the Kidron Valley and up the hill to Jerusalem.

In those days there was a city gate facing that path, so a person could walk from the Garden of Gethsemane straight up not only into Jerusalem but into the Temple itself, and it was about a ten-minute walk from Gethsemane to the temple.  Today that gate is walled shut, but Scripture tells us one day it will be opened again and King Jesus will enter through it one more time.

As the people are walking they sing and shout praises to God, and the sound travels all through the city. Everyone in Jerusalem is drawn into the scene, and people start asking what’s going on.  Meanwhile the crowd is shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”

All of this happens in fulfillment of what prophet Zechariah said:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey… he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech 9:9, 10b)

What a glorious day! What it would have been like to be there!  But hearing all this praise, the Pharisees tell Jesus to tell the crowd to pipe down.  (How is it that wherever Jesus goes and whatever he’s doing, the Pharisees always seem to pop up and throw cold water on things?) In this case what’s bothering them is that the people are calling Jesus “a king” – which they’re afraid the Romans will take the wrong way.

And indeed, at Jesus’ trial later that week, Pilate’s main concern was Jesus’ claim to be a king. Pilate didn’t care about the theological differences between Jesus and the Pharisees; Pilate just didn’t want any challenges to Rome’s control. It’s interesting that when Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world,’ Pilate seemed to be OK with that.  He understood Jesus wasn’t trying to lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire; Jesus had his eye on something else, and Pilate was fine with that.

But too many people were of the opinion the Messiah would come to set Israel free from the Romans (and any other occupiers) and restore the throne of King David.  And Jesus was a descendant of David, so he qualified for the job!  And now here Jesus is, surrounded by believers praising God and proclaiming that Jesus comes in the name of the Lord.

And what the people are saying is true; and Jesus confirms it by telling the Pharisees “if they are silent the very stones will cry out.”  God’s praises can never be silenced!  But the people have not yet caught the vision of God’s kingdom, as a kingdom that is not of this world. And Jesus needs to correct that.

So after all the celebrating and all the rejoicing, Jesus enters the temple area, looks around, and then leaves. And the crowd goes home.  Nothing happens that would suggest Jesus is trying to make himself king in Jerusalem.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus does go on to turn over the tables of the money-changers, but this is a commentary on how the temple is being run, not on how Jerusalem is being run. As always, Jesus’ focus is on people’s relationship with God.

So as we prepare to remember this week how Jesus set up his eternal kingdom, which is a kingdom not of this world, we hear the words of Paul explaining how Jesus did it.  He says that Jesus, who in his true and original form was and is God, did not desire to hold onto his rights as God, but took on the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of human beings.  And as a man, he became subject to the same law of entropy and death that all human beings are subject to; but Jesus gave himself up to death on the cross in order to defeat death.

Paul says: therefore God has raised him up to the highest height and given him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

And this brings us back to the parable Jesus was talking about in the beginning: back to that young prince who went away to a foreign country to be crowned King.  This is where Jesus is right now, today.  We are still waiting for him to return from that country, where he has been crowned king, and where God has given him the name above all names.

While we wait for Jesus’ return, the people of this earth rebel against him and they say “we don’t want this man to be our king.”  But we who are his servants – we prepare for his return by investing the talents he has given us (our skills and our treasures). And if we are faithful we will rejoice with Jesus in the heavenly kingdom when that kingdom comes in its fullness.

So we can prepare for this Easter by saying “yes” once again to Jesus, saying “yes” to being his faithful servant, so that he will raise us up, just as God the Father has raised him up.

This week let us walk with Jesus once more through his last hours of agony… in faith that we will share in his joy on the other side of the cross.  AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/14/19

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Luke 19:28-40   After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,  30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”  32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”  35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Philippians 2:5-11  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

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God Is Making a New Thing

I was just saying to the folks at Carnegie and Hill Top last week that I’ve always felt like Lent is a dark time of year.  It’s physically dark because it begins in the cold of winter; it’s emotionally dark because we know at the end of the forty days we will find ourselves standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and it’s spiritually dark because God’s message is: this cross is necessary for the forgiveness of sin.  The Cross reminds us – as if we need reminding – that there’s darkness in our world. As we wrestle with our flaws and shortcomings during the season of Lent, we learn all over again that God is right and we need Jesus.

But every year, right about now, a ray of light begins to shine in the darkness. Winter is fading, spring is breaking through; the days are getting longer and warmer; and as we listen to Jesus talking about Calvary, we begin to hear the message that the crucifixion will not be the end, and there’s a new life and a new home on the other side of the Cross.

So it’s appropriate that our sermon series on Returning to God should focus this week on Making a New Thing.  That is: God is making a new thing.

There are some people who would say that a book that’s over 2000 years old isn’t going to produce anything new: and that would be true if the Bible was just words on a page. But the Bible speaks about the living God – and while God is always the same, yesterday today and tomorrow, God’s word is always new, and it brings out new things in us.

In our reading from Isaiah God says, “do not remember the former things…”.  God’s not saying ‘wipe your memory clean’, God just wants us to not focus our attention on the past.  This can difficult for us, because if you think about it, all we know is ‘the former things’. Unlike God we can’t see the future. We do have the present, but the minute you say that, the present has slipped into the past.

So when God says “I’m about to do a new thing,” this can be a little bit unnerving.  As we mature, we learn that there is stability and safety in the familiar. The older we get, the more the word ‘change’ sounds like a politician’s promise rather than something we really want.  New things and new experiences – especially ones we’re not planning on and haven’t asked for – require trust. Praise God, our God is a God who can be trusted, with every thing in every way.

The two scripture readings we have for today – Isaiah 43:16-21 and Philippians 3:4-14 – both talk about new things. I counted five new things between the two passages (you might find more, and if you do let me know). Let’s take a look.

In Isaiah, the first new thing – New Thing #1 – is “thus says the Lord”.  Of course it’s not a new thing that God speaks; God speaks all the time, in many ways: through the Bible, through nature, through other people, through the Spirit speaking into our hearts and minds.  But when God speaks, things happen. You remember the words in Genesis: “let there be light” and there was light. “Let there be birds” and there were birds.  “Let us make human beings in our image” – and there we were.  And Genesis tells us “it was good”.  We can trust whatever God speaks into existence will be new and will be good.

New Thing #2 in this passage is that God is creating a road in the middle of water. This verse will be translated differently depending on which version of the Bible you read; it may say, for example, “a path in the rushing waters” or something like that. Bottom line, Isaiah is talking about a road through a body of water that’s in motion. Imagine for a moment building a road from Mt. Washington to downtown Pittsburgh without using a bridge or a tunnel. This is something new!  God has done it once before: in the book of Exodus, when the people of Israel left Egypt and crossed the Nile on dry land (and then God used the same Nile to defeat the chariots and armies of Egypt, which is what Isaiah is talking about here.)

But Isaiah says this time God is doing something new with those mighty waters: God is making a way in the wilderness. This has a double meaning: first it looks forward to John the Baptist, who is the “voice crying in the wilderness” and baptizing, preparing the way for Jesus.  And second, Isaiah is speaking of a passage through the wilderness of death.  Because in addition to passing through the Nile, the people of Israel also passed through the River Jordan as they entered the Promised Land; and the Jordan River has often represented the passage from this life into the next.  You remember the old spiritual “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” – the second verse says “River Jordan is chilly and cold/chills the body but not the soul.” God is making a way through the Jordan, and this is a new thing.

I remember when we visited Israel a number of years ago, we went to the Jordan River (and it IS cold!)  My old pastor got down into the river and was baptizing people – which he very much enjoyed doing – but when he came out of the water he was practically blue from the cold. I looked at him and said “chills the body but not the soul, right?” and he laughed and said “good one!”

God is making a way for us, a road for us, through those waters: the waters of baptism, and the waters of the Jordan, which we will all cross someday. God is making a way, Isaiah says.

New Thing #3 in our passage from Isaiah is water in the desert.  We’ve all seen movies of people traipsing across deserts, squeezing the last drop of water out of their canteens, seeing mirages on the horizon, and finally collapsing into the sand before somebody rides to their rescue.

Watering desert farmland with dew-catchers

Water in the desert transforms the entire landscape.  In modern-day Israel this is happening right now. Using new irrigation techniques, and using filters that can even capture the dew out of the air, Israel is turning the desert into a garden. Take a look…

Forest in the Negev Desert

In much the same way, God promises to satisfy our thirst.  This speaks to both justice – that is, giving water to thirsty people in the physical sense – and righteousness, that is, providing water in the spiritual sense.  Spiritually speaking we live in a world that is parched for God, dying of thirst for God’s word and God’s Spirit.

I’m reminded of a CS Lewis quote I saw this week on Facebook. Lewis wrote:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our [worldly] desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like a… child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday [vacation] at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

For those of us who long for the good things God gives, God pours out the water of new life, and the eternal Kingdom begins to break into our world: God’s justice, God’s righteousness, here and there, a little bit at a time. It’s enough to give us a taste of what’s coming: a new kingdom, a new world.

Turning to Philippians, we see New Thing #4: a new righteousness. Paul contrasts this with the ‘old righteousness’ which is found by obeying the law of Moses.  The problem is, this ‘old righteousness’ didn’t work, because the vast majority of us are just not capable of being that good.  And if we are, then the temptation is to become self-righteous, which is a failure in the opposite direction.  That’s where Paul was, as he says: he was circumcised on the 8th day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, blameless under the law.  But Paul counts this as rubbish compared to knowing Jesus.

The new righteousness Paul talks about has its foundations in faith – faith in Jesus Christ – not in keeping rules.  This righteousness comes from God and is completely independent of human power or human effort.

Paul is so blown away by God’s goodness and greatness – and he so aware of his own sins (including having participated in the death of the first Christian martyr, which, to a Pharisee’s way of thinking, was what the law required) – Paul is so amazed at the depth of Jesus’ forgiveness and compassion.  Which leads us to…

New Thing #5: first love.  I don’t know how else to put it into words.  Do you remember your first love? Remember how it was: this other person was all you could think about, all you could talk about, you drove everybody else nuts talking about this person.  You wanted to be with him or her all the time, you couldn’t imagine life without them. You might even have married the person.

Paul’s love for Jesus is as personal and as passionate as that. Listen to Paul’s words: “whatever I gained I count as loss next to knowing Jesus”; “whatever I have I count as rubbish next to knowing Jesus”; “I have lost everything so I can gain Jesus” (keeping in mind had Paul lost his job, his promising career as a Pharisee, his home, his health (after all those beatings and shipwrecks), and his freedom (he is writing this letter from prison). Paul says: “I want to share in Jesus’ suffering so that I can share in his resurrection”; and he says “I press on to make him my own because Jesus has already made me his own.” Doesn’t that sound like a first love?

Paul is a man who never wanted to be without Jesus. He drove everybody nuts talking about Jesus. He wanted to be with Jesus all the time, in this life and the next. Like first love: except this love is truly forever, because death will not them part. And it will not us part.  Paul says a few verses later, “brothers and sisters, join in imitating me.” (Phil 3:17) and “I wish you were as I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29)

As we prepare to head into Easter, we see that Jesus went to the cross so that all who believe in him will share with him in a love like this.  The writer of Hebrews says: Jesus “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2)  And Isaiah writes: “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied.” (Isaiah 53:11 KJV) In other words – Jesus did what he did on the cross because of the joy of sharing love with us forever. That’s what Paul means when he says “Jesus has already made me his own.”

This is the ultimate New Thing: it’s THE love story of all creation. And it’s still being written. The sooner we jump into the story, the longer our joy will last. AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/7/19

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Isaiah 43:16-21  Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,  17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:  18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,  21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Jackal

Philippians 3:4-14   If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.  10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

~

 

I’m currently reading the book Love Undocumented, about an American woman who falls in love with and marries an immigrant from south of the border. The book gives a personal, American-citizen’s experience of our immigration system.

In this book Sarah Quezada writes:

“A 2015 study from LifeWay Research [a conservative Christian think tank] revealed only one in five evangelical Christians said their church had ever encouraged them to reach out to immigrants in their communities. Yet almost 70 percent of those surveyed said they would appreciate a sermon that taught how biblical principles and examples could be applied to the issue of immigration.”

Question for Christian believers of every stripe: does this paragraph ring true for you? Would you indeed welcome preaching on a Biblical approach to the issue of immigration?  And if so, what questions do you have?

Thank you in advance for your replies.

 

 

Today we continue in our Lenten series on Return To Me With All Your Heart, and this Sunday the emphasis is on reconciliation and new life in Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt like Lent is a dark time of year.  It’s physically dark because it begins in the cold in winter; and it’s emotionally dark because we know at the end of the forty days we will find ourselves standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and it’s spiritually dark because God’s message to us is that the cross is necessary for the forgiveness of human sin.

Lent reminds us – as if we need reminding – that there is darkness in the world, around us and inside us, and as we wrestle with our flaws and our shortcomings during Lent we become convinced more than ever that God is right and we need Jesus.

But every year, right about now, right around the 4th Sunday of Lent, a ray of light begins to shine into the darkness of Lent. In spite of the fact it’s snowing today, the promise of Spring is beginning to break through; the days are getting longer; and as we listen to Jesus’ words as he draws closer to Calvary, we begin to hear the message that the crucifixion will not be the end; that there’s a light, and a new life, and a new home on the other side of the Cross. (My friends from “high church” traditions tell me this is indeed Laetare Sunday, a day of relaxation of the austerity of Lent.)

A new life and a new home: that’s what both of our scripture readings are about today. This isn’t immediately obvious though, so if you’d like to, it might be easier to see what I’m talking about if you have Joshua chapter 5 and II Corinthians chapter 5 at your fingertips.

Speaking of new homes: have you ever watched any of the home renovation shows like Fixer Upper or Trading Spaces?  The people whose homes are being worked on in those shows know at the beginning of the show that they’re going to end up with a house that looks nothing like it did before; but they don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like until the very end.  In some cases they get an absolutely gorgeous house, and in other cases, especially on Trading Spaces, mileage may vary.

Yes, that’s actual straw glued to the wall. [Trading Spaces]

No matter what happens, the process is interesting and the end result is something new, and a newly renovated house implies change. The people in the house are still the same people, but patterns of movement within the house change: people sit in new places and eat in new places. Old habits go by the wayside and new ways of living come into play.

In the Bible we see a similar thing happening.  From a very big picture point of view: in the Old Testament, God makes a covenant with Abraham that his descendants will live in the Promised Land, where they will become a great nation.  And in the New Testament, God makes a covenant with all who believe in Jesus that we will have a new home in God’s eternal kingdom. In both cases, when God’s promises come to pass, old ways will disappear and new ways of life will come into being. God’s people will always be God’s people, but everything else about life will change: how we live, what we think, how we feel about God.  We will have new points of view, new ways of seeing and understanding. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom, when we become believers in Jesus Christ, new life begins right then and there.  As my old pastor used to say, eternal life doesn’t begin when you die; it begins now and carries into the future.

So that’s the big picture behind our scripture readings for today.  In addition to this meta-story, both of our readings today tell smaller stories; and both stories talk about reconciliation with God. So let’s start with the Old Testament reading.

Our scripture reading from Joshua tells the story of what happened on the day God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.  The covenant God made with Abraham was that his descendants would become a great nation and would live in the Promised Land after having been slaves for many years (Genesis 15:13). God had also made a covenant with Moses that he would lead the people out of slavery to the Promised Land. And now all of this has come true.  The people of Israel spent four hundred years in Egypt (a good bit of that time as slaves), and then Moses led them out, and the people spent forty more years traveling in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  During those forty years they received the Ten Commandments, and entered into a covenant with God: that God would be their God, and they would be God’s people, and through them all the people of the earth would be blessed.

As our story opens, Moses has recently passed away, and Joshua is the new leader of the nation.  And God says to Joshua and the people: “today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And they named the place Gilgal.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into these two short sentences!  First off the Hebrew word for ‘roll away’ sounds like ‘gilgal’. They named the place Gilgal in memory of what God had done.  Secondly God chooses the words ‘roll away’: God could have said ‘taken way’ or ‘removed’ but ‘rolled away’ points to another time and another day when a stone will be rolled away from the tomb of our Savior.

Last but not least, God acknowledges and shows compassion for what the people have been through in Egypt.  Slavery is one of those horrible tragedies – like abuse or rape – where the disgrace belongs on the perpetrator but the feeling of shame too often lands on the victim.  And God acknowledges this, and says ‘today your disgrace is rolled away’.

The past is behind, and a new future is ahead.  God welcomes the people into their new home and into a new way of living. And the first thing the Israelites do in their new home is to celebrate the Passover, remembering the night they were set free from slavery. You remember the story: God told Moses ‘tonight the firstborn of every household in Egypt will die, but not in the homes of Israel. The people of Israel are to take a lamb without blemish, and eat it that night, and place some of its blood over the doorway of the house; and when the angel of death sees it he will pass over the house.’

And now, here, the people are finally home in the promised land of Canaan, and all of God’s promises have come true; and the first thing the people do is to remember God by celebrating the Passover, honoring all God has done for them.

Joshua then says on the day after the Passover, for the very first time, the people of Israel ate the produce of the promised land – which probably included things like bread made from wheat or barley, lentils, chick-peas (in other words: hummus!), figs, cucumbers, melons, dates, grapes, olives: quite a feast!

Modern-day Israeli Breakfast – with traditional foods

The day after passover, for the first time in forty years, the people of Israel no longer ate manna, the food from heaven that had kept them alive for those forty years. Joshua 5:12 says “the manna ceased” that day – and the word for ‘ceased’ in Hebrew is shabbat – the word we get ‘sabbath’ from.  This day was a day of holy rest, both for God and for God’s people.

This was a rest at the start a new beginning: a new life; a new home; new foods; and most importantly, a new way of understanding and relating to God. There had been some rough times between the people and God during those forty years in the wilderness, but now the people are no longer rebelling. They are reconciled to God, and they begin their new life by worshipping and enjoying God, and having a feast and enjoying each other.  The reading in Joshua closes with a picture of peace and joy in the Promised Land: a picture that looks forward to the feast Jesus spoke of that will take place one day in God’s Kingdom.

Israeli Hummus – Yum!

…which is where we pick up Paul’s story!  In our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we also hear words that speak of a new home and a new beginning.

Paul and the Corinthians have a long and ‘complicated’ story. Paul spent a year and a half living in Corinth, teaching them about Jesus and getting their church off the ground; but after he left, false teachers came in, whose words and immoral actions divided the church. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deals with this situation and begs the people to set things right… which, with some difficulty, they did. So this second letter is a follow up to the first, where Paul expresses joy that the people have returned to God and also expresses his love for them.

In this part of the letter Paul is reminding the Corinthians that, because we now have a new home in Jesus, the way we see things by definition has changed.  We no longer understand from a human point of view. Paul says: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away and everything has become new!”

To use the Israelites’ experience as a metaphor, on a spiritual level we are no longer living in Egypt. We were once slaves to sin but like the Israelites, our shame has been rolled away, and we are set free by the blood of the spotless Passover lamb: Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds us that this is who we are.  We are new creations by the power of God through Jesus. We are reconciled to God.  Paul says: “all this is from God, who reconciles us to himself through Christ.” (II Cor 5:18)

Paul then goes on to say: “and now God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  Now that we are new creations, we see people differently as we look at them through the eyes of Jesus. We see that all people are made in God’s image; all people are precious in the eyes of God; and all people have the opportunity to be set free from sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We see that all people who put their trust in Jesus have become our family by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul says our calling is to be ambassadors to people who don’t yet know Jesus. God’s game plan is to invite them into the kingdom through us.  We have the privilege of carrying an invitation sent out by the king of kings.

Whenever I read these words I’m reminded of the British tradition regarding invitations to royal weddings.  Royal invitations – at least until recently (I don’t know if they still do it) – were traditionally delivered by hand by a royal servant who would knock on your door, personally hand you the invitation, and then stand and wait for your reply.  The messenger who delivered this invitation would not pester you, or lecture you, or quote to you from the king’s speeches; the invitation would speak for itself.

As for what our heavenly invitation says: the word Paul uses for invitation in the Greek is parakaleo, which literally translates “to call alongside.”  In other words, God’s invitation basically reads “come walk with me.” Or as Jesus said to the disciples when they asked what he was up to, “come and see.”  If the person being invited says ‘yes’ our job is to put their hand in God’s hand and then step aside.

If you’re anything like me, and you find the idea of evangelism a bit intimidating, what Paul is talking about here is very do-able; and I think it helps to remember a lot of what passes for evangelism in our world has been done very badly.  All we have to do is simply be the messenger and carry the invitation: “God says to you ‘come walk with me.’”

Paul then wraps up this part of his letter by saying, “since God is making his appeal through us… be [yourselves] reconciled to God.” God made Jesus to be sin, who knew no sin, so that we sinners might have the righteousness of Jesus.  We are now living in a new place: a new life, a new home, a new calling in Jesus.

A few verses after this Paul says: ‘now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.’  For believers, today is always the day: the day of new life, the day of the privilege of carrying God’s invitation. And if anyone here is still searching and still questioning: there is no other day. All we ever have is today.  God invites you to walk by his side, today.  What is your reply?

Let’s pray:  Lord, thank you for your invitation. Thank you for paying such a price to remove from us the shame of our slavery to sin.  Thank you for new life and a new home with you.  Help us, like the Israelites, to celebrate our passover with joy; and to rejoice in new creation and the promise of your kingdom coming. To your honor and glory, AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 3/31/19

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Scripture Passages for the Day:

Joshua 5:9-12  The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.  10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.  11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.  12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21   From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 

This week we continue in our Lenten series on Returning to Me With All Your Heart, and this Sunday our focus is on the Lenten discipline of repentance. This is one of those sermons I’ll be preaching to myself today as well as to you! And as we look at today’s scriptures, I’ll be pulling from them a list of six Repentances that we can practice during Lent and beyond.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘repent,’ we tend to think of the old fire and brimstone preachers of years ago who used to practically scare people into heaven. Because of this, the word ‘repent’ has gotten a bad reputation: it sounds, to our ears, like a harsh word from an angry God.

When Jesus preached “the kingdom of heaven is near, repent and believe the good news” – what He meant was “change course and believe the good news.” Change course is closer to the true meaning of the Greek, and I want us to have the true meaning without any of the emotional baggage of the 20th century.

There’s just one drawback to saying “change course and believe the good news”: it makes changing course sound optional. As I was reading our passage from Isaiah this week, it reminded me of an old anthem our choir used to sing (I wonder if any of you have sung this?)

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near… Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and return unto the Lord…”  It’s a beautiful song, full of lovely melodies.

The problem is the song makes repentance sound like a stroll through a European city: something pleasant you might do once in a lifetime if you can afford it. This is not repentance! When Jesus says “change course and believe the good news” – it wasn’t a suggestion. When you’re headed for a cliff, changing course is not optional.

So what do the scriptures tell us about this course change?

The primary message in our reading from Isaiah today is that everything good – in this life and the next – comes from God: and in a far deeper and more profound way than we realize.  And the primary message from Paul in I Corinthians is a warning to not desire anything evil or self-indulgent but rather to resist temptation. Paul also points out that the sacraments and other religious activity will do us no good if we take God’s mercy for granted.

So let’s start with Isaiah.  The prophet begins with a mysterious saying about thirsty people coming to the water and hungry people buying food without money.  Jesus says something similar to this in the gospel of John, when he meets a woman at the well. You may remember the story: Jesus asks her for a drink, and she points out that Jews don’t ask Samaritans for drinks. And Jesus answers ‘if you knew who it was who was talking to you, you would ask him, and he would give you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Isaiah is using the same imagery to point out that our greatest thirst as human beings is not for physical water but for spiritual water, and that satisfying our bodies doesn’t satisfy our spirits. Isaiah asks why we spend so much money and work so hard for things that don’t satisfy? Jesus said to the woman at the well, “anyone who drinks from this well will be thirsty again, but anyone who drinks from the water I give will never thirst.”  God says: listen carefully to me, and eat and drink what is good. Come to me and listen so that you may live.

Repentance #1: We recognize that God has – and God in fact is – what our souls long for.  God is love. God is truth. (Not God has love, or God has truth; God is love and God is truth.) God is just. God is holy. God is beauty. God is kind. God is perfect. It can be a little scary sometimes to think about just how good God is, because everything else in the world pales by comparison.  So repentance #1 is to get in touch with that part of ourselves that longs for God above all else, and to honor that part of ourselves, and stop wasting time and money on things that don’t satisfy.

Isaiah goes on to observe some other ways in which we may overlook God’s word and miss God’s will for our lives. We may become busy, we may become preoccupied, we may worry. We would to better to bring our concerns to God in prayer.  Which brings me to:

Repentance #2: Using Isaiah’s words as a springboard, we take delight in what God provides. For example, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – silly about saying “thank you God for spring” or “thank you God for flowers.”  Through the world around us, and through the people around us, and through the Holy Spirit, God is always sharing with us. God is never silent. Turn away from harsh thoughts, from anger, from bitterness – or, if things really are bad, then bringing the causes of anger and bitterness to God in prayer, and let God deal with them, because God is bigger and more powerful than we are. And when we find ourselves in need of advice, let God be the first one we ask.

Which leads us to Isaiah’s next point. Isaiah quotes God saying “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

We can’t begin to imagine how much greater and how much higher God is than we are; but as a lifelong cat owner, I’ve often thought that our relationship with cats might make a good parallel.  How much of what we think and do, do cats really understand?  Cats are smart: they know when dinnertime is, and they let us know if we’re late.  Put a box of sand on the floor and they know what to do with it. On the other hand, cats have no clue why all the people leave the house in the morning, and they make no connection between our going to work and the availability of cat food.

I’ve also noticed if I give my cats something they don’t want, they will turn their backs on it and scratch at the floor – which is the motion they make when they bury something in the litter box.

I might give them the best gourmet cat food in the world, but if they don’t like it… (scratch). And I wonder sometimes if we react that way to God’s gifts? “This isn’t quite what I had in mind, Lord…” (scratch)

Isaiah says: God’s ways are higher than our ways. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.  Not just a wee bit higher, but higher than the sky is above the earth.  Anybody who thinks they’ve got God figured out is mistaken. On the other hand, people who think God can’t be known are also mistaken, because God has spoken to us, God has given the Word, as much as we’re capable of understanding.

Our words are not sufficient to describe God. Our minds are not big enough to contain God. But God, in the Holy Spirit, can become small enough to squeeze inside us and help us reach beyond our mortality: and this is the water that satisfies, this is the stream that never runs dry.

Repentance #3:  Acknowledge that any belief system, any education or training, any ideology, any form of organized religion, any understanding or skill we have is, at its very finest, child’s play compared with what God knows. Knowing this, we can set aside pride; we can respect tradition but not be wedded to it; we can enjoy the tribe we belong to, but know that in God all tribalism loses its meaning. The apostle Paul says: “now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I have been fully known.” (I Cor 13:12)  Knowledge becomes complete only when Love comes to town.

With that thought let’s turn now to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  If you wanted to sum up Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth you might say “it’s complicated”.  Paul loved the Corinthians, and he spent a year and a half living among them and preaching the good news of Jesus, but after Paul moved on to other cities false teachers came in and divided the church with their teachings. These new teachings taught disrespect for the Gospel as well as promoting various kinds of immorality (sexual and otherwise).

Paul’s talk about baptism and spiritual food and drink in verses two through four gives us a parallel between the experience of Israel being set free from slavery in Egypt, and the Christian experience of being set free from slavery to sin.  Paul is saying that both groups of God’s people have passed through water and both have partaken of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

He then goes on to say these things didn’t save the Israelites when they rebelled against God.  He points out that when the people of Israel made a golden calf and worshipped it, over 3000 of them died the same day. And after another rebellion, thousands more died from snake bites.  The fact that they had passed through the waters of salvation didn’t save them.  As Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matt 3:9)

Repentance #4: If we have been led to believe that doing certain holy things, like being baptized, taking communion, going to church, giving money, anything like that, is going get us into heaven, we need to change our thinking.  There’s only one thing that gets people into God’s kingdom, and that’s the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and his resurrection from the grave, and our faith in Him. Nothing else will get us there.  All these other things are good things: they are gifts from God to help us on our journey, but keeping rules and observing traditions isn’t what faith is about.

Paul says that this story about the ancient Israelites was written as a warning to us: specifically to warn us against thinking we can do what is evil and still reap what is good.  Paul mentions sexual immorality, though there are certainly other sins that would qualify as well. The point is, whatever we are tempted to do, God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. God will provide a way out.

While I’m in this passage, one comment on Paul’s word regarding sexual immorality: I think what Paul says about sexuality has been widely misunderstood, on all sides of all issues.  The root of the Greek word Paul uses here is porneo – the word we get pornography from, though that’s not what the ancient Greeks meant by the word.  Like many words in English, porneo has more than one meaning and more than one variation. The Greek-to-English dictionaries I pulled from gave eight definitions:

  1. To practice prostitution
  2. To practice sexual immorality in general
  3. To live without sexual restraint
  4. To metaphorically practice idolatry
  5. To fall to one’s ruin or destruction
  6. To act unfaithfully
  7. To prostitute one’s body to the lust of another
  8. In scriptures, to give oneself to unlawful intercourse

Out of those eight definitions, three of them don’t have anything to do with sex at all (#4-6). And these three non-sexual definitions add to the shading of Paul’s meaning in this passage. Not that I’m discounting the other five definitions; but the definition of porneo includes within it the sense of a lack of self-worth, or a lack of self-control (or both), or the sense of being the cause of one’s own downfall or one’s own self-destruction; or of putting something in the place of God in our lives that belongs to God alone.

Paul sees this as a form of rebellion: a combination of putting God to the test (which is something even Jesus wouldn’t do) and practicing idolatry – that is, worshipping something other than God.

Repentance #5: If there is anything in our lives that’s more important than God, it’s time to make God #1 again. This Lent, let us strive to love God more than we love anything else. This Repentance comes with a bonus: when we love God more than anything else, all of a sudden everything else becomes much more real, much more beautiful – which is how God designed it to be. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) This is how that happens.

And last, I added one of my own thoughts to this collection:

Repentance #6: I call this ‘repenting of our repentance’. Saying to God: We’re sorry if we haven’t taken repentance seriously enough. We’re sorry if we’ve neglected to bring our shortcomings to You.  We’re sorry when we’ve taken Your mercy for granted. We’re sorry when we’ve made ourselves out to be worse than we are, forgetting that You created great beauty when You created our souls.

So the six Repentances:

  1. Stop wasting time and money on what doesn’t satisfy;
  2. Take delight in what God provides;
  3. Recognize that God’s thoughts are far beyond anything we can possibly imagine;
  4. Set aside any trust in religious activity and trust Jesus alone for salvation;
  5. Make God #1 in our lives, above all else;
  6. Remember to say “I’m sorry” to God, and then remember we are loved.

I love the saying that went around Facebook the other day:

Religion says “I messed up, Dad’s going to kill me.”  Relationship says “I messed up, I need to call my Dad.”

That’s what repentance is all about: working on our relationship with our heavenly Father. This week: give Dad a call. AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/24/19

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 Isaiah 55:1-9  Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. PP I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. PP 6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13   I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,  2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,  3 and all ate the same spiritual food,  4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.  5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.  7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”  8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.  9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.  10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.  11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.  12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.  13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

 

Today we have a couple of very interesting scripture lessons in Genesis and Philippians!  Our reading in Genesis features the patriarch Abram slaughtering animals and then keeping the birds off the carcasses, and our reading in Philippians features Paul talking about people whose god is their belly and whose end is destruction. And our focus this week is on the Lenten discipline of imitating our spiritual forefathers. Good luck y’all!

Seriously, what we’re seeing in these two passages are men of faith, who are suffering for what they believe in, not because they’ve done anything wrong but because life is difficult sometimes.  But their suffering draws them closer to God and, as it does, it gives us an example to follow.  In addition to that, while God doesn’t take the troubles away (at least not right away), their experience of God in this time of trouble gives them great joy – which can inspire us as well.

Let’s look at Genesis first.  This passage of scripture describes a world that is foreign to us.  I think generally speaking, people have not changed all that much across the centuries: we are still concerned about the same things, like marriage and family and kids and friends and having enough to eat and having a safe and comfortable place to sleep.  But cultures have changed a great deal. People in Abram’s time, for example, didn’t vote; they didn’t binge-watch anything (except maybe the campfire); and back then a ‘night out’ meant out of the tent and under the stars! We need to remember this story from Genesis comes to us from over 4000 years ago and from a middle-eastern culture that is still in many ways foreign to us today.

We’re also entering into Abram’s story in the middle: a good bit has already happened in Abram’s life. He has grown up and married; he has received God’s promise that God will make a great nation of him; he has left his home and has become a wandering shepherd at God’s command; and this includes having spent some time in Egypt.  But at this point in his life, Abram is still going by the name Abram (which means “exalted father”).  God has not yet given him the name “Abraham” (which means “father of a multitude”).

At this point in the story God has chosen Abram to be a friend of God; and God says to Abram, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram longs to be father; he’s grieving over his childlessness.  Abram sees no purpose in the wealth and material success God has given him if he has no children to share it with, and has to leave his estate to a servant who isn’t even related to him.

And I think Abram’s feelings reflect God’s heart, because God also longs to share all the good things of heaven with us, God’s children. In God’s eyes, heaven isn’t complete without us. And on a purely human level, anyone who has ever longed to be a parent knows what Abram is feeling.

But God assures Abram that he will have children of his own, and that his descendants will be as numerous and un-countable as the stars. And when we think about all the descendants of Abraham alive in the world today, we know God has been faithful to that promise.

But as this story is unfolding, Abram doesn’t see all this yet.  Abram just sees himself, and Sarai his wife, getting older and not being able to have kids.  But Genesis tells us that when God speaks to Abram about his future and all his descendants, Abram believed God and “God reckoned it to him as righteousness”.  And this verse is the foundation of the concept of salvation by faith we still believe today.  Don’t ever let anybody tell you that in the Old Testament people were saved by keeping the law. The Law of Moses was given to let people know what God’s standards are, and where we’ve gone wrong, and to convince us we need God’s mercy and forgiveness. But salvation has always come by faith in God, and the Bible teaches no other way – from Genesis to Revelation.

So God gives Abram this promise; but God doesn’t leave Abram there.  God, who knows us and loves us better than we know and love ourselves, reaches out to Abram in mercy to speak to Abram exactly where he is.  Back in Abram’s time, when business deals were made or when treaties were agreed on, they didn’t have written contracts (or lawyers for that matter.)  In those days, treaties and contracts between two parties were ratified by killing animals, and cutting them in half, and laying the parts opposite each other with a path between them; and a representative of each of the parties in the agreement would walk between the halves of the animals. It was a way of saying “if I break this treaty, if I break this agreement, let happen to me what has happened to these animals.”

Here in the Genesis story, God does the same, but he adds a twist: God alone walks between the animals. Abram does not.  In other words, God is saying “It’s all on Me. The responsibility for fulfilling this covenant is all on Me.”  God is represented in this passage by smoke from a fire pot and flame from a torch – much as God will one day appear to the Israelites when God leads them out of Egypt in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

And in fact God makes this connection for Abram, the connection between his own experience and the experience of the people in Exodus, by letting Abram know (in vss 13-16) that his descendants would one day be aliens in a foreign land, but that God would lead the people out with great wealth, and return them to the Promised Land.

So in Genesis, Abram brings to God his sorrow at being childless; and God in response gives Abram a promise beyond anything he can imagine: a promise that includes a multitude of descendants.

And in this passage we, here, today, are invited to imitate Abram in hearing God’s word and believing, which gives us righteousness in God’s eyes – and then by doing what God directs us to do.

Turning then to our passage from Philippians: in Paul’s case, the source of his sorrow is that he knows he will probably be executed soon, and he doesn’t want to leave the people he loves behind.  The family of God at Philippi has a special place in Paul’s heart.  For an evangelist like Paul, there is no greater joy than witnessing people coming to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. This joy is rooted in the knowledge that the grandeur God has created in each human being, each human soul, is greater than the grandeur in any symphony or the grandeur of a summertime sunset, because human beings bear the image of God: we were made in God’s image. And to see that image – which has been battered by the world – restored to its original glory is the deepest and greatest joy for an evangelist.

When Paul looks at the Philippians, that’s what he sees.  And so he calls them “brothers and sisters,” “my beloved,” “my joy and crown” – the crown being a reference to the wreath of victory the ancient Olympic athletes used to win. The Philippians are the result of Paul’s life work, everything that he has suffered, and all the self-discipline he has endured.  For Paul, heaven wouldn’t be heaven without his Philippian friends; and he wants to be sure that he will see them again in the Kingdom of God.

The sorrow Paul is feeling is not because he’s looking death in the face (he’s done that many times before) but because he may be parted from friends he doesn’t want to leave behind.  And of course the Philippians don’t want Paul to die either. So Paul writes to let them know he’s ready to go home, and not to be afraid for him, much as he would love to stay with them.

Paul is looking forward to the day when they will be reunited in heaven. And so he pleads with the people he loves to follow the examples of their teachers in the faith. He says to them: don’t be like the people who are enemies of the cross of Christ.

I want to stop on that phrase for a moment – “enemies of the cross of Christ” – because it’s such an unusual phrase. I mean, we all know atheists, and agnostics, and people who follow other religions, and many of them are not enemies of the Cross! One of the best TV shows on the subject of Christianity I’ve ever seen was written by an atheist.  As Jesus once said, whoever’s not against us is for us.

Enemies of the cross of Christ would be, for example, the people who made fun of Jesus while he was dying. Or the people who take a gun and shoot up a worship service, whether it be in a church or a synagogue or a mosque.  Or the people who deny that it takes something as powerful as the death of the Son of God to cure the evils of this world. Paul describes the enemies of the Cross well. He says: their end is destruction; the things they glory in are shameful; they worship only what they can consume; and their minds are set completely on earthly things, on things that are passing away.

Paul begs his beloved friends to avoid this at all costs, because if they do, they will remain citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And from that kingdom Jesus will one day come and transform our earthly bodies to be like his glorious body, like what the disciples saw on the mountain of the transfiguration.

The Lord Jesus will transform us.  For anyone who’s into science and technology, this one’s for you. The Greek word here is metaschematazo… almost like meta-schematics. In computer technology, schematics has to do with the plan or diagram for an electronic circuit – in other words, what makes a computer work.  And meta-schematics? That’s the big picture plan.

So in other words, God knows every detail of our design: body, mind, and soul. God has our blueprint, so to speak: and God has already designed what we will become, and knows how to get us from Point A (where we are right now) to Point B (glorified bodies in the Kingdom of Heaven).  When Paul says “God will transform our humble bodies and conform them to the likeness of his glorious body” this is what he’s talking about.

Therefore, Paul says, my brothers and sisters whom I love… my joy and my crown… stand firm in the Lord! Don’t let anything shake you, my beloved.

And we, today, are invited to imitate Paul in his love for the people of God; and in his life, which is oriented toward God’s Kingdom and not the false gods of this world that consume and destroy. We are invited to imitate Paul’s faith that this life and this body are not the end – that there’s a glorious body and a glorious Kingdom in our future.

Therefore, brothers and sisters: imitate Abram; imitate Paul; hold on to God’s word; hold on to faith; hold on to the cross; stand firm; and hold on to glory.  AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 3/17/19

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Genesis 15:1-12  After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”  8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”  10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

[13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years;  14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.  16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”]

 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”

Philippians 3:17 – 4:1   Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.  18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.  19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

 

God’s Generous Heart

Today being the first Sunday in Lent, we are kicking off a series of sermons on the theme Return to Me With All Your Heart, and today’s sermon is titles “God’s Generous Heart.” So our focus for the next six weeks is on hearts: God’s heart for us, and our hearts for God.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul says, “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”  In another one of his letters he writes, “in him [that is, in Jesus] we live and move and have our being.” It’s almost like we’re like fish in water: surrounded by God, kept alive in God. And as we allow it, God’s word comes inside us.

Paul also says:

“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

When Paul talks about believing “with the heart” he’s not talking about feelings.  In the Greek the word for heart is cardia (which is where we get the word cardiac from) but the word cardia back then didn’t mean the organ in our chests. It meant the core of one’s being: the center and source of all of our inner life, including but not limited to our wills, our feelings, our minds, our conscience, and our sense of self.  In other words, we are to believe in Jesus with all that is in us.

The first of the Ten Commandments says much the same thing:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

Loving God with everything that’s in us is not easy. Life is full of distractions, and our hearts have many loves: love for our partners, love for our families, love for friends, love of our own lives. We are not called to love these less, but we are called to love God more. This is the love Paul calls us to in Romans, and this is the love we are being called to return to this Lent.

But I’m kind of diving in the deep end here. So let me back up and take a look at our readings, starting with Deuteronomy, but first a comment:

The decade in which I was born (nowadays referred to as “mid-century modern”) was an age of technology, of progress – an age that had faith in the power of science and the power of fact to make a the world a better place.  Nowadays we see things differently. Technology has given us the Internet, but it has also given us Twitter! Progress has given us medicines and cures that we never imagined back then, but it has also given us insurance companies that refuse to cover the cost. Nowadays we take ‘progress’ with a grain of salt.

And nowadays, instead of fact-based statements, 21st-century people prefer to hear stories: stories of what people have seen or done or experienced. Take the field of advertising for example: have you seen the Farmers Insurance commercials? Their tag-line is: “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” That’s a story condensed into one sentence! Fifty years ago the Farmers Insurance slogan was simply “Superior Service”.  No story; just a statement that sounds like fact.

In a way, our two scripture readings for today reflect this contrast: our reading from Romans is a no-frills, straight-to-the-point description of faith, in language worthy of 50 or 60 years ago.  Our reading from Deuteronomy talks about the same thing, but in story form.  So I’d like to lead off with the story: and Deuteronomy tells the story of what God has done for God’s people.

In our story from Deuteronomy, the people of Israel – God’s people – are about to enter the Promised Land.  Since leaving Egypt they have been on a long journey, and the Promised Land has been a long time coming. And Moses is passing along to the people the instructions God gave him about what to do once they’ve settled in the Promised Land. He says: when your first crops come in, the very first harvest in your new land, put some of it aside and bring it to the place where you meet with God. And when you’re there, declare out loud: “Today I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

Moses continues: you will recite the story of your people before the Lord, saying:

“my ancestor was a wandering Aramean; he went to live in Egypt, where he became a great nation; but the Egyptians put us to hard labor. So we cried out to the Lord, and the Lord heard our voice, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with signs and wonders; and the Lord brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I present the first fruit of the ground that you, O God, have given me.”

In one short paragraph, the worshipper tells the events of nearly 500 years of Israel’s history. And the story it tells is the story of what God has done for God’s people. It speaks of God’s generous heart. God has called God’s people; God has led them; God has heard them; God has rescued them; God has provided for them.

And having told the story, God then says, sit down with your family and friends, and any aliens who reside among you, and celebrate! Have a party on Me, God says, with all the bounty of your harvest. This is the story of Israel.

I wonder: how might we tell our story of what God has done for us?  As Christians, we might say something like, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  We might say, in the words of Paul:

“while we were yet sinners Christ died for the unrighteous; and now that we have been justified by his blood [that is, by his death], we will be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9)

With some minor variations, this is the story every Christian could tell. But each one of us also has an individual story to tell; and a family story to tell; and a church family story to tell; and in a way (sort of) a cultural story to tell – the “song of our people”, so to speak.

For example, doesn’t the story of the Israelites’ first harvest in the Promised Land put you in mind of the first Thanksgiving in a way? Our pilgrims were also travelers, following God’s lead across the waters to land they didn’t know. And when that first harvest came in, they celebrated, with their families and with their new Native American friends, in a holiday we still celebrate 398 years later.  I’m not saying America is God’s chosen nation or anything like that. God’s people today, as always, are defined by faith and not by nationality. I’m just saying there are similarities in the stories.

Imagine what might happen if we were to do what the Israelites were asked to do in Deuteronomy: remember out loud all that God has done for us. In a sense we do this every Sunday when we recite the Apostles Creed.  But imagine what it would be like if we, as a nation, looked back over our history and gave thanks to God for all God has done for us: for making us a nation; for giving us founding leaders of integrity like Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton; for giving us many years of peace and prosperity; for giving us a country that is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.  And God has given us all this in spite of the mistakes we’ve made, in spite of how often our people have rebelled against God and have done what was wrong in His sight.  Imagine what might happen if people started being thankful to God for all we have each day, and how that would change the tone of our national conversation.

We could do this on a personal level too.  Each one of us has ancestors that have gone before us, who have come to this country, or who were brought to this country, whose heritage God has blessed.  One of my ancestors, for example, left Europe because he couldn’t find a job there. He took a boat to Philadelphia, and God provided for him a home, and a job, and a family, and the strength to get through the loss of his sister who he was hoping to send for but who died in the old country before he could bring her over.

Each one of us could tell stories like this: stories of people who God blessed, even through hardship and difficulties. How often do we share these stories? Might this be a thing to do, to share these stories among ourselves this Lent, and to give thanks to God with our families and with our church family? And then to celebrate together all that God has done for us.

So coming back to the Gospel message: for people of God, for anyone who believes in Jesus, this earth, where we are right now – this is the Old Country. The Land we’re going to is still ahead of us: the kingdom of God. We can see it from a distance. And that’s what Paul is talking about in Romans.  Paul says this gospel “is near us; on our lips and in our hearts.” And Paul says that “no one who believes in Jesus will be put to shame.” No one who believes in Jesus will be disappointed in any way because the Lord is generous to all who call on him. God gives richly to God’s children, and we are God’s children if we believe with our hearts and confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord.

The Israelites in Moses’ day understood the promise.  They came into a Promised Land that was rich and fertile, where the cities and the roads had already been built. They had everything they could want, but the best of all was the feeling of being home at last. No more wandering; now they could settle down and be at peace and be free from their enemies.  We also have a Promised Land waiting for us where we will no longer be wanderers, but we will be at peace, and free from anything that might harm us.

For Paul and for us, this promised land comes through the Messiah: the Saviour, the Promised One, who will gather God’s people into God’s kingdom.  Paul says: faith in the heart and praise on the lips – this is what sets us apart as God’s people. And both Moses and Paul call God’s people to speak out loud what God has done for us.

God’s faithful are called to share what they have with others: in Deuteronomy, by sharing what we’ve been given with family, and friends, and foreigners; and in Romans by sharing our faith in words with any who will listen.  Both Deuteronomy and Romans remind us over and over of all that God has done for us.  God has been so generous with us – as God’s children, let us be generous like our Father in heaven. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/10/19

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Deuteronomy 26:1-11  When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,  2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”  4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,  5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,  7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;  9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.  11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Romans 10:8-13  But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);  9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”  12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

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