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Christmas Continues!

The prophet Isaiah writes: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” – Isaiah 61:10 – 62:5

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The Apostle Paul writes: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” – Galatians 4:4-7

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Luke writes: “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

“And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

“When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – Luke 2:22-40

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Merry Christmas! 

Yes, I know Christmas was two days ago. But like the old song says, there are twelve days in Christmas, and my plan is to celebrate all twelve.

And today’s sermon is part of that.

For the past month here at the Partnership we have been holding an online study group called “Lessons From Carols” and on one of the evenings someone mentioned it felt like Advent and Lent have some common ground – which was a great observation.  Both Advent and Lent look forward to history-changing events: Advent looks forward to Christmas – the birth of Jesus; and Lent looks forward to Easter – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fact is, if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross and then walked out of the grave alive on that first Easter, we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas. If Jesus is still dead then Easter is pointless and so is our faith. But the truth is Jesus IS alive, and because he lives we too will live. The good news of Christmas is that the King of Kings, our Saviour, has been born. And because he is here we have hope and a future.

But I’m getting way ahead of our scripture readings for today!

I’d like to start with our reading from Isaiah, who gives us a thought to keep in mind: Christmas – or as Isaiah understood it, the coming of the Messiah – is about God’s gifts to us. We give gifts to each other at Christmastime because God first gave to us. We show our love for others because God first loved us. With that in mind, let’s listen to the words of Isaiah:

“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

God’s first Christmas gift to us is a robe of righteousness. Clothing. But not physical clothing: clothing that covers our imperfections and our weaknesses and our faults. The robe of righteousness is not self-righteousness because we don’t earn it or deserve it. God gives it.

Robes1

When we talk about God’s righteousness we understand this is not a narrow concept but a very broad one. The Hebrew word for righteousness (tsedek) includes both the religious obligation to do what is morally right and the religious obligation to do what is just.

In the Jewish world, righteousness and justice are bound together: two sides of the same coin. And there’s a third aspect: generosity – giving to those in need – no matter how rich or how poor we may be. Remember Jesus’ words about the widow’s mite: the woman who gave two pennies, who – Jesus said – gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had. No matter how much or how little we have, we can always share what we have with others.

Scripture tells us there will be a day of reckoning, when everything we’ve ever said or done will be made known. I don’t know about you but that makes me a bit nervous to say the least. I am not the holiest person in the world by a long shot, and I sometimes find myself hoping God will grade on a curve, or that God will believe me if I tell Him the cat ate my homework. But I know that’s not going to happen. If my eternal future depends on me, then I’m in trouble.

The good news of Christmas is that my eternal future – all of our eternal futures – don’t depend on us. God has given us a robe of righteousness and garments of salvation. God says: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication (which is the same thing as righteousness, it’s the same word in the Hebrew) – until her vindication shines like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations will see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

That’s the second Christmas gift from God: a new name, to go with the new clothes. Isaiah explains it: it’s like a wedding. Isaiah says: “the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Can you imagine – God – rejoicing – over us?

Scripture tells us God and sin cannot exist in the same space. It’s like matter and anti-matter, they can’t both occupy the same space at the same time. So how is it possible that God will rejoice over us imperfect human beings?

That’s where the robe of righteousness comes in. God gives us what we need so that our righteousness can shine like the sun and we can be objects of God’s rejoicing.

During this pandemic year we’ve all been slogging our way through, a lot of people have been talking in whispers about the end times. I’m not going to speculate when that may happen, but I do know it’s a good thing to think about the end times now and then, and to remember that God is in charge and all will be set right one day. Remember the words of Jesus about that last day, when he separates the sheep from the goats and says to the sheep: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and in prison and you visited me” – and both the sheep and the goats are surprised at what Jesus says. Those who did these things, don’t remember doing them; and those who didn’t do these things don’t remember not doing them.

While we wait for the end times to come – whenever they may come – we need to be doing our very best to be feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting those in need – because in doing so we grow to become more like our Saviour. And yet at the same time we know salvation is a gift, and always has been.

God will cause us to be clothed with righteousness. God will cause our vindication to shine like the sun.

Why?

Because God is our Father and God loves us. God is our creator, and God made us for a purpose, each one of us, you and me and our friends and neighbors and even (in some way) our enemies.

The end result is that all nations will see God’s righteousness and the vindication of God’s people. Isaiah says we will be like a crown of beauty in God’s hands.

And this is not just about individuals: the church itself will be purified: church defined as the body of believers, the community of God’s faithful people. During our Zoom Advent series, one evening’s discussion turned to what a mess organized religion is these days: the scandals we hear in the news; the jealousies between different churches and denominations; how churches are torn apart by politics and corruption. There’s no denying it, and it’s sad to see. Though it may help to know we’re not alone: even back in Isaiah’s day people saw the same things in the temple and in their religious leadership. But one day God will purify the community of the faithful and drape a robe of righteousness over it and hold it up to shine like a crown of glory.

How can this be?

Because it doesn’t depend on us.

As Christians we believe in miracles. And we trust a God of miracles.

And most of all we trust a God who came to us as a baby, as the child of a poor teenager in a backwater town in Galilee: a God who is able and willing to become one of us, so that we can be like Him.

Which leads us to the connection between Christmas and Easter: Jesus was born to be our salvation. This is why Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms and says “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations…” – and this will be both for the glory of Israel and for the salvation of the Gentiles (which is us).

Jesus was born to keep God’s commandments perfectly, because we can’t. Jesus was born to die on the cross and rise again – and in doing that, destroying the power of sin and death, for all of us, for all time.

Simeon in the temple took the baby Jesus in his arms and said that Jesus was “a sign given so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” There are powers in this world, often hidden, that literally feed on poverty and death. This is what makes (for example) racism so difficult to overcome: because there are people who profit on violence and death, and it’s not always who you think. It’s what makes war so impossible to put and end to: because people literally make profits on death. It’s what makes poverty so hard to overcome: because there are people who make money on the misfortune of others. It’s a truism on Wall Street that where there’s a crisis in the world there’s an opportunity to make a profit: and most of the time the people who do these things are hidden under a cloak of respectability.

Jesus has come to reveal what is hidden and to destroy the power of sin and death.

This also is God’s Christmas gift to us.

So what can we give God in return?

We can sing to him the words of the psalmist: “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!” For he has raised up a horn of salvation for His people.

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We can come to the manger, with the shepherds and the wise men, and kneel before our newborn King.

And where it comes to Jesus being our King: we Americans generally don’t have a lot of experience with royalty. It takes practice. We can start with the understanding that God’s Kingdom is not a democracy and go from there.

But for now we approach the manger with faith and with trust that what God has spoken is true, and that Jesus our saviour has come, and that his life and death and resurrection will provide for us robes of righteousness and a glory that never fades.

AMEN

Preached for the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches, online, 12/27/2020

Advent 4: Gabriel Visits Mary

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,  2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  3 Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”

     4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:  5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”  8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;  9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.  10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,  11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. […] Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. – II Samuel 7:1-11, 16

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And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55

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In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 ¶ And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

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The story is so simple.

And yet it’s so profound.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary, tells her she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, Mary says OK, and the angel departs.

It’s that simple.

And yet… it’s anything but simple.

This brief conversation is the focal point of history. It is the focal point of the history of Israel, and it is the focal point of human history. Everything that has come before has been leading up to this.

Which means that to begin with the story of Mary and Gabriel is to start in the middle of the story. We don’t have time today to go back to the very beginning and tell the whole story over again, but we can touch on the highlights. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – and everything that was in them, including human beings – and everything that God created was good.

Until it wasn’t. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God had some hard words for them, but God also spoke of hope: that one day, the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (and the serpent would nip his heel, but that’s the Easter story – for now we’re talking Christmas).  So today we hear the angel telling Mary that her son will be the one who will crush the head of the serpent, as God had promised.

Also leading up to this day is our Old Testament reading from II Samuel. King David says to the prophet Nathan that it’s not right for the king of Israel to live in a house of cedar while Israel’s God lives in a tent. It’s David’s way of saying “I’d like to build God a house.” And the prophet says “God is with you; do whatever is on your mind.”

But God says to David through Nathan “No – David, I will build YOU a house.” The house God describes will be a safe place for all the people of Israel: a place of peace, free from those who would harm them. God says, “I will give you a name and I will provide you a place…”

In Israel today there is a museum to the Holocaust called Yad Vashem – which literally means “a place and a name”. It was built in memory of the millions who died without a place or a name, in order to give them both. In this passage in Samuel, God promises the descendants of David will always have a place and a name – yad va’shem.

More than that, God says David’s house – David’s kingdom and David’s throne – will stand forever.

Two generations later David’s kingdom was divided, and about 300 years after that the temple was destroyed. It seemed like God’s word had somehow failed. But God had a plan from the very beginning. And God kept that plan moving forward through the Babylonian Captivity, and the rebuilding of the temple, and then through hundreds of years when there were no prophets at all and it seemed like God was silent.

And now, in this moment with Mary, God’s plan is moving forward in a big way.

We notice that God, in choosing Mary, chooses not to deal with kings, priests, philosophers, Caesars, the rich, or the centers of earthly power. God chooses instead a young girl of around thirteen or fourteen, without formal education, from a poor family, from a rough town called Nazareth in the backwater of an insignificant nation that had been overrun by Roman legions.

God sends his angel to her.

The angel Gabriel greets Mary with the words:

“Rejoice, highly favored one! The Lord is with you!”

I want to stop there just for a moment because the phrase the Lord is with you is not a throwaway phrase. It’s a phrase heard in other places in scripture, always meaningful, and usually spoken in times of crisis or trouble. To give a few examples: in the book of Genesis says “the Lord was with Joseph” in Potiphar’s house and when Joseph was in jail. In the book of Joshua, God says to Joshua as he is about to take over leadership of Israel, “as I was with Moses so I will be with you.” The Lord was with Samuel as he served as prophet in the tabernacle under corrupt leadership. God protected Samuel and eventually led him to anoint David as king over Israel. The Lord was with David too… and with King Solomon and King Hezekiah because these kings honored God.

And now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says to her, “the Lord is with you” – and with these words Gabriel places the young teenager squarely in the company of the Old Testament prophets. And when we hear Mary’s words in the Magnificat, which we heard a moment ago, we find she is indeed a prophet, speaking God’s word and God’s truth into human society.

So who was this young lady named Mary? Scripture tells us very little about her, but we can piece together a few things from the history of the time. Growing up where she did, Mary would have spoken Aramaic but would also have known Hebrew and a few phrases in Greek and Latin as well. She was economically lower class. People in those days – if they weren’t the top 10% – were either farmers or artisans, and Mary’s family were carpenters. Farmers were slightly better off than carpenters economically, but all of the working classes suffered under triple taxation: paying taxes to Rome, to Herod (the king of Israel), and to the Temple.

Mary, like most people in her community, had to work hard physically: carrying water into the home, doing all the household labor. She was probably physically strong, tan, and athletic. And she knew something about God. She probably went to synagogue and certainly would have heard her parents talk about God. And she had faith… but until the angel showed up nobody knew just how much faith she had.

Mary has the kind of faith that sets an example for everyone around her, as well as those of us who come after her.

Mary is called “blessed” not only because she is the mother of Jesus, but because she is a woman of great faith. During the ministry of Jesus a woman in the crowd once said to him, “blessed is the womb that bore you!” But Jesus replied, “blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it.”  That’s what Mary did, and that’s what makes her ‘blessed’. Her kinswoman Elizabeth confirms this, saying, “blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord!”

So back to the scene at hand. The angel Gabriel told Mary a number of things. He starts off by saying (1) Don’t be afraid. Gabriel could see that his presence and his words were turning Mary inward; she was debating within herself, struggling to understand. (2) You have found favor with God. (3) You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and name him Jesus. (4) This child will be great, the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David (which is the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken to David by God through the prophet Nathan in our Old Testament lesson). (5) Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Mary knew enough about the history of her people and her family (since she was from the house of David) to understand what the angel was saying. Mary understood she was being honored by God, and chosen by God, to give birth to the Messiah – the one who would rescue her people and who would reign forever.

We can’t help wondering what we might have said or done if we had been in Mary’s shoes. Pondering this question we realize Mary really was one in a million. God knew her heart and God knew that she could do this.

Mary only had one question. She’s not doubting God’s word. Even though men and women twice her age have fainted dead away at the appearance of an angel, Mary is standing on her own two feet. She’s not self-conscious and she doesn’t worry about being from the wrong side of the tracks. She knows it’s God’s opinion of her that matters. Just one snag: “how will this happen, since I don’t have a man?” (Did I mention she’s practical?)

Gabriel responds:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cast a shadow over you, so the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And by the way” – Gabriel says – “your elderly relative Elizabeth who was barren is now in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary’s answer is one that is worthy of being spoken in a throne room before a king: “I am the Lord’s servant. Be it to me according to your word.”

This is a faith that risks all: risks being cut off from family, being shamed, being divorced, being seen as a sinner – or as a crazy person when she tells people the baby daddy is God. Mary doesn’t worry about that. She just believes and says ‘yes’.

As one theologian puts it, “Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be.” Mary invites us to have the same kind of faith: a faith that moves us from Advent into Christmas. A faith that can sing along with Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…

He who is mighty has done great things for me…

He has scattered the proud… he has brought down the mighty… and exalted the humble…

he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…

This is a song our world needs to hear – and needs to learn how to sing.

If we look at ourselves this Christmas – if we look at our neighborhoods, our families, our churches – and we see nothing powerful, nothing big, nothing of particular value in the eyes of the world – then we’re in the same place Mary was. And that’s a good place to be. We are the ones who can join in with Mary’s song. We are the ones who can say, “nothing is impossible with God.”

“Look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near.” (Luke 21:28) AMEN.

Advent II: God’s Love

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.Isaiah 40:1-11

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The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”  4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Mark 1:1-8

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Advent II – God’s love

Last week, the first week of Advent, we talked about Hope: the hope that the Messiah would enter into our troubled world and meet us where we are. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah talked about Israel’s return from exile to find their land devastated and their temple in ruins. The exile had happened because the Israelites had left God and started worshipping idols – and because they worshipped false gods, they learned to live lies.

And in last week’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus talking about the last days, about wars and rumors of wars, and all the hardships that would happen right before Jesus returns. So the first week of Advent meets us where we are in our world: in darkness and in grief, longing for peace, longing for light, longing for God. And in the first week of Advent we begin to see a glimmer of light in the darkness.

This week, in the second week of Advent, that light grows stronger. Isaiah says, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” Our second candle on the Advent wreath represents Love: the love God has for us, which is a love strong enough to pay our debts, set us free, and bring new life and new light to our world.

The message this week is about God’s love – which is also God’s glory. God loves us like parents love their children. God longs to gather us in his arms like parents do their children. God wants us in heaven’s family. God is about to send love into the world in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. Jesus is often called the “King of Love” – there’s an old song that goes “the king of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”

So the second week of Advent is about love.

Love is in short supply in our world. And loneliness is epidemic. We’re all very much aware of the COVID epidemic and how deadly it is, but the epidemic of loneliness is just as deadly. Earlier this year the US government’s Health Resources and Services Administration published a document that said:

“Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day” … “the problem is particularly acute among seniors, and especially during holidays… Two in five Americans [say] they sometimes… feel their… relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely…. The lack of connection can have life threatening consequences…”

I share this with you today because more and more I’m coming to believe our churches need to be in the front lines of fighting this pandemic of loneliness. That’s what the Messiah does, and we follow Him.  It’s difficult to do right this minute, with social distancing in effect, but we can make plans now for when the world opens up again. We can begin to think about how better to keep in touch with our seniors, and how to reach out to people in our neighborhoods and communities, and even how to reach the younger generation and teach them how not to be lonely.  Young people especially are at risk these days: the suicide rate for people ages 10-34 has been going up for 20 years and that curve is not flattening.

Along these lines I wanted to share with you a conversation I had a couple months ago on the way home from Philadelphia. I always stop at the last rest stop before Pittsburgh because they have the most wonderful farmers market. My good friend Denise and I love their baked goods and fresh peaches! So the last time I was there, I walked up to the stand and called Denise on speakerphone and said “Ok here’s what they have…” and I described everything to her. They were out of peaches but they had five kinds of fresh-picked apples, so I asked the salesgirl to join our conversation and describe the different kinds of apples so we’d know what to buy.

For Denise and me this was just an everyday conversation: what would you like, want some of this? – but when I hung up and pulled out my credit card, the salesgirl (who was probably in her early 20s) looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “that was the most amazing conversation. People don’t talk like that any more.” What she meant was that people don’t talk to their neighbors any more – they don’t call just to touch base about everyday mundane things. My conversation with Denise had given her a window on a world that is disappearing.

What our young people are missing, though they probably wouldn’t put it this way, is a sense of community. They don’t know what it is to belong to a group of friends and extended family and be able to say “this is us”. And this lack has created an epidemic of loneliness.

Into this lonely time God speaks words of love. God says: “comfort, comfort my people… speak tenderly to them and tell them that the battle is over and all is forgiven.” God invites us to work with him in bringing this comfort to the world.

God loves each one of us. God’s power shines in care and tenderness. There’s just one problem: God and sin can’t exist in the same space. It’s kind of like putting matter and anti-matter in the same space – it produces undesirable results (to put it mildly). So along with love God also brings forgiveness.

This isn’t cheap grace. In our reading from Isaiah, the people have been worshipping idols and God doesn’t ignore that. God confronts the people about their idolatry, and the way they’re always putting trust in what is not God, and the way this causes people to see the world inside out and upside down. God says: “you… call evil good and good evil, you put darkness for light and light for darkness…”(Isaiah 5:20) The peoples’ perceptions are literally upside down and backward because they’ve abandoned God.

In Isaiah God compares human faithfulness to a flower: it quickly fades and withers away. God knows what we’re made of. God knows we have feet of clay. God loves us anyway. The Psalmist tells us God’s salvation is at hand – a salvation that requires from us faithfulness, steadfast love, and righteousness. And God makes that possible.

God tells the prophet to get up to the highest hill and shout the good news: your God is here!  He is coming with power to make good his promises; and God will care for His own, gathering us together and leading us into His kingdom.  And God’s promise is not just for us – it was for the people of Israel back then, and it’s for our children’s children’s children.

Comfort my people, says your God.

How much we need that comfort!  As a nation we have been through a tough year. We have kept our chins up, we have Zoomed our Zooms… but this year has been hard. Even those things we would typically depend on to help us keep our sanity –  our extended families, our churches, our local coffee shops – have all had limited access.

But Isaiah tells us we’re not alone. We’re not the first people to feel this way. And of course we know that other people and nations have lived through hardships; and not that we would ever want to see other people suffer, but knowing we’re not alone is helpful.

From Isaiah we also learn we need to do something about sin. The word ‘sin’ is an old fashioned word and it sounds kind of judgmental, so let me put it another way. If there’s anything in our lives more important than God, or that we love more than God, we need to tell God about it and be willing to let God re-set our priorities. If we do this, God promises to forgive.

And with this we come back full circle to the hope that Advent brings, which is God’s love for God’s people.

So what can we be doing during this time of Advent that can help bring us closer to God, and prepare us for the coming of the Lord?

Both Isaiah and John the Baptist tell us: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” But what does it mean, to prepare the way of the Lord? Google offers some interesting answers. Here’s a sampling of what some people have said:

  • To prepare the way of the Lord means to make a positive impact on those around us — seeking justice, creating peace.

I think that’s pretty good. I think it’s important to remember that in the big picture, justice and peace are God’s work, and if we don’t let God lead things get rough and we get discouraged. God can and does work through people but the game plan is God’s. It’s kind of like a Steelers game: every team member is essential, but everyone needs to be following the coach’s direction. With God as our Coach we can have a season like the Steelers are having!

Another person said…

  • Remove Santa Claus from your decorations and celebrations

The author said this because Christmas is about Jesus and not about a fictional character. To this person I wish I could say: teach your children about the real St. Nicholas, about the bishop who lived years ago. He loved God so much he gave to the poor and visited the sick, and the people who knew him said he actually performed miracles. Share this with your children and let St. Nicholas inspire the whole family at Christmas time.

Another person said…

  • We must… remove all obstacles which stand in the Lord’s way preventing him from coming. All the crooked ways in our life, and in the life of our society need to be straightened out.

I think whoever said this had good intentions but the focus is too much on us and not enough on God – because nothing can ever prevent the Lord’s coming. Nowhere does God say, “Tell the people to get ready and when they’ve set everything right, I’ll be back.” God says, “I am coming, get ready!” The apostle Peter reminds us that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. God’s arrival does not in any way depend on us.

Another person said…

  • We can get off track in our Christian lives… There are many temptations… It is good to make straight the path in our own hearts by examining our lives… to see where our choices and actions have not been in harmony with the Gospel… [and to bring these things to the Lord]

I think this person is a bit closer to the truth. As we turn our hearts to God, sharing with God our weaknesses and our desire to be more like Him, the path is made straight.

So the first week of Advent brings hope. The second week of Advent is all about the glory of God, who loves us, and who is sending us Jesus, to be our deliverer and our savior. May God’s hope and love be with you this week. AMEN.

Advent Hope

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence —  2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”Isaiah 64:1-9

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Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth  2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!  3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.  4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?  5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.  6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.  7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved […] 17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.  18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.  19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

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[Jesus said] “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

 

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

 

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”Mark 13:24-37

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Well here we are… at the beginning of Advent once again, in what is probably the strangest and most troubling year I can remember. And the scripture readings for this morning don’t take away any of that sense of strangeness or trouble.

I don’t think they’re supposed to.

I think God’s words for us today are meant to meet us where we are.

Even in so-called ‘normal’ years, by this time in the year we would find ourselves surrounded by expectations that we shop on Black Friday and do our part for the nation’s economy. Even in so-called ‘normal’ years we would find ourselves hip-deep in solicitations for ‘Giving Tuesday’. Even in so-called ‘normal’ years we’d be rushing through Thanksgiving weekend to dive into a commercialized Christmas and then fall exhausted into New Years just to start the whole process over again.

More and more I hear people say “we’re not doing Christmas any more.” While I understand, I think that’s sad. So just out of curiosity I googled the phrase “alternatives to Christmas”. I was presented with a selection of over 92 million websites full of ideas! Suggestions included things like “stop doing gifts”… “volunteer over the holidays”… “eat Chinese food” (this I could do)…  “host a movie marathon at your house” (this was obviously written pre-pandemic)… “go Christmas caroling”… “write a personal, heartfelt letter to each person on your gift list.” One website suggested “celebrate all 12 days of Christmas” – and I liked what they said so much I wanted to share it with you. The website lifehack.org said:

“Ironically, today we consider the most traditional thing – celebrating the 12 days after Christmas – to be non-traditional and quaint. In most Christian cultures Christmas used to be celebrated in a [completely] opposite fashion to what we see today. Instead of pre-holiday hype lasting for most of November and the entire month of December, people quietly waited for the coming of the Christ, with the 12-day period after December 25 as the centerpiece. Why not try to do things the old-fashioned way…?” – https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/8-fun-yet-non-traditional-ways-celebrate-christmas-this-year.html

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

“The entire month of December waiting for the coming of the Christ” – that’s the definition of Advent. There’s a reason why people used to do that, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. We need to step away from the world’s celebration of “sparkle season” because quite honestly it has no meaning. Doing things the world’s way, by December 26 all the noise is over and the celebration is forgotten and the Valentines are in the stores already. But if we wait patiently in Advent through December, and then start celebrating Christmas on the 25th, we will still be celebrating Jesus’ arrival on January 5 – and what a way to start a new year, refreshed and rejoicing!

Especially this pandemic year Advent makes sense to me. And I find it jarring – to put it gently – when people are trying to conjure up a feeling of ‘a holly jolly Christmas’ while so many people around us are ill or losing their jobs or living in fear. Facing the reality of our situation in 2020 doesn’t lead to celebration – but if we face it with God we don’t face it alone.

The whole message of Advent is that our world is sick. It is sick with COVID, and it is sick with sin. Our world is sick with division and fear and loneliness and pain and longing.

Advent meets us in that darkness. Advent begins in sorrow but ends in joy. The scriptures for Advent, many of them, take us back to the Old Testament when the people of Israel were in captivity in a foreign land. And that’s basically where we are today: in captivity to a pandemic; in captivity to economic forces that we can’t change or control; in captivity to political and media leadership that’s more interested in self-promotion than in service. Advent meets us where we are – and if we are patient and stay with it, Advent doesn’t just meet us in the darkness, it leads us out of the darkness and into God’s glory.

In the darkness a light begins to shine: distant at first, but day by day, week by week, it gets a little closer. And we hear the word of God echo through the ages: “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”

The word ‘advent’ is an ancient word meaning ‘arrival’ – specifically, the arrival of Christ – both the for first time and for the second time.

The hope of the world is about to arrive.

That’s the backdrop against which we hear God’s words this morning.

Both of our scripture readings today speak of exile: separation from God and God’s goodness. Both readings grieve over this separation and long for a revival of faith in the nation and in the world. Both of them cry out to God to hear us and restore us.

Isaiah cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” He grieves that his nation is facing all kinds of difficulties from within and from without. He also grieves that the people of God aren’t doing well – that the nations around them look at them and wonder what’s happened to God’s people. Not unlike us today, as the world looks at our churches growing smaller and appearing to fail. Isaiah doesn’t focus on the difficulties; instead he focuses on God. He says: “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Isaiah doesn’t give up hope, because in spite of all he sees around him, he knows God. As we enter into Advent we share Isaiah’s experience: the world around us is a mess, and the light of God’s people seems to be fading, but we focus on God, on God’s faithfulness, on God’s promises, and knowing God gives us hope.

God meets us here. God hears the prayer of the psalmist, saying: “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth… Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

As we turn to the reading from Mark, Jesus tells us what that ultimate salvation will look like. Jesus is speaking these words to his disciples just a few days before his death. Palm Sunday has already taken place, and now he and the disciples are waiting on the Mount of Olives for Passover to begin. Jesus is telling his disciples what’s about to happen, and what they should be doing while he’s gone. And Jesus promises he will return – which will give them hope during difficult times ahead. Jesus’ words describe what we call today the ‘second coming,’ and we read this today because Advent is about both Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ return.

Jesus tells us very straightforwardly that the days before his return will be more full of trouble than any the world has ever seen. The last days before his arrival will be filled with “wars and rumors of wars… nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes… famines…” persecution of God’s people… hatred and death… false messiahs… and a desolating sacrilege in Judea. Also the gospel will be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus says if these days hadn’t been cut short no one would survive. (Mark 13:5-23 edited)

After all these things happen, the Son of Man will come in great power and glory. And all God’s people will be gathered from every place on earth where they have hidden or have been scattered. Jesus promises these words are true; he says: “heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” (v 31).

The darker our world becomes, the brighter Jesus shines.

Today many Christians are tempted to think, “Since we don’t know when Jesus is coming, we don’t need to be thinking about that.” The apostle Mark disagrees. In fact he says just the opposite: because we don’t know, we should be thinking about it all the time! The second coming of Jesus is a reality that has meaning for our daily lives. Everything we see on TV or on our computers, everything we hear, everything we read, needs to be seen and heard and understood in light of Jesus’ return. What will matter on that great day? And what won’t? Advent delivers us from the emptiness of our time, so that we can spend our energies on things that matter: things that will last.

There is no shame in looking forward to the return of our king!  One seminary professor writes: “The season of Advent invites us to wait impatiently for the consummation of hope, longing to know God as fully as we have been known… to love as we have been loved; to experience Jesus Christ as he is, and in so doing, to become like him.” (Mark Allan Powell, Trinity Lutheran Seminary)

This is the hope of Advent.

The duty of Advent is to be watching and ready. We don’t know the time. But we do know the Lord. Jesus tells us: Stay awake, keep watch, and while we wait, be doing what God commands – as faithful servants of God’s household.

In Advent we remember that God meets us where we are… so that one day we can meet Him where He is.  This is our Advent Hope. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/29/20

Christ the King, 2020

“For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.  14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.  16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 

     17As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats:  18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

     20Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide,  22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.  23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.Ezekiel 34:11-24

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[St. Paul writes:] “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason  16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,  18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,  19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.  20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,  21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,  23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:15-23

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[Jesus said:] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:31-46

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Today we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving – two different holidays, but they go well together. We give thanks that Christ is the King, and the fact that Jesus is the King inspires thanksgiving!

Today we also look forward to the beginning of Advent, which begins next Sunday, when we will again be hearing about God’s plan to send a savior into our world and a light into our darkness.

Our scriptures this week prepare us for God’s announcement that Jesus is coming – not only as a baby but as a king. Advent looks forward to both the manger and the kingdom, and Christ the King Sunday tells us about who it is we’re waiting for.

Our readings today from Ezekiel and Matthew basically tell the same story, though it’s told from two different angles and at least 500 years apart. It’s the story of what God is going to do.  In the passage from Ezekiel, God says “I will…” twenty times!

It’s not unusual for people to say “I will do such-and-such” but human plans tend to fall apart or change at the last minute. Not so with God. God says “I’m going to do this” and God does it. When a king says something is going to happen it happens. God doesn’t have to call for a vote; God doesn’t have to get anything passed through Congress. God speaks and it happens.

In our passage from Ezekiel God says: “I will seek… I will rescue… I will feed… I will judge…”  There’s a great promise here, but it comes with a warning.

The promise is that God will gather us – God’s sheep, God’s people – from all the places around the world where we’ve been scattered. No matter where we are God will find us. In this passage God is speaking to a people in exile, without a homeland. And in a sense all of us are in exile right now, away from our homeland with God. So these promises in Ezekiel extend out through the centuries and to people in all kinds of places. The words of God reach out to any person who feels hurt, or broken, or abused, or betrayed, or out of place. God’s words reach out to the unemployed, to the foreigner, or simply to those who wish they could be home: God cares, and the good shepherd brings healing.

As we extend these promises into Jesus’ words in Matthew, we see that God will also gather together those who have died. Everyone who has ever lived will be in that throne room on the last day. The great preacher Charles Simeon wrote that even Adam and Eve will be there; kings and emperors; and the poorest of the poor from every nation. And for those who ask how that’s possible, Simeon replies: “As for the difficulty of collecting scattered atoms…this is no difficulty with God, who created them out of nothing…”.

No matter where we are on that great day, God will find us. Not one of God’s people is ever lost, in spite of how things may look or feel sometimes. “Wherever they have been scattered” God says, God will find us all, and bring us all home.

According to Ezekiel, when God finds us, God brings us to a place of rest and good food, of healing and comfort and encouragement. God says we will be fed in person by “my servant David” – referring to the Messiah, to Jesus. And God ends by saying, “I the Lord have spoken.” When God speaks, things happen.

This great promise also comes with a warning. God says, “but the fat and the strong I will destroy.” This may seem strange at first, because fat and strong sheep make the best lamb chops. But that’s not the point! God will put a stop to bullying. God will defend the weak and the injured. Those of us who have lived through pain, or illness, or tragedy, or loss – we have hope because we have God on our side. For those who throw their weight around, who throw their money around, who push the little people around – God will put a stop to that.

That’s the message of Ezekiel.

In Matthew Jesus tells us much the same thing.

Jesus gives us a parable that speaks of the last judgement. And just as God said in Ezekiel, “I will…” do this and “I will” do that – in this passage Jesus says “the king will…” do this and “the king will…” do that. Again, the king speaks and the king’s will is done.

In Jesus’ story, the king – himself – sits on the throne of glory and separates the sheep. And just like in Ezekiel what the sheep have done makes the difference.

It’s interesting Jesus doesn’t ask the sheep any of the questions sheep tend to ask each other. Jesus doesn’t ask the sheep if they are Catholic or Protestant, if they believe in predestination, or if they’ve prayed to Mary, or if they’ve ever made a pilgrimage. Jesus doesn’t ask them “do you believe that I died for your sins?” Jesus doesn’t read off a list of all the sins the sheep have committed in their lives.

In fact it’s not what the sheep did in life; it’s what they didn’t do that makes the difference, because love is the distinguishing feature of a true Christian – especially love for the poor and afflicted, because Jesus identifies with least of us. Jesus “will accept as done for himself whatever is done for others in his name.” If Jesus were here today and in need, what would we do for him? What actions would we take? That’s what we need to be doing.

The sheep on the king’s right hand have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison. God commands the people of God to do these things all through the Bible, from the beginning to the end, from Old Testament to the New Testament.

It’s surprising though, the sheep on Jesus’ right hand don’t realize they’ve done these things. I think this may be in part because we have a limited idea of what it means to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, etc.  Some people are hungry for food; but some people are hungry for friendship; some people are hungry for truth, and so on. Some strangers might be from foreign countries but some might live in our own neighborhoods. Some people in need of justice or in need of care might live right around the corner.

The sheep on Jesus’ right did what they did out of life-long habits of mercy. In an imperfect world these actions can bring criticism. They can mean taking risks. They can mean sharing another person’s sorrow. Doing God’s will isn’t always easy or popular, and it can be painful. In this life we don’t always experience the joy of doing God’s will, and that may be part of why the sheep on Jesus’ right hand are so surprised.

At any rate King Jesus will welcome the sheep on his right hand into eternal life in the eternal kingdom. But the sheep who have failed to obey the King’s commands will not go in. They have failed to see the needs of the poor and the stranger, and in doing so they have failed to see Jesus. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you” – and they haven’t.

Paul’s words in Ephesians help to give wisdom to God’s people when they wonder what they need to be doing. First, Paul emphasizes God’s kingly power, just as Ezekiel and Jesus do. Paul says God is the Father of Glory, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand, and “God has put all things under [Jesus’] feet and made him the head over all things for the church…”  Then Paul talks about faith and hope and love, echoing I Corinthians 13, where he says faith, hope, and love are the only things that last forever.

We as Christians are not called to fix all the problems in the world. Taking care of the world’s problems is God’s job. Our job is simply to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc., following Jesus’ example.

One of the things I love about the Methodist church is that this mindset of service is so much a part of the church’s DNA and has been since John Wesley held the very first meeting of friends. Wesley taught that that faith without works, that religion without responding to human need, was not only dead but was worse than dead. That belief has come down to us today, and praise God for that. Just one tiny word to add: it’s not necessarily necessary to have a whole group of people in order to give. Don’t get me wrong: I love UMCOR [the United Methodist Committee on Relief] and I encourage everyone to give! But there are also small things – that only you and I can see – that each of us can do on a personal level – that need doing, as we are called and as we are gifted. We need to be looking for those little things as well.

For both Ezekiel and for Jesus, the bottom line is this: the Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want. Our job is to stay as close to our shepherd King as we possibly can, and as we are able, do what the King does. God’s job is to take care of all the rest – because God is King. AMEN.

(Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/23/20)

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. 

“At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun.  I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” – Judges 4:1-7

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Psalm 123:1-4  <A Song of Ascents.>
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
until he has mercy upon us.
3 Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4 Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

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Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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This past week, among other things, we observed Veterans Day. That evening my husband and I watched Saving Private Ryan together. The movie tells the story of a family who lost three out of four sons in service to our country during World War II. And it remembers the sacrifices made by everyday people back then – people who today are called “the greatest generation.”

I’m not old enough to remember WWII, but my parents were. They were in junior high and high school during the war. They have shared stories with us about the sacrifices people made back then: buying war bonds, having rubber drives, living with rationing, growing Victory Gardens. In fact I remember one time back in the 1980s, I mentioned to an elderly man that I was growing a vegetable garden in our backyard and he said, “Why? Are you experiencing shortages?”

Our nation really pulled together during those years. We worshipped together and we worked together. Whatever the problems were in our society – and there were many problems in American society back in the 1940s – people knew we needed each other and needed to work together, and everyone made sacrifices for the good of all.

Today, in the 2020s, as the last of our ‘greatest generation’ go home to their eternal reward, that spirit of national unity has been all but lost. It has only taken the passing of one generation to forget.

That’s where Israel was, in our reading from Judges. In the last chapter of the book of Joshua (which comes right before Judges) we see the last of Israel’s ‘greatest generation’.  Joshua succeeded Moses, and he’s the one who led the people into the Promised Land. When they arrived he made a famous speech that we still remember today: “choose you this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Over 3000 years later people still remember those words.

Joshua said this because, even though God had kept every promise and been faithful to Israel, the people were in danger of being unfaithful to God. The people of Israel had never quite given up worshipping other gods, at least not for long. They experimented with the gods of Egypt when they were in Egypt; they made a golden calf when they were in the wilderness; they were tempted by Canaanite gods when they moved into the Promised Land. So Joshua said to them “if you’re going to worship God, put away your other gods. Worship no one else and nothing else. Choose you this day who you will serve.” And the people answered, “we will serve the Lord.”

The worship of idols is still with us today. We don’t worship statues any more (generally speaking) but we certainly have things that take the place of God. So Joshua’s words are as relevant today as they were back then. And that’s another sermon for another day.

Today I say all of this to give the backdrop to the story in Judges. After Joshua died, the people of Israel kept their promise to serve God for a while. But Judges chapter two tells us:

“the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel. […] When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals…” (Judges 2:7-11 edited)

It only took one generation for them to forget. Just like us.

So God provided judges for Israel. There was no central authority in Israel at the time; the nation was essentially tribal and had tribal leaders. The judges were chosen by God and were both prophets and warriors. Starting in Judges chapter two and moving forward, we see a series of foreign invasions, each one followed by a judge telling the people to repent and return to God and then, in God’s power, freeing the people. Judges 2:18-19 says:

“when the LORD raised up judges for [the people], the LORD was with the judge and delivered [the people] out of the hand of their enemies all the days of [that] judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers…”

So there’s this downward spiral happening with each judge and each successive rebellion against God.

The name of the first judge was Othniel, and he defeated the king of Mesopotamia. The second judge was Ehud, who defeated King Eglon of Moab in one of the more… colorful… scenes in the Old Testament. (I’ll leave that to your own reading.)

And that’s where today’s reading picks up. When Ehud died, the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. And the king of Canaan, and his right-hand man Sisera (commander of the army) overran Israel and basically terrorized the people of Israel. So God raised up Deborah as the next judge.

Side note: Deborah, being both a judge and a prophetess, had the same calling from God, the same gifting, the same duties and responsibilities as all the other judges in the Old Testament. This passage is one of the strongest arguments in the Bible in favor of gender equality – because God treats Deborah no differently than the male judges. He appoints her and leads her just like all the others.

So Deborah was a prophetess as well as a judge. The Bible says, “She used to sit under the palm…” In other words, this is where she held court. She could be found north of Jerusalem but still in the southern half of the country, so she was basically about as centrally located as a person could be. She’s available to the whole nation. And the Israelites “came up to her” because she was in the hill country.

Deborah then summons Barak, who was a military leader. (BTW as far as I’m able to tell, this is where President Obama’s parents found the name for their baby boy.) This particular Barak was living in the far north of Israel, north of Galilee and north of the foreign king who was oppressing the people. And Deborah was just south of where Sisera was stationed. So Deborah and Barak and their armies are going to act like a pair of pincers, closing in on the oppressors from both sides.

Deborah says to Barak, “I will draw out Sisera and meet you by the Wadi Kishon.” The Wadi Kishon is a dry river-bed about halfway in between the two of them. It also happens to be near a town called Megiddo, or as it will be called in the future, Armageddon. So this battle is a foretaste, a prophecy, of the end-times battle that’s described in the book of Revelation. And Deborah says to Barak, “I will give [Sisera] into your hand.”

And that’s where our reading ends today, but we can’t leave this scene without saying Deborah and Barak won the battle! They set God’s people free. Judges chapter five, the whole chapter, is their song of victory, which ends with the words: “so may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But may those who love you be like the sun when it rises in strength!” Again, a foretaste of the victory in the book of Revelation.

At this point we turn to the words of the apostle Paul. In I Thessalonians 5 we hear Paul say “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say ‘there is peace and security’… sudden destruction will come… like labor pains on a pregnant woman…”.  As anyone who’s ever been pregnant knows, once labor starts there is no turning back. The only way out is through!

According to Paul, Armageddon – for us, the time of Jesus’ return – will come suddenly. And it will come at precisely the time when all are declaring ‘peace and security’. In that moment there will be no escape and there will be no time to get ready. It’s like the story Jesus told of the bridesmaids with their oil lamps – some who brought extra and some didn’t, and when the bridegroom was late, some ran out. The parable tells us to be ready for any circumstance.

Until that time comes, we live in a world that falls short of God’s plans and God’s perfection. Paul tells us, like Jesus told us, be ready… and Paul gives us some helpful suggestions as to what readiness looks like. He gives us five pointers:

  1. Keep awake – be alert and aware of what’s going on.
  2. Stay sober – which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘don’t get drunk’ although that’s certainly included. It also means be clear-headed, be perceptive, be wise.
  3. Paul says: Put on the breastplate of faith and love. The breastplate was part of a Roman soldier’s uniform, made of metal, and it protected the internal organs, especially the heart. We don’t often think of faith and love as being things that defend us, because they’re things we give. But believing in Jesus protects our hearts; and God’s love surrounds us; and the love we give, we give in God’s power. So faith and love do protect us.
  4. Paul also says: Put on the helmet of the hope of salvation. Hope protects the head. The older I get the more I find this is true. When we have doubts about the faith; when we have doubts about our own salvation, whenever I start thinking ‘I’ve done something so bad God couldn’t possibly forgive me’ – this is how the enemy likes to get at our heads. Put on the hope of salvation to protect the head. I saw something on Facebook this week, attributed to Martin Luther: “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. When I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.” That’s the hope of salvation, and it protects our minds.
  5. And finally Paul says: “Encourage and build each other up.” The word here in the Greek is parakaleo and it’s the same name we use for the Holy Spirit: paraclete. We are to build each other up in the Spirit – in the love and the faith of God.

Our psalmist today adds one more suggestion to the list: keep our eyes on the hand of the Lord. “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God…”

This verse reminds me of scenes from old movies when women used to knit together. One woman would be doing the knitting, and her helper would be holding the wool thread on two arms, so it wouldn’t tangle, feeding her more thread. They had to be watching each others’ hands, and anticipating what came next, in order to work together this way. In the same way we need to be watching what God is doing, watching God’s hands – anticipating what comes next, ready to respond.

The day of the Lord’s salvation is closer than we know. God says ‘be ready’. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Fairhaven United Methodist Church, 11/15/2020

Choices

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.  2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors– Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor– lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.  3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

     “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” 

     Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;  17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;  18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” 

     But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.  20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”  21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!”  22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”  23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”  24 The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”  25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.Matthew 25:1-13

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This is going to be one of those sermons that I need to preach to myself as much as to you, because these two passages really speak to people where we are.

The passage in Joshua talks about serving the Lord. The things God asks us to do aren’t impossible. It’s just… it seems like so many of them go against the grain! Where it comes to loving and serving God, sometimes I think it would be easier to be given some great task to accomplish: Go find the Holy Grail. Go toss the One Ring into the fires of Mordor. Go slay a dragon.

It is much harder to simply stay awake, as the bridesmaids discover in our second scripture. Or to worship God alone, as the people of Israel discover in our first scripture.

It’s all about choices. The things we choose today effect our life tomorrow and into the future: and not just our lives but the lives of those around us. It’s true as individuals, as a people, as a nation, and as a church.

So looking at our scriptures for today…

In the first we see Joshua, the successor of Moses, calling God’s people to loyalty. In the second we see bridesmaids waiting for a groom to arrive – and some think ahead and some don’t. In both cases the people involved had choices to make. They needed to be thinking: where are we now? Where do we need to be? And what do I need to be doing to get there?

In the first passage, Joshua, who took over the leadership of Israel when Moses passed, is now an elderly man. He has led the people of Israel into the Promised Land and has given them directions as to which tribe will inherit which parts of the country. But there’s a catch: there are people already living in the land. God’s command to the people of Israel is to “drive them out”. Not kill them. Not make friends with them. Just relocate them, forcibly if necessary.

Side note: I have heard people say that the Bible isn’t consistent – that the Old Testament God is a bloody and violent God but the New Testament God is a God of love and peace. And they point to passages like this.

Let me put a word in for God here! There are some verses missing from our reading today: Joshua 4-13, in which God reviews everything God has done for the people so far. We get a little bit of the history in vss 2 & 3: “a long time ago God took your ancestors – Terah and Abraham and Nahor – who lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods…” Hold that thought.

Side note to the side note: remember your world history from like 6th or 7th grade. Remember the “cradle of civilization”? Mesopotamia? Mesopotamia is a Greek word that means “between the rivers” – in this case, the Tigris and the Euphrates, where – to the best of our knowledge – the first human civilization appeared. God says “I took your forefathers from beyond the Euphrates”. In other words, God has been with humanity from the very beginning. From the beginning of history God knew us. And from the beginning of history people were serving other gods. [End of side side note.]

Back to our side note: God chose Abraham son of Terah, who was born in Mesopotamia, to build a family and a people for God: a people who would demonstrate to the world how good it is to worship and serve the one true and living God as opposed to false gods and dead gods like the Mesopotamians.

And then today’s reading jumps ahead to Joshua’s departing speech, but let me fill in the missing bits. God led Abraham to the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and gave that land also to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. But during Jacob’s lifetime there was a famine, and Jacob’s family moved to Egypt. At first the people flourished there, but after a few hundred years the Egyptians enslaved them, so God sent Moses and rescued them from the Egyptians.

On their way back to the Promised Land the people of God made a golden calf to worship in the wilderness. God destroyed it, and after some back-and-forth God forgave the people, and together they moved on. Also on the way to the Promised Land the people of God had to pass through the lands of other nations and tribes. A lot of times those other nations didn’t want strangers passing through their land, so they attacked. In verses 4-17 God says (summarizing): “the Amorites fought with you and I handed them over to you… King Balak of Moab set out to fight against you… but I rescued you… the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you,” God says.

Notice these battles were defensive ones. Nowhere did God say “go attack them.” In every case God says “I defended you. I handed them over to you.

The reason God wanted the people displaced was because they worshipped false gods and God knew they would influence Israel to worship false gods – to break Commandment #2.  As the Israelites moved into the Promised Land, at first they did what God said: they displaced the people living there. But as they traveled further north, the Israelites stopped displacing the people, and they decided instead to enslave them. This was never God’s plan! So now God’s people had slaves living among them who worshipped other gods.

Our reading today is from the last chapter of Joshua. In the very next book, the book of Judges, we discover it only took one generation after the passing of Joshua’s generation for the people to start worshipping idols again. God was right. God wasn’t violent; God was as merciful as God could possibly be.

So returning to the story of Joshua: Joshua speaks up for God in verse 14 saying: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.”

From the time God called Abraham it had been well over 500 years. God had rescued the people from slavery, led them through the desert, defended them against enemies, brought them to the Promised Land… and still the people have idols! Why else would Joshua need to say “put them away”? Even while the people are standing in God’s presence in this scripture passage, saying “The Lord our God we will serve and him we will obey” they’re still holding onto their idols behind their backs!

Today, 4000 years later, idolatry is still the root cause of most of the evils we see in the world. That’s why, in the Ten Commandments, Commandment #2 is so important. Commandment #1 says worship God only, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Commandment #2 says have no other gods. Worship no-one else. Worship nothing else.

Idolatry is letting something be more important to us than God. To give a few contemporary examples (and I am not implying anything political here, just giving a very short list of examples) –

  • Global warming: the pollution of the good earth God has given us: a direct result of the idol of money. Greed.
  • War: the idol of domination.
  • Sexual sins: making idols of one’s own desires. “The heart wants what the heart wants” is the very definition of idolatry.
  • The sin of forcing women and children to live in poverty at our border while we live in comfort: the idol of security and/or the idol of me-first.
  • Celebrity-worship: rock stars, actors, athletes, politicians, media pundits – a form of self-worship in which we spend all kinds of money and time trying to become more like them instead of being who we’re created to be.

And here’s the thing: even good things can become idols, if they become more important to us than God. Food, for example, or clothing, or exercise or sports… or (for me) the delights of the mind: art, music, literature, education, travel. These are good things, and God knows we need them, but God must be in charge. If God says “not right now” I need to be willing to say, “OK Lord – what’s on Your mind?”

God challenges us to put away the idols and worship Him only, so that we can be truly free. I once heard someone say, “God is the only thing you can worship that won’t destroy you.” (I wish I could remember who said that!) Any other object of worship leads to chaos and death. It’s not that God’s on an ego-trip. It’s that God loves us and knows what we need.

Joshua says “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” and he challenges us to make the same choice. And it’s not just a one-time decision. Yes, we decide for Jesus at some point in our lives; but Joshua’s words are for every day. Choose this day whom you will serve. Make the decision fresh every morning.

Which leads us to the second reading about the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

In this parable the bridegroom represents Jesus. Jesus promised to return, and it seems to us like he’s taking a very long time. And the sights and sounds of this world are distracting. And because it’s human nature, all of us will nod off at some point waiting for Jesus to return.

The difference is in planning ahead. Don’t wait to build up your spiritual warehouse. Don’t wait until the flash of lightning breaks across the sky to pull out the Bible and start reading it.

A decision needs to be made: will we be ready, or won’t we? Ten bridesmaids had the honor of being invited to a great wedding feast. They had one job: when the bridegroom approached, go out and light the way to where the wedding was to take place. The five who were wise took extra oil just in case… because that was their one job!  The five who were foolish thought they could get by on what they had.

The oil, in scripture, corresponds to the Holy Spirit: God’s love poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5) We need to be close enough to God to be infused with God’s love. That’s our one job!

So choose this day… and be filled this day… and give it everything we’ve got. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/8/2020

Proof-Text Questions

The same day some Sadducees came to [Jesus], saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”  Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching. 

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”Matthew 22:23-40

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Proof text political questions: we’ve been hearing a lot of them lately. If you’ve been watching the debates you can’t miss them. I won’t give examples because proof text questions are meant to put people on the defensive, and that’s not why I’m here today!

What we really need in days like these is a breath of fresh air: some faith and hope and love. And our scripture passage is going to take us there today. But first let’s take a look at what’s happening in the conversations in this passage.

A proof text question is a question people ask, not because they want information, but because they think they already know the answer – and the answer is something they think YOU need to know. In my experience these assumptions are often mistaken…

…and that’s what we see happening in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. Jesus is being asked proof-text questions designed to intimidate, or to put the questioners one-up over Jesus, or to cast doubt on Jesus’ integrity.

In today’s reading we heard two proof-text questions: one being asked by the Sadducees and one being asked by the Pharisees. Immediately prior to today’s reading there was a third question: it was asked by the Pharisees and it had to do with paying taxes: “should we pay taxes to Caesar?” Last week’s sermon was on this passage so I won’t preach it again, but Jesus’ answer to that question is one of my favorite passages in scripture. He says: “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”

The question “should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was a proof-text question back then. It was a hot potato issue, the kind of question that would get family members arguing over the holiday dinner table. And the Pharisees were really good at coming up with questions like these.

So were the Sadducees. The Sadducees and Pharisees couldn’t stand each other, and both of these groups were always throwing questions at each other. The Sadducees were the educated elite; the Pharisees were specialists in the law of Moses – educated but not necessarily elite – and they were popular with the people.

Jesus frequently criticized both groups. And in this passage we see Jesus being confronted by both groups.

The Sadducees came first. Their big hot-button issue was resurrection. The Sadducees thought the whole idea of life after death was silly. To make this point, they created a proof-text question that went like this:

The law of Moses says if a man dies without children his brother is to marry the widow and have children for him so his name doesn’t die out. This is true: this is what the law of Moses taught. As an aside: this could be a costly law to obey – financially costly – because the brother who married the widow provided food and clothing and housing for the widow and any children she had – but anything they had was not part of the second brother’s estate… whatever they owned belonged to the dead brother and his widow.

There’s an example of how this worked in the love story between Boaz and Ruth in the book of Ruth. You may remember it: at one point in the story we see Boaz saying to Ruth’s closest male relative “you are the inheritor; you have the right of redemption – if you want to redeem the land that belonged to Ruth’s dead husband land you may do so – but Ruth comes with it.” The relative at first said “yes” to the idea of inheriting land, but when Boaz said “and Ruth comes with it” he answered “no I can’t afford that” – which is exactly what Boaz was hoping he would say, because he wanted to marry Ruth. So redeeming a widow was an expensive thing to do, and it was a very selfless act of mercy and love towards family members who otherwise would have nothing.

But the Sadducees, with their proof-text question, made it into a joke. Their question went like this: there were seven brothers. The first gets married, and then dies, and his brother marries the widow. And the second brother dies and the third brother marries the widow, and so on until all seven brothers had married the widow. They all died, none of them had any children, and finally the poor widow died. Therefore, in the resurrection (the Sadducees asked) whose wife will she be? Because she had married all seven men.

In the minds of the Sadducees this was an absurdity. They thought their question proved how silly the idea of  resurrection was. It was totally unworkable. It would pose too many logistical problems for God to work out.

Jesus immediately points out the flaw in their question. He says: “You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (What a thing to say to your nation’s religious leaders! You can imagine their reaction.) Jesus continues: in the kingdom of God, people don’t marry. People will be like the angels.

This is new information – we don’t find this anywhere else in scripture. But Jesus knows it’s true because he’s been there. He came from heaven so he knows how people live there.

What it will mean for us to become like angels – we don’t know right now. You might as well try to tell a caterpillar what it’s going to be like to be a butterfly. All we know is the next life will be different – beyond our imagining at this point.

But then Jesus says something we can all recognize and relate to. He says: as for resurrection itself, God introduced himself to Moses in the book of Exodus as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” – and God is not the God of the dead but of the living.

So Jesus teaches resurrection from the scriptures, from the Law of Moses, in a way the people have never heard before. And the crowd is astounded.

God is the God of the living. For any of us who have lost loved ones in this life – fathers or grandfathers, mothers or grandmothers, spouses or children – knowing that God is the God of the living is the very best news.

The Sadducees are silenced. They had nothing more to say. And according to the Gospels, they never questioned Jesus again.

The Pharisees took note of this. And they thought maybe Jesus might be useful if he could be coaxed over to their side, so they gave him one of their proof-text questions. This particular question was not an either/or question but it was designed to find out what a person’s priorities were. They asked: “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” That is, which one takes precedence? Which one is the most important? In today’s world it would be kind of like asking: ‘Do you support pro-life or pro-choice?’ ‘Do you support letting immigrants in, or do you support building a wall?’ It was a way of asking ‘whose team are you on?’

Jesus went directly to the Ten Commandments, to the very first commandment, and he said: “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” This second law is not found in the Ten Commandments but it’s found in Leviticus chapter 19 where it sums up other commandments that have to do with bringing justice and mercy into our personal relationships with others.

Jesus says “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, do these two, and you’ve got ‘em all covered!

These two commandments are not easy… in fact they’re just about impossible… but I find Jesus’ words very helpful, because there are so many things scripture says to do and to not do. It seems impossible to remember them all, let alone do them all. In fact that’s what the Pharisees were trying to do: they spent their lives studying and memorizing the Old Testament, picking it apart for all the possible meanings, to the point that (for example) when they talked about tithing, they gave to God 10% of everything they owned right down to the spices in their spice racks! And Jesus pointed this out once: he said ‘you tithe your spices, but you neglect the weightier matters of the law, like justice and mercy and faith.’  (Matt 23:23)

So I find Jesus’ summary very helpful, because rather than trying to memorize every last detail of every last commandment, I can ask myself: does this action show my love for God? Does this action show God’s love for others through me? And if the answer is ‘no’ then I need to ask forgiveness and make some corrections.

Jesus’ words lead us away from that list of rules – all the ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ – and leads us into a living relationship with the living God.

So in these answers to proof-text questions, Jesus gives us hope for the future, which is a resurrection life with God – and hope for the present by summing up the law in the words “love God and love each other”.

That’s where the passage we read this morning ends. But immediately following this passage, Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. It sounds like a proof-text question but it isn’t. The question is this: “Regarding the Messiah – whose son is he?”

The Pharisees answer “David’s of course.” One of the names for the Messiah in the Old Testament is “son of David.” Jesus then asks: “How is it then that David calls him ‘Lord’? for David says ‘the Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”

The Pharisees couldn’t answer that one. Or maybe they didn’t want to. They knew the scriptures. They knew the Messiah would be greater than David – greater than the greatest king Israel ever had. The Messiah’s authority and power would be greater than David’s.  And if Jesus was the Messiah, as he claimed – the Pharisees had been putting themselves above him, and that would have to change. Because Jesus isn’t just a nice guy, he’s also the king of kings and lord of lords.

The Pharisees never answered Jesus’ question. And after that they never asked Jesus any more questions.

For us today, Jesus’ words in this chapter give us great hope. In answering the Sadducees, Jesus gives us proof of the resurrection and the life that will one day be ours.  In answering the Pharisees, Jesus shows us why love is more important than memorizing all the laws. And in questioning the Pharisees, Jesus shows he has the power and the authority from God to make this love and this resurrection a reality in our lives.

This is why we’re here today in worship – to say ‘thank you’ to God for these truths. AMEN.

~Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, 10/25/2020

 

 

Caught In Adultery

Then each of them went home… while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”John 7:53 – 8:11

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This passage is one of my favorites in the New Testament, probably because I can relate so strongly to this woman. I know what it is to be a sinner; I know what it is to be caught doing something I know I shouldn’t be doing; and I know what it is to be publicly framed (which is what is happening to this woman).

I love this story because it shows the heart of our Lord toward everyday women like me.

To set the scene: In John chapter seven we saw Jesus teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths exchanging words with the chief priests and the Pharisees.  The people who were listening in were beginning to ask themselves if Jesus might be the Messiah – but they get stuck on a controversy about where Jesus is from, because Jesus speaks with a Galilean (northern) accent but the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem (southern accent).

Meanwhile the religious leaders, who know Jesus fits the bill for the Messiah but who don’t want the people to know they know, order his arrest. But the officers come back empty-handed saying, “no one has ever spoken like this!” The Pharisee Nicodemus speaks up to defend the officers, but the other Pharisees ridicule them, and then everyone goes home. Nothing is resolved, not even the sentence at the end of John chapter seven, which reads “Then each of them went home…”

So today we get to finish the sentence: “…while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” The Mount of Olives is, as the name implies, a mountainside covered with olive trees and where there is an olive press. It’s an easy walk from the Temple – less than a mile away, but outside the city. And during the Festival of Booths it would be unusual to be outside the city, because everyone would be celebrating in the city. For whatever reason Jesus chooses to spend the night in the quiet peacefulness of the Mount of Olives.

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, Jesus is back in the temple, teaching. The Festival is now officially over but people are still there, and they come and listen to Jesus. He is captivating: anyone who ever witnessed Jesus speaking has said that he spoke unlike anyone else; that he spoke with a power that drew people in and made them want to hear more. Jesus touched hearts and minds and spirits in a way no one else did.

I should also mention (because it’s important to the story) that when Jesus taught, he taught sitting down. This is the opposite of how we do things today. In our school classrooms the teacher stands and the students sit. But back then, the teacher sat and the listeners stood. So when Jesus taught he was sitting and the people gathered around him. John mentions this specifically in verse two of today’s reading: “he sat down and began to teach them.”

While the people are listening to Jesus, the Pharisees decide to set him up. They want to arrest him and are looking for a way to bring legal charges against him. So they create a scenario where if Jesus obeys the Law of Moses he’ll end up looking bad… but if he doesn’t, they can arrest him. They take a woman caught in the act of adultery, drag her out and force her to stand in front of Jesus, in the very middle of the crowd. And they say to Jesus, “This woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

WomanInAdulteryAfrican

Jesus doesn’t answer them right away. Instead he bends down and starts writing on the ground with his finger. We don’t know what Jesus was writing (though people have joked it was the names of all the Pharisees’ partners.) Imagine the scene though: as Jesus refuses to respond, the crowd begins to take in the bigger picture. The initial shock of the accusation passes, and people begin to think…

Some would have wondered where the partner was, because adultery requires the participation of at least two people. Some of them would have realized that to catch a person in the act of adultery at that hour of the morning, the Pharisees would have had to have known where and when to find them. In other words they set her up too.  The crowd ponders…

…and the more Jesus is silent, the louder the Pharisees become.

Finally Jesus straightens up and begins to reply. Jesus doesn’t lecture the Pharisees on the rights of women. He has no need for well-reasoned theological arguments or for virtue-signaling. Jesus has always treated women with respect and honor; in fact Jesus was so cutting edge at the time where it came to women – this is one of the reasons why the Pharisees’ test was so diabolical. Their very treatment of her would have cut him to the core, but Jesus wouldn’t be able to treat this woman with dignity without breaking the law of Moses.

Or so they thought.

Imagine the silence as Jesus looks up and begins to speak.

Imagine every eye on her and on Jesus.

And imagine Jesus, still seated, looking up at the Pharisees, and saying simply,

“The one without sin among you, let him be first to throw a stone.”

Jesus didn’t disagree with the law of Moses. Jesus never tried to make the law of Moses easier to follow. Jesus never said anything silly like “well at least she didn’t kill anybody” or “oh well, the heart wants what it wants”. He stands by the law of Moses…

…and at the same time points out very clearly that the Pharisees themselves have been guilty of law-breaking. So who’s going to throw the first stone? And at whom?

And Jesus bends over and writes on the ground some more. From this position he’s not able to see the faces of the Pharisees, but he can see the face of the woman.

The older Pharisees in the group – the wise ones, the ones with a bit more life experience – realize that Jesus is right, and they drop their rocks and walk away. The younger Pharisees, hot-headed and hot-blooded and sooo sure of themselves, suddenly find their teachers and mentors gone. And they drop their rocks and walk away too.

And now it’s just Jesus and the woman – and the crowd, who are still there, watching and listening. Jesus looks up at her and asks: “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She replies, “no one, Lord (Kyrie).”

Jesus says, “Neither do I. Go your way, and from now on don’t sin anymore.”

Jesus could have thrown the first rock. He was without sin, so he was qualified. But he chose not to. Jesus chose mercy.

And she is free.

Imagine being in that crowd, and watching the woman walk away – alive, and forgiven. I wager there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

God doesn’t grade on a curve. The law of Moses still stands. But Jesus, the only human being who ever walked the planet who has the right to judge us, chooses mercy. For her. For you. For me.

Jesus teaches us not to judge each other because we’re all sinners, and we all need to be forgiven. Jesus doesn’t judge us because he wants us to live.

If there’s anything in any of our lives that we feel can’t be forgiven – know that Jesus can and does forgive.

And Jesus follows this with the words:

“I am the light of the world; the one who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

There is no other king, lord, leader, teacher, or friend who can give us a new hope and a new beginning like Jesus can. Look to Him. AMEN.

Signs and Portents

The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering such things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him.  Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? What does he mean by saying, ‘You will search for me and you will not find me’ and ‘Where I am, you cannot come’?”

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. 

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”  So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. 

Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law– they are accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” Then each of them went home… John 7:32-53

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Today’s reading picks up in the middle of last week’s saga – and refers back to it in a number of places – so let’s fill in the missing parts first. To set the scene: as the story opens we are in or near the Temple in Jerusalem, about half-way through the Festival of Booths: a religious holiday which coincidentally happens to be going on this week IRL so wish your Jewish friends a blessed Festival! The festival is a harvest celebration mostly featuring food and giving thanks to God for his blessings – kind of like Thanksgiving only religious in nature, seven days long, and celebrated outdoors.

John begins this section of the story saying, “The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering things about Jesus” – things like, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?”

The people are starting to suspect that Jesus is the Messiah. 

Truth is, the chief priests and Pharisees have been suspecting the same for some time, but they don’t want the people to know this, so they send the temple police to arrest Jesus.

But Jesus isn’t arrested. Instead, he says something mysterious. He says: “I will be with you for a little while longer, and then I’m going to the one who sent me, and you won’t find me, because where I am you cannot come.”

From our perspective in the 21st century we know Jesus is talking about returning home to God the Father. For Jesus’ contemporaries it wasn’t quite so clear, except for one thing: Jesus says “where I AM you cannot come” – which uses the name of God: “I AM”. So in this one short sentence Jesus makes it clear who he is.

But Pharisees start asking “where is he going to go that we can’t find him? Is he going to go to the Greeks (that is, to the Gentiles)?” Jesus actually is the “light to the Gentiles” but that particular part of Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t coming true just yet.

Then on the last day of the festival Jesus cries out, “anyone who is thirsty come to me.”  These words have great meaning in the context of the festival: every day during the festival, the priests go to the pool of Siloam and bring water into the temple. On the last day of the festival, the priests with the water circle the altar seven times and pour it out with great ceremony as an appeal to God to provide water for the people in the coming year.

It is in this context Jesus says anyone who thirsts should come to him. Jesus is taking God’s part and offering what God offers – in this case, much-needed water. Jesus adds, “as the scripture has said, ‘out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Two things to notice here: (1) Jesus is claiming to be the Source of life; and (2) this is the same thing Jesus said to the Samaritan woman he met at the well a few chapters back. The promise Jesus gave to the Samaritans, who received his words with faith and joy, is now being offered to his Jewish countrymen and women. 

The apostle John adds a third meaning: Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit, which all believers in Jesus will receive – but not yet, because Jesus is not yet glorified. (Jesus himself remarks in another passage how he feels constrained, or held back, until the Holy Spirit is given.)

The people, hearing all this, are becoming more and more convinced Jesus is who he says he is. But then they start arguing over where Jesus is from – because (they say) he’s from Galilee, and the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem.

Jesus speaks with a northern accent. But if anyone thought back thirty or so years, when the old King Herod was on the throne, and he heard a rumor about a baby king being born in Bethlehem – and because of it, Herod had all the babies two years old and under murdered – people wouldn’t forget an event like that. It would have stuck with them like 9/11. But somehow the people didn’t put two and two together.

Meanwhile in verse 45 the temple police return to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed, and the religious leaders ask: “why didn’t you arrest him??” And the police answer:

“Never has anyone spoken like this!”

Can you imagine this happening today – maybe in one of the cities where protests have been going on? If the police were sent out to arrest a certain rabble-rouser, and they came back to the precinct saying “you should hear this guy speak! He’s amazing! I’ve never heard anything like it!” Can you imagine the reaction?

It was pretty much the same thing back then. The Pharisees say, “Don’t tell us he’s deceived you too!!! Do any of us believe in him? This crowd is under a curse!” (How quickly the Pharisees turn on the average everyday people, the very people they’re supposed to be leading and teaching!)

And then we hear one calm, steady, reasonable, intelligent voice, saying:

“Our law doesn’t judge people without giving them a fair hearing…
does it?”

It’s the voice of Nicodemus, who we met back in chapter three, and to whom Jesus said possibly the most famous verse in the Bible: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Nicodemus was the first person on the planet to ever hear those words.

Of all the characters in the Bible, I think Nicodemus is the one I’d most like to meet (next to Jesus). Nicodemus is gentle, steady, smart, trustworthy, honest, and willing to take a stand for the truth. And he does it knowing he’s risking everything.

The other Pharisees answer him: “You’re not from Galilee too, are you?” – which is a regional slam. In ancient Israel the educated and sophisticated people lived in the south near Jerusalem, and Galilee was sort of a northern backwater. So they insult him – or at least they try to – and then they add, “no prophet is supposed to come from Galilee.”

Which is a lie, and they know it. The Pharisees spent their entire lives memorizing scripture, so there’s no way they could have missed the verse from Isaiah that said, “in the latter time [God] has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations…

“The people who walked in darkness
     have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
     on them has light shone.”  (Isaiah 9:1-2)

…which is the beginning of one of the most beautiful and powerful prophecies of the Messiah we hear every year during Advent. The prophecy continues and in verse five:

“For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
     and every garment rolled in blood
     will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
     to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
     and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:5-6)

The Pharisees would have known this prophecy very, very well. But Nicodemus was the only one with the courage to stand up and stake his life on it. Some of the other Pharisees would come to faith eventually but Nicodemus was the first.

And that was the end of the conversation. “They all went home for the night…”

…and that’s where chapter seven ends, right in the middle of the sentence!

We will read the second half of this sentence next week. In the meantime it’s my hope that the word of God in this chapter – and the revelation of the Messiah that’s in it – will be an encouragement during these dark days. AMEN.

At the Festival

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.)  Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?” And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?”  Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.

“Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” 

Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.” Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come. Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?”John 7:1-31

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At first glance today’s scripture reading looks like not much more than a bridge between John chapter six where Jesus is talking about the bread of life and John chapter eight which is about the woman caught in adultery; but this passage is important because it highlights the humanity of Jesus. It shows that he suffered, as a human being, in many of the same ways we do.

This chapter also shows the nature of crowds, and how being in crowds effects people’s thinking, and this hasn’t changed much in two thousand years. And this chapter shows Jesus being publicly loyal to God – and as he does, while some people take issue, others begin to catch on to what he’s saying.

Let’s take a look.

As the passage opens, Jesus is spending time in the region of Galilee in the north of Israel. The apostle John tells us Jesus is deliberately avoiding going to Judea in the south because the people in power are plotting to kill him. John says “the Jews” are trying to kill him, but he means the national leaders, because of course everyone in this story is Jewish including Jesus and the disciples. And the people in power in the south hold both political and religious power because there was no separation of church and state back then.

So Jesus is avoiding Jerusalem. But then the Festival of Booths comes around, which is an annual holiday when all Jewish people who are physically able are expected to travel to Jerusalem for a week-long religious celebration of the harvest.

So Jesus, being a healthy male, would have been expected to attend; but he chooses not to, and his brothers get on his case about it. They say to him essentially, “hey! If you really want to be famous you shouldn’t be hiding out. Go to the festival! Show yourself to the world!” And there’s an edge of sarcasm in their voices.

I’m sure some of us have known what it feels like to not be understood by the people close to us, or have known the pain of having family members not understand us. If we’ve ever felt this way – Jesus knows how it feels. He’s been there.

Jesus’ brothers don’t understand his calling, and they don’t believe he is who he says he is – at least not yet. After Jesus’ resurrection some of his brothers will believe in him, and one of them will actually become a leader in the church in Jerusalem. But right now they don’t get it, and they don’t really care that they don’t get it.

It’s weird that they bring up fame, accusing Jesus of wanting to be famous – because the thing is, Jesus’ brothers are the ones who are treating him like he’s a celebrity. They’re projecting their thoughts and beliefs onto him. Speaking as someone who makes a living in the public eye: throughout scripture I don’t see Jesus seeking fame. Jesus is often accused of seeking fame, but I don’t see him doing it. I see Jesus doing what God the Father tells him to do, and becoming famous as a result, but I don’t see Jesus seeking fame for its own sake. It’s an important difference. Someday I’ll give a sermon on how Jesus handles fame… but not today.

So after Jesus’ brothers take off for the festival Jesus decides to head down to Jerusalem quietly. He’s not sneaking, he’s just not blowing any trumpets.

Then the focus of the story shifts from Jesus to the crowd. We’re in Jerusalem now, at the festival, and we see the crowd muttering and whispering amongst themselves. The religious leaders have an eye out for Jesus and they’re asking “where is he?” as if they’re expecting him.  The general public are arguing among themselves like a bunch of voters disputing over a political candidate: “he’s a good man!” “No, he’s full of fake news!” But they’re speaking in whispers because the religious leaders have made it clear than anyone who believes in Jesus will be put out of the synagogue: an old-fashioned way of excommunicating people. So they’re keeping the talk in whispers.

So the festival begins, and somewhere in the middle of the week Jesus finally shows up… quietly… in the temple… and starts to teach.

The religious leaders are astonished, because Jesus is really good. Imagine a football player the first time they see Troy Polamalu playing on the field. Or a guitar player the first time they hear Eric Clapton play a live concert. They’re going “where’d he get all this? He’s never been taught! He’s never been trained! How does he know this?”

And Jesus answers them: “the words aren’t mine – they belong to the one who sent me. Anyone who decides to do God’s will recognizes the source of my words.”

And then Jesus confronts their sin: he says: “Moses gave you the law but you’re not keeping it. The commandment says ‘do not kill’ but you’re trying to kill me.” Jesus is referring to something that happened awhile back when he healed a blind man on the Sabbath – which was a powerful miracle – and some of the religious leaders believed in him but most of them didn’t because (they said) Jesus couldn’t be a real prophet because a real prophet wouldn’t heal on the Sabbath. And according to the law of Moses false prophets should be killed. So Jesus is right in saying they’re trying to kill him.

But they reply: “you have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” (Talk about denial.)

So Jesus confronts them again. He says: “if you circumcise people on the Sabbath in order to keep the law of Moses, why is it wrong to heal the whole person on the Sabbath?”

And the crowd begins to catch on. They say: “isn’t this the one they’re trying to kill? But look! He’s standing right here talking in public and they’re not arresting him! Could he be the Messiah?  But… we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes no one will know where he is from.”

Public opinion, as so often happens, has latched on to a half-truth. Yes, this is the one they’re trying to kill. No, they’re not arresting him… yet. Yes, he could be the Messiah. No, they don’t know where he’s from: they may think they do, but they don’t. Some of the religious leaders might recall that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; but the general public thinks he’s from Nazareth. And none of them grasp yet that Jesus is actually from heaven.

So Jesus confronts this lie. He says: “You know me, and you know where I’m from? I haven’t come on my own. The one who sent me is true and you don’t know him, but I know him because he sent me.”

At which point the religious leaders say to themselves and each other “blasphemy” and try to arrest him, but the attempt fails. And the people begin to believe.

Next week we’ll find out why the attempt at arresting Jesus fails. For this week, as we look at this passage, three things I’d like to point out:

(1) We see Jesus standing truly alone. His brothers are poking fun at him. He doesn’t appear to be staying with anyone at the festival. His disciples for some reason aren’t with him. He’s surrounded by people whose knowledge of him is based on gossip at best, conspiracy at worst. And the religious leaders are trying to kill him.

For those of us who follow Jesus, we will most likely go through times like these at some point. We will most likely find ourselves standing alone for Jesus at some point. When we do, Jesus gives us a shining example. Jesus has courage without needing bravado. Jesus knows who he is and he knows whose he is. Jesus doesn’t offend anyone but at the same time he’s not shy as he confronts the errors in peoples’ thinking.

(2) The crowd thinks it knows more than it knows (which is a good thing to keep in mind in the run-up to an election.) They mutter amongst themselves but few ask questions of Jesus directly. As believers, we need to know it’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to ask God questions. It’s OK to bring doubts to God – in fact it’s unwise to do anything else with doubts.

(3) As Jesus speaks, and as he does the miracles he does, he reaches the hearts of some of the people. And they say, “when the Messiah comes, will he do more than this man has done?” In spite of opposition, gossip, and unfaithfulness of family, some hearts hear Jesus and know him for who he is – and they know this man is from God and can totally be trusted.

So where do we find ourselves in this story? And where would we like to be?

Let’s pray.

Lord thank you that you were willing to stand alone and be misunderstood — by people who loved you, and by people who had never met you. Thank you for standing up for the truth. Thank you for healing the blind man and not just keeping the letter of the law. Thank you for keeping on reaching out to us even when we don’t understand. Help us to see you as you really are, and help us to love you as you really are. May all the glory and honor be yours. AMEN.

 

“You Are What You Eat”

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.John 6:41-7

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Jesus-Fully-God-Fully-Man

There’s an old, old saying: you are what you eat – meaning if you eat healthy, you’ll be healthy.

Of course it isn’t meant to be taken literally, as in, if I eat broccoli I’ll turn into a broccoli stalk. The saying is metaphorical. And it could be applied very generally, as in, whatever we take into ourselves becomes part of us. This includes beautiful things like nature, or the love of family and friends, or the friendship we have with animals. And it includes things that aren’t so beautiful, like slasher movies or pornography or even advertising – which becomes part of us without us even being aware it’s happening.

In so many ways, we are what we consume. And in a consumer culture, that’s something to be aware of and to keep an eye on.

The saying you are what you eat also gives us a place to begin to understand what Jesus is talking about in this passage from John. The passage is difficult for a lot of reasons. Probably the biggest difficulty comes because Jesus is deliberately challenging people’s assumptions about faith. Everything people think they know about God and how to worship God is being called into question – and that’s true both for the people listening to him back then AND for us reading it today. Jesus is tearing down all the false teachings and little tiny idolatries that sneak into religion and get in the way of our relationship with God.

So the teaching of Jesus in this week’s passage is difficult. When people heard what Jesus had to say, some of them who had been following him for a year or two turned and walked away. But these are words all of us need to hear, myself included, and as the disciples said, “Lord you have the words of eternal life.”

There are three points Jesus makes that I want to draw out today:

  1. Jesus says The prophets teach us that “all shall be taught by God.”
    In verse 45 Jesus says: Anyone who hears from God and “puts their minds to it” ends up coming to Jesus. Notice that the first action is God’s: no one can come to Jesus “unless the Father draws him.” We like to think we’re the ones making the choice – and how many times have we heard preachers say things like “make your decision for Jesus today!” But Jesus says the first move is God’s.

    At this point anyone reading who believes in predestination is cheering. Not.So.Fast. The very next thing Jesus says is “put your mind to it”. The whole sentence is: “All who have heard from my Father and learned” – and the Greek word for learned here is ‘mathon’, the word we get mathematics In other words, we need to study. Think. Yes, we have to hear from God first, but then we have to think on what God says, we have to put some skin in the game. A relationship takes two people.  As the writer of Hebrews says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb 3:15) Our hearts need to be open to God, and our minds need to be engaged.

  2. Jesus says in verse 47 that whoever believes has eternal life. Does this mean we will not pass through death? No. Even Jesus passes through death before entering eternal life. But faith is the foundation of entering into God’s kingdom.
  3. The key is this – and this is Jesus’ third point – Jesus says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live into eternity; and the bread which I will give on behalf of the life of the world is my flesh.”

This is a difficult saying for a lot of reasons. First, talking about eating someone’s flesh is a strange concept even as a metaphor. Second, Jesus is not talking about Holy Communion in this passage. Jesus will teach about communion later on but we’re not there yet. Third, Jesus is stressing that to follow him is more than just intellectually agreeing with what he says. Jesus is not our political candidate or our favorite celebrity and Jesus does not need cheerleaders. The relationship must go deeper.

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Jesus’ words also do away with preconceived religious ideas. For the people listening 2000 years ago, when Jesus called himself “the bread from heaven” they would have thought back to the bread their ancestors ate in the wilderness: manna. People in Jesus’ time looked back on those days as a sign of God’s favor on anyone descended from Abraham: God’s chosen people. But they’d forgotten it wasn’t Moses but God who gave the manna. And they’d also forgotten their ancestors’ reaction when they first saw the stuff. They looked at this white flaky substance on the ground and asked: “What is it?” – or in Hebrew “manna”?  They called the stuff ‘What Is It’ and that became it’s name! That’s pretty much the same reaction the people are having to Jesus. “What’s he talking about? Doesn’t he come from Nazareth? And aren’t we saved because we have the Law of Moses and we’re God’s people? What’s he talking about Bread from Heaven? What is it?”

When Jesus talks about his ‘body and blood’ he’s talking about his own humanity, his own human nature. Jesus challenges us to see him and know him for what he truly is: fully God and fully human. He came from heaven, was sent to earth, and we need to take into ourselves both his godly nature and His human nature.

And then by the power of the Holy Spirit we become God’s children. As we grow in the faith – and as we pass from this life into the next – we take on a dual nature similar to that of Jesus. Jesus calls us brothers and sisters for a reason. This is a greatness and a majesty and a mystery that’s almost too much for us to conceive. But unless we grasp it and wrestle with it, we do not have life within us.

This is pretty much the point at which the disciples say: “Lord, this teaching is hard. Who can accept it?” And Jesus answers, “The spirit gives life; the flesh is useless; my words are spirit and life. And yet there are some who do not believe; for this reason I tell you no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Jesus is giving his disciples the opportunity to recommit themselves. At the same time he’s pointing out there is a snake in the grass. The disciples learned later he was talking about Judas. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, that Judas, one of the twelve, who witnessed every miracle, who heard every word, who ate with Jesus, who was sent out by Jesus to preach and to heal, ended up betraying him? Proof again that saving faith is a combination of God’s call and human response – both have to happen.

So speaking metaphorically, we must eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus – that is, take into ourselves a sense of both his divine and human reality… and bring his reality and his truth into ourselves and make it part of us.  John’s message isn’t easy to grasp, but these are the words of eternal life. Let’s put our minds to it. AMEN.

What Is God’s Will?

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” – John 6:22-40

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Today begins a series from the Gospel of John which will probably take us through the end of October – if you want to read ahead we’ll be focusing on John chapters six through eight over the next few weeks. This part of John’s gospel takes place is the middle of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning or the end, so we’ll be seeing Jesus in action: talking with people, answering questions, doing miracles: “Life on the Road with Jesus”!

Today’s reading centers around the question “what do we do to do the works of God?” or to put it another way, “what is it God wants us to do?” In this passage Jesus will give three answers to the question: (1) don’t waste time on things that don’t last; (2) believe in Him (Jesus); and (3) trust that Jesus will accomplish God’s will.

That’s where we’re headed. But today’s reading begins with the words “The next day” – which of course begs the question “what happened the day before?”

The day before, Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Then He went up on a mountain to pray while the disciples took the boat back to Capernaum. And then Jesus walked across the Sea of Galilee to join the disciples in the boat.

“I AM the Bread of Life”

The crowd, meanwhile, knowing there was only one boat, and that Jesus hadn’t gotten into it, went looking for Jesus but couldn’t find him. So the crowd headed back to Capernaum, and voila, Jesus was there! And they asked him, “when did you get here?!”

Jesus answers that they’re looking for him not because of his miracles but because of the free food –  and Jesus says “don’t work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life.” Of course Jesus is speaking symbolically, because all the food we eat is perishable (even Twinkies, eventually.) So what kind of food doesn’t perish? The clue is in the word work.  Don’t work for what perishes, but rather for what lasts.

What a great message to follow after Labor Day! What we do matters to God. What we do is important. What we say is important. Not because we’re earning our way into heaven but because we’re investing in the future. We’re building up riches in heaven. Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-21:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The apostle Paul echoes this thought in I Timothy 6:17-19:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

So investing in the future can be done through good works, generosity, not hoarding but sharing… investing in people. Nothing we own, no money we have, will do us any good in the long run. We leave it all behind. But if we invest in the lives of others, we are investing in the kingdom of heaven. When we care for others, we are investing in God’s future.

There’s a second meaning Jesus hasn’t touched on yet, which is that Jesus himself is the food that lasts; Jesus himself is the bread from heaven. Jesus is going to get there in a moment, but for now, Part One is: don’t waste time or money on things that don’t last. Invest wisely in God’s future.

When Jesus says this to the crowd, their answer is, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And Jesus answers: “This is the work of God: that you believe in him who he has sent.” No good work is worth anything unless faith in Jesus comes first.

And the crowd responds:

“What sign will you give us so we can believe in you?”

This crowd has just spent days traveling with Jesus, watching him heal, listening to him teach, watching him feed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, and they’re asking for a sign?

But their question goes deeper than that. They go on to say, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Translating this a more contemporary context, what they’re saying is: we’re descended from Abraham. We’ve been taught by Moses. Our ancestors ate God’s bread (manna) on their way to the Promised Land. So who are you?” In other words, are you on a par with Abraham and Moses?

Which is a legitimate question, and Jesus answers it: “it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven” – which is true, God gave the manna – “but it is my Father who gives the true bread from heaven”. This is where Jesus begins to point to himself as the bread who comes down from heaven, a bread given by God to give life to all people.

And the crowd answers, “Lord, Kyrie, give us this bread always.”

And Jesus says plainly:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And he says, “All who the Father gives me shall come to me, and any who come to me I will never cast out.” The Greek here is negative twice, in other words: “I will never, never cast out.” And, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

So Part Two is to believe in Jesus: not just in the sense of believing Jesus exists; not in the sense that there are pictures of Jesus on the wall; not even in the sense that we believe oxygen exists.

It’s more like the sense that we believe a chair will hold us when we sit down. It’s something we believe enough to take action on. To do the will of the Father is to trust Jesus with our lives.

That’s what we see God and Jesus doing: God and Jesus work together. What God plans, Jesus makes real. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prays, “Father if you will let this cup pass from me” he adds, “but not my will but yours be done.” The Father and the Son trust each other completely; and they invite us through the power of the Holy Spirit to enter into this relationship of total trust.

Part Three is to trust that Jesus will accomplish God’s will in our lives. This can be tough to do sometimes, especially when life is difficult: when loved ones get sick; when there’s a pandemic and the world is turned upside down. These things happen sometimes in a fallen world. But we can do the work of God by trusting that God’s got our backs.

God’s will is to bring as many of us as are willing into the kingdom, into eternal life. When we pray every Sunday “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” this is what we’re praying for. And God will answer “Yes!” And Jesus will lose none of us. It is not up to us to keep holding onto Jesus, as if we have the strength to withstand all the storms in life. We don’t have to be strong enough, because Jesus is strong enough. Jesus will lose none of the ones God gives him. He will raise us up on that last day. That’s Part Three.

Over the next few weeks Jesus will talk more about this bread of life. For today, these three things are enough. (1) Let what we do with our lives be investments in eternity; (2) let us trust in Jesus and help others to do the same; and (3) let us live in the confidence that Jesus holds us and will never let us go. AMEN.

 

Labor Day

Happy Labor Day weekend! It’s a strange year in which to celebrate Labor Day. Some of us have been working so hard we need more than three days off, while others would love to have even three days of work. For people who work full-time, we spend about a third of our lives at work; and one of the most difficult things to deal with in life is if we work in a difficult environment: a job where we share workspace with a bully, or have a boss who harasses people, or when we work for an organization that cuts corners and winks at shoddy workmanship.

(Fanfare for the Common Man – in honor of Labor Day)

Work is supposed to be a joy. The fact that so many people find it isn’t, is one more way we know we live in a fallen world.

As followers of Jesus we know what we do with our time matters.  We don’t work our way into heaven of course – it’s Jesus who brings us into God’s kingdom – but what we do matters to God. God has given every one of us gifts and talents to share with others. And God meant work to be a good thing.

In the Bible we see God working – and we also see human beings, created in God’s image, working just as our heavenly parent does. The fact that we can work is one of the ways in which we are like God!

This week I wanted to explore what Scripture has to say about work. One of the ways we pastors figure out what’s important to God is by counting the number of times God talks about something in the Bible. This is partly because God, like any good parent, knows that His children need to hear things more than once; and partly because in ancient literature the more an idea is repeated, the more important it is. Some of you might remember the old Monty Python skit: “thou shalt thou count to three… Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three…”  This is a great example of the way God repeats things in the Bible. So the more often God says something, the more important it is.

So I did some word counting.

The word labor appears 109 times in the Bible and the word work appears 414 times.

Just to compare: the word faith appears 275 times and the word love 586 times. So love is more important than work; and faith is more important than labor; but there’s some question about the relationship between faith and work – which seems to be an ongoing theological issue throughout the centuries!

Work is all through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and if I read every verse we’d be here all day! So I’d like to share just a few of the verses where God talks about work.

The first thing we see in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, is God working. God is creating the universe and the earth and everything in them. God accomplishes all this in six days – however long a ‘day’ was back then – and then on the seventh day God rests. Genesis 2:1-3 says:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it…”

This tells us that not only do human beings imitate God when we work, but we also need to imitate God and rest. Which means the idea behind Labor Day weekend is Biblical!

The next thing God did after the Sabbath was to give Adam a job. Genesis 2:8 says: “and the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed…” And a few verses later “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15) and then a few verses later, “out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19)

So the job of the first human being was to tend the garden and name all the animals. And human beings today are still doing that – farmers, and scientists, and explorers, still raising crops and still naming animals, all over the world. This planet was given to us by God to care for and to look after. That was our job from the beginning.

But after the fall, work became a curse: “by the sweat of your brow” we will live, God says. And in the book of Exodus it becomes something even worse: it becomes slavery. But God doesn’t abandon His people there.  In Exodus 5 we read:

“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go…’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” (Ex 5:1-2)

We all know how that worked out for Pharaoh! Later on in Exodus, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, and one of those commandments is about work. God says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work…” (Ex 20:9) God is seeing to it that the kind of slavery the people suffered in Egypt would never happen again. And at the same time, in the Sabbath God gives the people a picture of heavenly rest, of God’s kingdom to come.

In the Old Testament, God called and gifted people to work to build the tabernacle and then the temple and all that was in them. God called and gifted people to make the plans, to build the structures, to make the furnishings, all the work. God also gave the people of Israel festivals three times a year in addition to Sabbath, in which they worship and do no work.

Also in the Old Testament, God’s people begin to discover a variety of careers. And God appreciates some but not others. Throughout the Old Testament God comments on the work the Israelites are doing. In Deuteronomy, God’s blessing on work is related to peoples’ willingness to be generous. God says: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work…” (Deut 15:10)

In the book of Kings the Israelites anger God by creating idols and worshipping the work of their hands. God says:

Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods… they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.” (II Kings 22:17)

In Psalms, David speaks about God’s work and ours. He says in Psalm 77: “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work… Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?” (Ps 77:11-13) And in Psalm 90 he prays: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands…” (Ps 90:17)

The book of Proverbs offers this advice: “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.” (Prov 16:3) and notes: “Honest balances and scales are the LORD’s…” (Prov 16:11)

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that work can sometimes be a royal pain: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccles 2:22-23)  The writer goes on: “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Eccles 4:4)

Meanwhile the prophets continue to grieve the fact that the people are worshipping idols and living unjustly. Jeremiah writes: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” (Jer 22:13) And God says: “do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, and do not provoke me to anger with the work of your hands.” (Jer 25:6) …for goldsmiths are all put to shame by their idols; for their images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment they shall perish.” (Jer 51:17-18)

As we come to the end of the Old Testament, God is still working, preparing to bring his son Jesus into the world. And Jesus also teaches us about work. He says things like:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:28-31)  (Jesus said this to the Pharisees to show how much what we do with our lives matters.)

Later on in Matthew Jesus says: “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.” (Matt 24:46-50)

And in Mark, Jesus says, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33)

In the book of Acts the “work” of God is done by the disciples and the apostles as they spread the word about Jesus to all the known world. And Paul talks about work in almost every letter he writes. Just to give one example he says: “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire..” (I Cor 3:11-15)  And Paul adds: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion [on] the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)

Finally in the last chapter of the last book, Revelation, Jesus says: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.” (Rev 22:11-12)

I can’t add anything to all this, other than to say there are a lot more verses about work where these came from. If you ever have the inclination, run a computer search for the word ‘work’ in the Bible, and check it out for yourself.

In the meantime I hope this has been a blessing on this day when we celebrate – and rest from – our labors. AMEN.

 

Nicodemus

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”John 3:1-21

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Politics. I don’t believe in preaching politics for a lot of reasons – mostly because that’s not why you’re here. People come to worship because they want to be uplifted, inspired, refreshed… to have time with God. I pray that’s what will happen this morning.

Still, we are going to talk a little bit about politics today: somebody else’s politics, which is easier than talking about our own! The apostle John, in the scripture above, gets political. He starts out by saying,

“Now there was a Pharisee…”

If you and I had lived back in Jesus’ day, and someone walked up and said, “now there was a Pharisee” – we would have said either “cool!” or “oh no” depending on what our politics were.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two major parties back then. There were other smaller ones but those were the two big ones. Back in those days there was no separation of church and state, so these leaders were both religious and political. The Sadducees were the “one percenters” – they were the elite, the well-educated, influenced by the Greek philosophy. The Pharisees were popular with the common people because they often came from the common people. Pharisees frequently worked their way up, studied hard, earned their places – and they knew their scriptures really well.

It’s interesting, then, that Jesus picked on the Pharisees more than any other group. I suspect that’s partly because the Sadducees didn’t pay much attention to Jesus. The gospels record only one time when Jesus talked with Sadducees, and that was a confrontation on the subject of resurrection. Resurrection was the Sadducees’ hot-button issue: it’s what they wrote all their Facebook memes about. They didn’t believe in it. Even in the book of Acts the only time Sadducees show up is to confront the apostles about resurrection.

Not so with the Pharisees. The Pharisees spent a lot of time studying the law. Jesus could probably have become a Pharisee if he had chosen to, but he didn’t, and his toughest criticisms were for the Pharisees: not because they were wrong about their facts but because they missed the spirit of the law; they missed God’s heart. Jesus and the Pharisees have run-ins all through the Gospels.

The one thing the Pharisees seem to get stuck on most is: where does Jesus get his authority? They keep asking him: “By what authority do you do these things?” And Jesus keeps dodging the question.

The conversation we heard today between Jesus and Nicodemus helps explain why.

Imagine Nicodemus for a moment: a Pharisee, who has heard Jesus teach and has seen Jesus heal. He has heard his colleagues, the other Pharisees, criticize and belittle Jesus behind his back… and even to his face sometimes. Nicodemus is under a lot of pressure to toe the party line. But Nicodemus is an honest man, and he loves God.

When I think about Nicodemus, I wonder how long it took him to get up the courage to talk to Jesus. I imagine he probably thought through the conversation in his head: what he was going to say, what Jesus might say in return. I imagine Nicodemus made up his mind to be honest and up-front with Jesus. He chose to see Jesus at night, I’m guessing not out of fear but because he didn’t want to be interrupted. He wanted some one-on-one time with Jesus, and he wouldn’t have gotten that in the daytime. And I suspect he also wanted to warn Jesus that his life was in danger.

Nicodemus opened the conversation with the word “Rabbi” – a term of respect – “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one could do these signs that you do if God was not with him.”

That’s quite a statement! At that very moment, in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were telling people not to follow Jesus and were plotting Jesus’ death! And yet they knew. Nicodemus says “we know” – not “I know.” The Pharisees knew who Jesus was. They saw God’s power in him. They just wouldn’t admit it.

At this point Jesus took over the conversation and changed its direction completely.  Jesus is much more interested in Nicodemus than he is in what the Pharisees in Jerusalem are doing. Jesus answers: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Whatever Nicodemus was planning on saying went right out the window. The new direction of this conversation puzzles him. You can almost hear Nicodemus going “huh?!?” And then Nicodemus peppers Jesus with questions, which in those days was a polite way of disagreeing with someone. Asking questions gave the person a chance to modify what they were saying. So Nicodemus asks:

“How can someone be born after they’re old? Can a person get back inside their mother’s womb?”

Jesus answers, not by modifying, but by illuminating:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus wouldn’t be saying these things if Nicodemus wasn’t already demonstrating some measure of faith. The Spirit was already making his presence felt in Nicodemus’ heart, but Nicodemus had no experience with this. So he asks, “how can these things be?” Not ‘Can these things be?’ – it’s not a question of belief, but rather of ‘how does this work?’

Jesus teases him a little saying, “you’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” And then he says,

“Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”

This is not a personal slam. In the sentence “you do not receive our testimony” the ‘you’ is plural. Jesus is speaking of the Pharisees as a group. And what he’s saying is true: the Pharisees aren’t listening, and they’re not going to, because Jesus threatens their place. If Jesus IS from God, then the Pharisees aren’t needed any more. If Jesus IS the Messiah then the Pharisees’ job is done.

Jesus goes further and lets Nicodemus in on a secret. He says: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (This is a challenge, not a put-down, and it points to the next two declarations.)

  1. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Jesus is identifying himself and confirming what Nicodemus said at the beginning: he is from God.
  2. “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus isn’t running away from death; he’s heading straight into it.

When Jesus talks about the serpent he’s talking about the days of Moses when the people of Israel rebelled against God and God sent snakes into the camp. The people were getting bitten and dying so they cried out to God. And God told Moses: make a bronze serpent, put it on the end of a pole, and whenever someone is bitten they can look at the serpent on that pole and they will live.

Jesus is saying, “I am taking the place of that serpent. They’re going to put me on a pole (that is, the cross) and when I die, and when I’m lifted up, anyone who looks at me and believes will live.” Jesus says: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Why? Because:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That’s probably the most famous verse in the Bible, and probably the most important one to know: John 3:16. If you ever see “John 3:16” on a sign at a football game or at a sporting event, that’s what it means. Believe in Jesus and you will live.

And that’s not all! Jesus says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…” Unlike political debates, which always lead to ‘cancel culture’ in one form or another, Jesus has not come to condemn. Jesus may be right but he’s not here to make us wrong. Jesus may be holy but he didn’t come here to show up our unholiness. Jesus did not come to judge us; Jesus came to save us.

If there’s any judgement at all, it’s that people choose darkness over light; and evil over good; and people hide so that what they’re doing can’t be seen. “BUT” Jesus says, “those who do what is true come to the light…” And that’s what Nicodemus did that night.

If Nicodemus had anything more to say to Jesus that night, John didn’t write it down. But Nicodemus never forgot that conversation, and he never stopped loving Jesus. Nicodemus is mentioned two more times in John’s gospel. The next time we see him, he will be defending Jesus to the Pharisees, saying that Jesus should at least be given a fair trial. They will insult him and tell him to get lost.

And the last time we see Nicodemus will be on the night of Jesus’ crucifixion, when Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to claim Jesus’ body, and he donates 100 pounds of spices to help bury Jesus. Nicodemus isn’t mentioned again in the Bible after that but I’d lay bets he was one of the founding members of the church in Jerusalem – one of the first believers.

Nicodemus was an honest man. He stood for truth, held on to the faith that he had, and was open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. And he was rewarded by Jesus with a confirmation of faith and a vision of what was to come.

In our time, we need to do the same. Like Nicodemus, we live in difficult and sometimes hostile days. But God always looks for people who honestly seek the truth, who are willing to come to Jesus and be open to the Holy Spirit, and who are willing to look for ways to show our love for Jesus in the way we live.

May God grant us the faith of Nicodemus. AMEN.