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“The Full Armor of God”

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” – Ephesians 6:10-20

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells us to “put on the whole armor of God”. Talking about armor implies life is a battlefield… which can sound wearying, since we live in a world that already seems too full of violence. Every day it seems, we turn on the TV and hear news of war, or terrorism, or another shooting of innocent people. We live in a world where people long for peace… so when Paul starts talking about putting on battle gear we are tempted to resist the suggestion. Besides, aren’t Christians supposed to be believers in peace?

Yes, we are. Paul is using the analogy of armor to point out that trying to live as Christians in a fallen world can sometimes get a little bit dicey. He’s drawing a parallel between a soldier’s equipment and training, and our own spiritual equipment and training. Paul makes three basic points in this passage: (1) as followers of Christ we will face opposition; (2) the nature of the battle is spiritual, not physical; and (3) because these things are true, we need to make use of the spiritual arsenal God provides.

So starting with the first point: If we try to live as disciples of Christ, we will face opposition. Why? Because Jesus faced opposition. We will face the same challenges Jesus faced, often from similar sources. Jesus mentions this himself at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matt 10:25) In other words, if they called Jesus the son of the devil, what are they going to call us? As followers of Jesus we can expect to find friends where Jesus found friends, and to find enemies where Jesus found enemies.

It’s not that we’re going around trying to make enemies – we don’t. Scripture tells us to live at peace with all people, as much as it depends on us… and for the most part I think we do. We’re not like the Westboro Baptists who seem to think it’s a Christian duty to go out of their way to offend people. Groups like that aren’t doing the cause of Christ any favors, because Christian spirituality is not measured by political power or media attention.

Which leads us to Paul’s second point: the nature of the opposition we face. If, as Christians, we face opposition, where will it come from? Paul says in verse 12 we do not fight against enemies of flesh and blood, but against “rulers”, “authorities”, “cosmic powers of this present darkness”, and “spiritual forces of evil”. (Eph. 6:12)

This is a difficult teaching. It almost sounds like Paul is advocating rebellion against the government, but that’s not where he’s coming from. As Christians, we are taught to respect rulers and authorities as much as conscience allows. There are government leaders we cannot in good conscience obey (Hitler was a good example). But on the whole Christians are called to respect and obey the laws of the land.

Here’s the thing: when Paul talks about “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” he was writing 2000 years ago to people in a culture very different from ours. Our modern ears hear these words a certain way, and our modern understanding is relevant, but it’s probably not what Paul meant. So when we hear the words “cosmic powers of this present darkness” – make a mental note of what that phrase means to you, and we’ll come back to it.

In this particular context, Paul is writing to a church in ancient Greece, to people familiar with Greek religion and Greek philosophy, and the early church in particular was interested in the philosophy of Plato. In the 21st century we don’t often think about Plato and his friends, but our modern world is heavily influenced by his teachings even if we no longer recognize Plato as the source of those teachings. Wikipedia says of Plato that “he laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science.” What a huge claim to make of one person! And even our word “democracy” has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy: it’s a combination of the Greek words “demos” (the people) + “kratia” (power or rule).

So what Paul is talking about here would have been recognized by the early church as an illustration taken from Greek philosophy. And it’s an aspect of Greek philosophy that has fallen out of favor in our time, but which was widely believed in the days of the early church: that there are spiritual realities called good and evil. In our postmodern world people shy away from calling anything ‘evil’ because we are taught to say ‘it’s different’ or ‘your truth isn’t the same as my truth’ or ‘that’s not how I experience things’. The ancient Greeks were wiser than that. They may not have understood God in the way Jesus taught (the Hebrew understanding of God is relational rather than intellectual), but the Greeks understood that there were some actions in life that bring a person closer to the heavenly realms and some actions that bind a person to earth and prevent them from ascending into the heavenly realms. Things that bind a person to earth and prevent approaching the heavenlies are described as “evil” or, as Paul puts it, “cosmic powers of this present darkness”. That’s what Paul talking about: things that bind the hearts of men and women so much to this world that they become blind and senseless to the heavenly realms, ignorant of God.

When we look at the news on TV, and we see all the pain and suffering in the world – racial unrest in our cities, women and children being sold as sex slaves around the world, ever-increasing corporate greed as entire nations fall into bankruptcy, wars and violence – and all of this happening at the same time – this is not by chance. There are ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ at work in the world, opposing God’s good purposes, opposing Jesus’ sacrifice to redeem the world. And powers that oppose God, will oppose us also when we seek to follow God.

So to sum it up, what is our opposition? It is that spirit which promotes injustice, and coldness of heart, and fear, and which despises and abuses God’s creation, and which depersonalizes and dehumanizes human beings who were made in God’s image. It’s not surprising movies like Hunger Games have become so popular lately. The movie illustrates what it’s like to try to live a life of integrity in a world built on a morally numbing combination of oppression, injustice and show biz.

So the second point Paul makes is that the nature of the opposition is spiritual. It is not at its source ultimately human. We do not do battle with flesh and blood. This is good news. It means it’s OK for people to be different, to belong to different political parties, to enjoy different things, to be male and female, African, Caucasian, and Asian… and as for the divide between rich and poor, God is so rich even Bill Gates looks like a pauper standing next to God. It’s all good!

There’s a corollary to this point and that is this: it’s not our job to make this earth into paradise. I want to linger on that thought for a moment, because I’ve heard a lot of religious nonsense from all kinds of Christians who say we need to “work to bring God’s kingdom on this earth” or “work until this earth becomes like heaven”. If that’s true then Jesus died for nothing. Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world” and he gave his life so that those who trust him can pass through death into God’s eternal kingdom, into the new heaven and new earth that God will create. Bringing about God’s kingdom is not our job.

Which brings us to Paul’s third point: what is our job? Our job is to make use of the spiritual tools God gives us… so let’s take a look at those tools. Paul says to put on:

  1. The belt of Truth. The belt is what keeps everything else on, it holds the outfit together. And what holds everything together spiritually is God’s truth. God’s truth can be found the Bible, and ultimately in the life of Jesus who said “I am the truth”. So we begin with the Truth.
  2. The breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate protects the internal organs, most importantly the heart. It is Jesus’ righteousness – not our own – that protects our hearts from the powers that oppose God. Whenever we doubt ourselves, whenever we feel insecure or unworthy, we can look to Jesus who is the “author and finisher of our faith” and he will protect our hearts.
  3. Shoes that make us ready to preach the gospel of peace. The footgear is about readiness, about having a secure footing spiritually speaking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said ‘the readiness is all’ and Paul is saying the same thing. Be ready to share the good news about Jesus. That’s where our feet stand. In a world of violence that longs for peace we have a message of peace to share… not temporary peace like treaties between nations but an eternal peace won by Jesus on the cross.
  4. The shield of faith “with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” Paul says. The shield of faith guards and deflects, and protects the whole body. Spiritually speaking, the shield is trust in God’s word which guards us from the arrows of doubt, discouragement, and difficulty.
  5. The helmet of salvation. The helmet protects the head. Spiritually speaking, the knowledge of salvation – firmly rooted, not in our own righteousness but in Jesus’ saving work – is what protects our minds from deception and misinformation.
  6. The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is the only item Paul mentions that is not purely defensive; the sword can be used both defensively and offensively; and Paul mentions both uses. As an offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit has to do with speaking and sharing the ‘word of God’. This can mean sharing scripture or sharing Jesus who is the Living Word. As a defensive weapon, as Paul says, the sword becomes prayer, as we reach out to defend others. We can pray scripture, which is fantastic, using the sword in two directions at once, praying for ourselves and others. That’s why we pray for each other every Sunday in the Joys & Concerns, and hopefully whenever we think of each other. Paul says, “Persevere in supplication for the saints.” Pray for each other’s health, safety, protection, and witness, and for all our needs. And “pray also for me” Paul says, “so that I may speak with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”

Paul’s message is a simple message really, but an essential one to life in the faith. Because Jesus was opposed by the powers and principalities of evil, we can expect the same. We need to understand that this opposition is spiritual, and that in this battle God does not leave us undefended but provides us with a spiritual arsenal to protect ourselves and each other as we follow him.

The discipline of a soldier is a good way to understand how to take hold of, and practice maneuvering in, God’s truth and righteousness. We need to practice standing in truth, holding high the shield of faith, protected by the knowledge of salvation, sharing God’s word with boldness. And pray for each other and for me as we minister God’s word to a world that desperately needs it. Put on, and make use of, the full armor of God. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/23/15

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The Bread of Life

The apostle Paul writes: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

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.”  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.” – John 6:35, 41-51

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John’s gospel this morning starts off with what may be THE six most controversial words ever spoken by anyone in all of human history. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and people have been debating about what he meant by ever since. Was he talking about communion? Or did he mean something else entirely? Are we supposed to take Jesus literally? Or is he speaking metaphorically? And what is “bread of life” (as opposed to other kinds of bread)?

It’s a difficult passage. I’m not sure I understand it completely. I get it in part. But Jesus is talking about supernatural things, things belonging to the Kingdom of God. And I think asking what Jesus meant by “I am the bread of life” is kind of like asking the question,“what happens after you die?” (In fact I think the two questions might even be related.) But for right now, we only understand in part. Someday, as Paul says, “we will know fully even as we are fully known”. Until then we understand in part.

So let’s start off with what we do know. We can be certain at the very least that Jesus was not comparing himself to Wonder Bread. No insult to the makers of Wonder Bread, but that squishy white stuff would not have been recognized as bread back in Jesus’ time. In those days bread was made from whole grain: it was dense, and heavy, and it was enough to satisfy a person’s hunger.

So the first thing Jesus is saying is that he is able to satisfy what we’re hungry for. The deepest longings of our hearts and our spirits find their answer in Jesus.

Another meaning is, Jesus is drawing a parallel between himself as the ‘bread from heaven’ and manna, which is also bread from heaven. Back in the Old Testament manna was bread God gave the Israelites while they were traveling in the desert on their way from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Manna appeared on the ground every morning for 40 years while they were traveling. The strange thing about manna was people had to gather it every day – the stuff didn’t keep. God warned them about that, but some of them tried to store it up anyway, and they found out pretty quickly it got moldy and got worms in it. God’s intention was that the Israelites depend on God for their daily needs, every morning of every day.

Jesus is saying he is like manna. Manna comes from heaven, and so does Jesus. Manna is bread from heaven; and so is Jesus. Manna needs to be gathered every morning; and our relationship with Jesus needs to be renewed every morning, through prayer and through reading God’s word.

This is a lesson God felt it was important to get across to the Israelites in the desert, and it’s something God shows us too in the spiritual desert of our post-modern world. God directs our lives by the Holy Spirit one day at a time, one moment at a time. I think sometimes people get the wrong end of the stick about the faith… like it’s enough that they were baptized or confirmed when they were kids. And these things are important, but like manna we can’t hoard these experiences and then do nothing more. God’s mercies are ‘new every morning’ like the old hymn says, and our relationship with God needs to be renewed every day.

I mean, what would it be like if the person you married said “I love you” on your wedding day and then never said it again for the rest of the marriage? Would you feel loved? Of course not. Your spouse might respond, “well I said it once, and nothing’s changed. I’ll let you know if it does.” But that’s not a relationship. We need to draw daily from the spiritual relationship between ourselves and God, and that’s what Jesus is getting at. In fact this daily drawing strength from spiritual food was a major point John Wesley’s ‘method’ for which Methodists are named, and it’s part of what made the Methodist movement spread like wildfire.

So two things Jesus’ words point to are: satisfaction of spiritual hunger, and seeking God for spiritual strength for the day.

But I’d like to bring us even closer to the Lord’s teaching if I can. I’d like to take us back to that day, as much as possible, 2000 years ago. It’s not an easy scene to step into as Biblical scenes go. I mean it’s easy to imagine ourselves as onlookers in the stable at Jesus’ birth, or to imagine being part of the crowd when the loaves and fishes are being passed around. But as we try to step into this particular scene, whose eyes can we look through? Whose point of view can we relate to?

There are basically three groups of people here, three different points of view to consider: there are the religious authorities, there’s Jesus, and there are Jesus’ followers (both the crowd and the disciples).

Let’s start with the religious authorities. There are probably not a lot of religious authorities here in the congregation today, but it’s not hard to grasp where they’re coming from. On the whole they’re worried. Some of them are worried Jesus might start a rebellion. If they knew Jesus at all they’d know that isn’t true, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, so he’s not interested in worldly power. But they have seen religious teachers inspire rebellions before, and it never ends well. Some of them are worried that there might be flaws in Jesus’ teaching, or that the people might misunderstand what Jesus is saying, and be lead away from the true faith. Most of them, while they wouldn’t admit it, are jealous of Jesus’ popularity.

So the complaint the religious authorities bring is this: “how can this man say he came down from heaven? We know his parents! We know he was born into this world in the usual way. So how can he say he’s from heaven?”

Ironically the religious leaders are looking at Jesus from a worldly point of view. This is not an isolated case. There are theologians even in our own day who reject miracles in the Bible, who argue that what we see around us in this world is the only reality there is and what we accomplish in this life is all that matters. Jesus does not deny the realities of this world, or his human birth into this world. But Jesus insists that heaven does exist and that there is a reality beyond this world, and the religious leaders (on the whole) don’t get it.

So that’s one point of view. The second point of view is the point of view of Jesus himself. Imagine seeing this scene, if we can, looking out through Jesus’ eyes. What would he see?

In the past 48 hours, Jesus has seen crowds of people, hundreds, bringing the sick, coming to him with suffering and faith mingled in their eyes. He sees in them a spark of faith and responds in love. He reaches out a hand, with no fear of infection or contamination, and touches lepers, the blind, the lame, the bleeding, and he heals them all. He is exhausted by the work and he takes a short break, but then the crowds find him again and now they’re hungry. So Jesus takes two fish and five barley loaves and feeds 5000 men, plus women and children. And now they want to make him king… by force if necessary.

Jesus needs to communicate to the crowd that his kingdom is not of this world. That his mission is to open the door for them into heaven – for all of them. Just like the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness until they got to the Promised Land, God’s people now need to eat the ‘bread from heaven’ until we get to the Promised Land.

So Jesus begins to teach spiritual realities. He says “I am the bread of life.” He is not speaking of physical bread. He says, “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they died; but whoever eats this bread will never die.” Jesus is not speaking of physical realities. God’s people do get hungry, and God’s people do pass through death. There are real physical needs in the world, and God’s will is that we should help to meet those needs as much as we can. But Jesus is speaking here of eternal realities.

Jesus then says, “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.”

There is only one person in all of history who can say this and not be a madman: the Messiah of God. No one else can promise resurrection and deliver.

CS Lewis once wrote:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

CS Lewis is right. In this passage Jesus is not leaving options open. He doesn’t intend to. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” there is only one possible way that this can be both true and sane, and that is if he is speaking of heavenly realities, of the Kingdom of God. Jesus then takes it one step further: he says: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus is speaking of the fact that he will die on the cross –his life, his flesh, will be given for the life of the world.

Jesus’ words challenge the people in a whole new way, and he knows it.

And I can’t presume to go any further into the story from Jesus’ point of view, to know what he was thinking and feeling.

So let’s turn finally to the point of view of Jesus’ followers. I think this is probably where all of us can relate to the story most easily.

As Jesus’ followers in this story we have witnessed Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry. We are excited to be part of this crowd. We’re feeling inspired, like we’re being drawn closer to God. We hear Jesus answer the religious leaders who are trying to debunk him. Unlike them, we hear Jesus teaching with authority. We can feel the momentum building as we accompany Jesus from one mountaintop experience to the next.

When Jesus sits down and starts teaching, he says, “I am bread from heaven” we feel a little confused, until Jesus explains it. Of course he’s speaking of spiritual things. He’s saying that believing in him is how we get into heaven, and we’re right there with him. But then Jesus says, “the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh” and it’s like a splash of cold water in the face. What is he talking about?

These words would have sounded as shocking to ancient ears as they do to ours. What is he saying? And then Jesus goes even further:

“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.” (John 6:53-55)

You and I in the 21st century have heard these words many times, usually in connection with communion. But if we step into the story as Jesus’ disciples 2000 years ago, these words have never been spoken before. The Last Supper hasn’t happened yet, so there is no communion to relate them to. Jesus is speaking of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of someone we love. And we would have understood that Jesus is speaking metaphorically – he has to be, because for Jews drinking blood and eating flesh with the blood still in it was unthinkable. It was one of the worst things a person could do, on the same level as murder. But even speaking metaphorically these words are shocking and confusing.

It’s no wonder John tells us:

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60) and “…many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with [Jesus].” (John 6:66)

Suddenly those huge crowds melt away, until only a few people are left. Jesus then turns to his remaining followers and says, “Do you also wish to go away?”

And Peter answers on behalf of all of us:

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

That’s really what it comes down to. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Jesus, the bread from heaven, brings us life from heaven.

Jesus’ teaching, difficult as it is, is the foundation and cornerstone of our faith.

As we step now back into our post-modern point of view, there’s just one rub: All this talk about the ‘promised land’ and the kingdom of God being ‘not of this world’ sounds a bit like what they used to call ‘pie in the sky when you die’ preaching. I have two answers for that:

  1. Heaven is our home. God’s kingdom is our destination. As the apostle Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19) Yes, we need to live in this world, but we need to know that we have something to hope for beyond the craziness of this world. And with that in mind, secondly…
  2. The words of Paul from our reading from Ephesians today take on a whole new luster in light of Jesus’ words, because they teach us how to live in the light of eternal life. If heaven is our destination, then we can, as Paul says, without fear, speak truth to our neighbors, deal with anger, do an honest day’s work and give to the poor, speak words that build others up, treat others with kindness, forgive others, live as imitators of God. We do these things because they please God, and because they build us into the people who will spend eternity in God’s kingdom. We love because Christ first loved us, and that is the economy of the kingdom of heaven.

So Jesus is the bread who comes down from heaven. He is the bread of life that satisfies, and that gives us the strength to live as God would have us live. But more than that, feeding on Jesus grows us into people who will one day spend eternity in God’s Kingdom.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, you have said that no one can come to you unless the Father draws them. Draw us to yourself, O God. Draw us to Jesus more and more with every day. Lord, we don’t always understand what you mean, but we know you have the words of eternal life. Keep us, and all we give you, in your loving hands until your kingdom comes, to your honor and glory and for our eternal joy. AMEN.

 

Fragments Matter

The Apostle Paul writes: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” – Ephesians 3:14-21

“After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” – John 6:1-21

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“The Feeding of the Five Thousand” is a familiar story, one many of us learned as children in Sunday School. The moral of the story of course is that Jesus can take whatever we have to offer, no matter how small, and use it to provide for the needs of many people. This is a comforting thing to know, especially when I look at how limited my resources are and how great the needs are in the world.

But as I was reading the story again this past week one phrase jumped out at me: after the crowd ate, Jesus told his disciples to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”.

I never noticed the fragments before. John writes that the disciples gathered up twelve baskets of fragments. The number twelve is meaningful: it’s one basket for each disciple. But it made me wonder why Jesus would command them to do this, and why would John bother to tell us about it? So let’s return to the scene and picture it with fresh eyes.

Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Galilee, an area of hilly meadows above the Sea of Galilee. Jesus sees a huge crowd of people coming in their direction – John says 5000 people; Matthew, in his version of the story, says there were 5000 men plus women and children.

Just to give you an idea, a sell-out crowd at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh is about 2500 people so double that and we’ve got a fair idea of how many people there were. Imagine what it would be like to be outdoors somewhere and have that many people coming in your direction!

Jesus turns to his disciple Philip and says, “where are we going to get food for all these people?” Philip points out it would probably take half a year to earn enough money to buy food for everyone. (Anyone who has ever planned a wedding reception knows the truth of this!) Andrew goes out and finds a young boy with five barley loaves and two fish but he says, “what’s this going to do for so many?”

But Jesus tells the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass. He then takes the loaves and fish in his hands and prays over them. Luke tells us Jesus “blessed and broke them” and gave them to the people – a foreshadowing of what he would do at the Last Supper.

When the people were done eating they were satisfied. More than ‘not hungry’, they were full. As in, stuffed. The people have just witnessed a MAJOR miracle, and it’s got them thinking.

Meanwhile Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the broken pieces. Three things I want to mention about these pieces:

  1. When I’ve read this story before I always imagined these pieces as… kind of gross… like they’ve been bitten into already. Who would want to touch that, let alone save it? But as I looked at the story I realized there’s a different sense to it. The bread was broken and passed, broken and passed, like at communion. There were no teeth marks. The leftovers were still edible.
  2. The word ‘leftovers’ is the wrong shading of meaning. When we think of ‘leftovers’ we think of things in the back of the fridge. A better translation would be ‘abundance’… as in, there were an ‘abundance of broken pieces’ (not a pile of leftovers).
  3. Jesus said ‘gather up the pieces that none may be lost’.

Which brings us to one of the core spiritual truths of this miracle. The Greek word for ‘lost’ in this verse is usually used to describe people, not things. For example, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt 18:14) Or speaking of the Prodigal Son, “he was lost and now is found”. Or speaking of Jesus, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus’ concern with fragments of bread becoming lost paints a picture of his concern for people who are lost.

Sadly the crowd misses the point. They have witnessed Jesus healing all kinds of sicknesses, and they’ve been satisfied with plenty of food, and they decide this is the man they want to have as king – so he can keep on doing these things, keep on healing people, keep on feeding everyone.

The problem is, Jesus seems to be unwilling to lead a rebellion. So the people decide to make him king – ‘by force’ is implied. And while Jesus cares about health and food his primary mission on this earth is not about providing these things. His primary mission is to announce the good news of God’s kingdom and to provide a way for people to get there. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and to try to force his kingdom into this world is to lose the Gospel.

Let me say that again, especially now with presidential campaigns ramping up and all kinds of people claiming to be on God’s side: to try to force Jesus’s kingdom into this world is to lose the Gospel, because the Gospel is about a kingdom greater than this world. Jesus’ kingdom cannot be voted in, legislated in, or mandated in. It’s not about movements or programs or what’s on the evening news. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

Jesus’ primary mission on this earth was and is to bring good news to the broken so no-one is lost.

Which brings me to our theme for the day: Fragments matter.

  • Fragments matter to God. Nothing in God’s hands – even a broken piece of bread – is ever wasted. Nothing is so small that God loses track of it. It’s like the old hymn says: “his eye is on the sparrow / and I know he watches me…”
  • Fragmented hearts and minds matter to God. You may have heard the story about an alcoholic named Bill who had a conversion experience, and then figured out how to explain the Gospel to other alcoholics. He became the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill’s life was in fragments but when he met Jesus, Jesus gathered up those fragments and gave meaning to Bill’s life, even the broken pieces.
  • Fragmented bodies matter to God. Remember Joni Eareckson, a few decades ago, the teenager who broke her neck in a diving accident? She was paralyzed from the shoulders down, but she learned to paint by holding a brush between her teeth and became a famous artist. She put her broken body in Jesus’ hands and she has been used by God to work with the disabled and to teach churches all over the country how to minister to the disabled.
  • Fragmented churches matter to God. All over our country, in every city and town, you can find church after church a lot like this one: churches over 100 years old that used to hold 500 people on a Sunday and are now down to maybe 50. The kids grew up and moved away and nobody has taken their place. And all the churches are wondering what went wrong. I think maybe that’s not the question to be asking. Jesus had something important in mind to do with those twelve baskets of bread-fragments, and I think he’s got something important in mind to do with our church-fragments too.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. I know our churches face all kinds of challenges, and the immediate future looks difficult. But I do think that God is saying to churches across the country, ‘gather up the fragments that nothing may be lost’. Small churches across the country are finding that people who have attended large churches are discovering how good it is to be in a church ‘where everybody knows your name’. The key to building a future, with the fragments we have, is putting those fragments in Jesus’ hands… and then being willing to do what Jesus asks in service to the community.

God does not need a whole lot of people to accomplish God’s purposes. Let me give you a few examples from scripture of how God has used fragments.

  • In the book of Judges we see God using a small group of people to build up the faith of a nation. There was a man named Gideon who needed to defend Israel against attackers. He went out with the entire army and God said, “you have too many men. Send home anybody who’s afraid to fight.” So Gideon sent home 22,000 men and had 10,000 troops left. God said to Gideon, “that’s still too many. Take the men down to the river and have them drink. Anyone who bends over and drinks with their hands stays home, and anyone who drinks by putting their mouth right into the river gets to fight.” Only 300 men made the final cut. God won a mighty victory with just a fragment of the army. God wanted a fragment that day. God chose a fragment so that Israel would know that in God alone is the victory.
  • In the book of Ruth we meet another fragment – a fragment of a family that God uses to build hope and a future. This once-happy family of husband and wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law… their lives are shattered when all the men in the family suddenly die. Naomi, the mother, tells her daughters-in-law “I have no hope… go home to your fathers.” And one of them did, but Ruth refused to leave. The two women, who had nothing left but each other (and God), returned to Bethlehem… where Ruth met her husband Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus. God used that little fragment of a family in the master plan for the salvation of the whole world.
  • And in the New Testament, Jesus Himself becomes fragmented on the Cross. Jesus said at the Last Supper, “this is my body broken for you”. He made himself into fragments so we could be made whole.

How can we respond to this?

As we look at our lives… our families… our churches… we need to know that nothing is insignificant or worthless in Jesus’ hands. We need to know, down to the depths of our hearts, that broken pieces can become things of beauty in Jesus’ hands.

I have an old friend whose heart has been fragmented in more ways than I can count. I don’t usually talk about friends in sermons but he has told these stories in public so I’m not talking out of school. He lost his father at an early age; his step-father was an alcoholic who beat him; he was a victim of attempted rape as a teenager, he lost his first fiancee in a car accident, he lost his only son in childbirth… the list goes on. This man has been through more than I can imagine. But he put his life in Jesus’ hands, and when the light of God shines through all those broken pieces – like light through a stained-glass window – it’s beautiful, and people’s lives are changed, because what they see is God’s compassion and God’s miracle-working power.

The question then becomes how to go about putting our lives, our families, and our churches into God’s hands? Three things I would suggest.

First, prayer… and more prayer… and more prayer. You know how they say in real estate it’s all about “location, location, location”. In God’s kingdom it’s prayer, prayer, prayer… because the Christian life is all about a relationship with God, and all relationships have their foundation in communication. We need to pray for ourselves, for our families, for our churches, and we need to ask others to pray for us.

The passage we read from Ephesians this morning is a perfect example of the kind of prayer I’m talking about. In this passage Paul prays for the Ephesians that God would give them gifts including:

  • Inner strength
  • The power of the Holy Spirit – that is, God living in us
  • Jesus living in their hearts through faith
  • Being rooted and grounded in love
  • Understanding of the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ
  • Being filled with the fulness of God
  • Giving glory to Jesus in every generation

Let’s join Paul in praying for these things for our lives and our churches.

Second, worship. If we grasp all that Jesus has done for us, and all that he is still doing, we can’t help but love him. Our hearts become wrapped up in his.

Have you ever talked to someone who’s in love? You know how they can’t stop talking about their special person. Or a new grandparent with baby pictures? Good luck getting them to change the subject – you know what I mean? Love Jesus like that. Be amazed at Jesus like that. Let those feelings spill over into worship, into our prayers and our songs.

And third, have an outward focus. If we focus on our brokenness – our broken lives, our broken families, our fragmented church – then that’s all we’re going to see. But if we put the fragments in God’s hands through prayer, then we can pay attention to the voices of need outside the church and God will use us to respond to those needs.

As an example – in a moment we will be dedicating some blankets our women have made. The ladies of our church have heard there is a need for children in Pittsburgh hospitals to have warm blankets and they are responding to that need. It’s a great example of putting what we have in God’s hands and having an outward focus.

So where do we see fragments in our lives? In our relationships? In our churches? In Jesus’ hands those fragments can and will find meaning and purpose.

Fragments matter to God. Join me in putting all those fragments in Jesus’ hands. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 7/26/15

~

 

 

 

“Building God a House”

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. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.II Samuel 7:1-14

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”– a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands– 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. – Ephesians 2:11-22

A number of years ago a young couple I know decided they wanted to build their own house. They spent a lot of time and money drawing up plans, and when the plans were done it took another couple of years before the house was finally finished. But when it was done it suited them and their family to a tee. Every child had a room that was exactly what he or she wanted. The house had extra bathrooms on the first floor because the couple loved to entertain. The kitchen had nooks built specifically to hold the plants the lady of the house loved. The house was designed just for them.

My guess is most of us have never built a house, or hired someone to build a house we’ve planned. Most of us live in homes that were already built, and after we move in we decorate them to our taste. But when you move into a home built for someone else there’s always something about it you wish you could change. I love our house but I wish our basement steps weren’t so steep. I wish our laundry room was on the same floor as the kitchen. The list goes on. If I had designed it I would have designed things a bit differently!

In our reading from Samuel, King David has just finished building himself a house. It’s a house designed by a king and fit for a king. Verse 1 says, “the king was settled in his house…”

Picture King David, a man in the prime of his life, stepping out onto the balcony of his brand new palace looking out over the royal city of Jerusalem. He thinks back. Not so long ago he can remember a time when there was no king, and now he’s the king. He has wives and children. There is peace and prosperity all through his kingdom. Life is good!

What is David thinking and feeling as he looks out over his house and over the city?

A lesser man might say to himself, “Is this not [the] magnificent [city], which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” That’s what King Nebuchadnezzar said when he looked out over Babylon in the book of Daniel. God took exception to Nebuchadnezzar’s way of thinking and sent a madness on him until he acknowledged the king of heaven was greater than himself.

Luckily for Israel, David was a bit wiser. He looked around him from his palace balcony, and the first thought that came to his mind was: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” (II Samuel 7:2)

David has not forgotten where he came from, or how he got where he was, or who deserved the greater honor. He wants to do something great for God. He wants to build God a house even greater than his own.

Those of us who love God can relate to what David is feeling. Haven’t we all felt, at some time or another, ‘I wish I could do something great for God’? David’s heart is in the right place – and our hearts are in the right place – when we feel that way.

But God turns David’s offer down. And God’s reasons tell us something about who God is. First God says to David, ‘are you the one to build me a house to live in?’ When we stop and think about it, that’s a reasonable question. I mean, how big is God? And how big is the biggest house a human being can build?

But there’s more. God says: “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving around in a tent… among all the people of Israel…” God never asked for a house. God chose to live among God’s people. As it says in the book of Revelation, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…” (Rev. 21:3)

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament God chooses to make a home among his people. God does not consider a house of cedar to be greater than a home with us. God does not see a house of cedar as being longer-lasting, or worth more, or more impressive. Just the opposite: God considers a home with us to be eternal, and costly, and something to find glory in.

Then God turns the tables on David. God says, “I will build you a house.” God goes on to descrbe God’s idea of what makes for a great house. God says, “I will make for you a great name… I will appoint a place for your people… I will give you rest from all your enemies… I will raise up your offspring after you… I will establish his kingdom forever…”

Some of those promises came true while David was still living. God did make for David a great name. He was famous during his lifetime, and David is still remembered more than 3000 years later. God did raise up David’s son Solomon to sit on his throne and to build the great temple in Jerusalem.

But some of God’s promises apply to the Messiah, and did not come true in David’s lifetime. When Jesus came, he was called the “Son of David”. Jesus was descended from David’s line, but the phrase ‘Son of David’ also came to mean ‘Messiah’. Jesus is the king, the son of David whose kingdom is established forever.

And some of what God promised David has yet to happen. God’s people do not yet have rest from all our enemies, but someday we will. God’s people do not have a place to call home in this world, but someday we will have an eternal home. God is still in the process of building us that house. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)

So God is in the process of building David a house, and at the same time God is in the process of building us a house.

But where does that leave God’s house? The apostle Paul gives us the answer in our New Testament reading. Paul talks about the ‘household of God’ for which Jesus is the Cornerstone. This is a household in which God’s people are “built together into a dwelling place for God.”

Paul is writing to a group of people who are divided, where there has been prejudice and hatred between the factions, and the people can’t imagine being built together into one household. But Paul says Jesus is “our peace” who “in his flesh has made both groups into one and broken down the dividing wall”. Paul says we are reconciled “through the cross” which puts an end to hostility and makes peace between people who were once strangers. Verse 18 says through Jesus we have access to the Father through the Spirit – the whole Trinity is involved here, Father, Son and Spirit – to bring us into unity as “members of the household of God.”

God’s house rests on the completed work of Jesus. Jesus is the cornerstone; Jesus is our access into the house; Jesus is peace and unity between people who were once strangers.

We are God’s dwelling place. We are God’s house. We, and all others around the world and throughout the course of history who have loved God and trusted God’s promises, together make up God’s house. We are the house David offered to build but could not.

What an awesome joy it is to know that God, in building David a house through Jesus, is building the very house David wanted to build for God! Talk about economy! In fact even the word ‘economy’ comes from a combination of two Greek words, oikos (house) and nomos (rule). The rule of the house. The rule of the house in God’s kingdom is: when God’s will is done, God also satisfies our deepest longings.

So what does this mean for us today?

  • We receive by faith God’s word that we are being built into the household of God, by trusting in Jesus’ work of salvation on the cross.
  • God’s amazing grace should inspire in us love, praise, and passionate worship.
  • I think maybe the best we can do is respond the way David did. David prayed to God, and we can make David’s prayer our own. So pray with me in the words of David:

“Who are we, O Sovereign LORD, and who are our families, that you have brought us this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign LORD, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servants. Is this your usual way of dealing with people, O Sovereign LORD?

“What more can we say to you? For you know your servants, O Sovereign LORD. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servants. How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears. And who is like your people — that God went out to redeem as a people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed…? You have established your people as your very own forever, and you, O LORD, have become our God.

“And now, LORD God, keep forever the promises you have made concerning your servants…. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then all people will say, ‘The LORD Almighty is God…!’ And the house of your servants will be established before you. O LORD Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servants, saying, ‘I will build a house for you.’ So your servants have found courage to offer you this prayer.

O Sovereign LORD, you are God! Your words are trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servants. Now be pleased to bless the house of your servants, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, O Sovereign LORD, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servants will be blessed forever.” AMEN. (II Samuel 7:18-29, paraphrased for congregational use)

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/19/15

~

 

 

Something Odd

My blog has picked up a cyber-stalker.  Nothing dangerous, mind you, just weird.

The cyber-stalker targets Christian blogs under the name Christians Anonymous, quoting entire blog posts and leaving pingbacks on the blogs it pilfers.  My blog is just one of thousands his pre-programmed bot “borrows” from.

The Christians Anonymous website looks like a blog but isn’t – there are no options to leave comments, chat, or contact the blogger. In fact the owner of the site stays hidden in the cyber-shadows.

The Christians Anonymous site’s masthead reads “There is no God, Nor Human Soul; There Will Be No Eternal Life.”  What I find weird is — for someone who seems to think he’s doing the world a favor by archiving the writings of religious folk, he (a) quotes only Christian writers (apparently Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu souls may actually exist), and (b) makes no distinction between Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, or Charismatic writers, or between scholarly or op-ed pieces. In fact there’s no categorization at all.

Why would someone go to all the trouble, I wondered?

So for fun I went out and did a little cyber-digging.  For any other Christian bloggers who may be experiencing this oddity, here’s background info on the guy behind it:

The Christians Anonymous site is owned and administered by Timothy Platt, representing the “Socialist Central Committee Ltd”, P.O. Box 2224, Indianapolis, IN.  The site is registered by GoDaddy.com.

Google ‘Socialist Central Committee Ltd’ and you’ll end up at the blog socialistagenda.wordpress.com on which Platt is the only author, and he hasn’t posted anything new in about two years.  The blog claims to represent “America’s Socialist Party” but a Google of this moniker turns up very little of substance.

Bottom line, from what I can see, Platt is on the fringe of a fringe of a fringe, essentially just one man obsessed with Christianity.

May God bless his obsession.

 

Herod’s Achilles Heel

Psalm 24 (Of David)

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;

for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

~

“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” – Mark 6:14-29

~

Our gospel reading for today is not a pleasant one. It’s dark, and it’s heavy, and it’s not easy to talk about or hear about. But God’s word is in it… so hang onto your hats, here goes!

Our reading from Mark starts with the words “King Herod heard of it” – which of course begs the question ‘what did King Herod hear of?’ Immediately before the events in our reading today, Jesus sent out the disciples two by two throughout the region of Galilee, to preach and teach and heal. King Herod heard of what Jesus’ disciples were doing, and what Jesus was doing, and he was haunted by it, because he thought a man he’d killed had come back to life. Even though today’s reading talks about the death of John the Baptist, the real focus is on Herod.

Back in the 1990s an obscure but marvelous TV program called Babylon 5 built a five-year-long series around the proposition that all of history turns on two questions: “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” I like that idea, although I would add a third question: the question “whose are you?”

The writer of Psalm 24 knows whose he is. The psalmist belongs to God. He says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” – which includes himself. What he wants is to see the kingdom of God. He says, “Lift up your heads O gates… that the king of glory may come in.” The psalmist looks forward to that day. And in terms of who he is, the psalmist knows a person must have clean hands and a pure heart to see God’s kingdom and so he makes becoming such a person his life’s goal, because he wants to be in that kingdom. Like the old song says, “Lord I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.” The psalmist knows who he is, and whose he is, and what he wants.

King Herod has no such certainty about anything. Who is he? Whose is he? What does he want? The answers to these questions reveal a life that is unsettling and tragic and ultimately worthless in the eyes of God.

In getting to know King Herod it helps to know a little bit about his background. The King Herod Mark talks about in today’s reading is not the same King Herod who was king when Jesus was born. That Herod was this Herod’s dad. The elder Herod, the dad, is sometimes called ‘Herod the Great’ by historians because he built some impressive buildings, including what is known today as the Wailing Wall or Western Wall in Jerusalem. But Herod the Great’s public hated him. He was a convert to the Jewish faith, a puppet king of the Romans, and he married a Samaritan. When Jesus was born he ordered the slaughter of all the boy children under two years old, just because some foreign sages came asking who was born king of the Jews. Herod taxed the people into poverty. And before he died he murdered two of his own sons and forced one of their orphaned children – his granddaughter Herodias – to marry her uncle, the brother of her dead father. When Herod died the Romans, not trusting any of his descendants, divided his kingdom into four parts, between the four surviving children.

The Herod we read about today – called Antipas to differentiate him from the other Herods – managed to survive his father’s killing sprees and became King of Galilee. His brother, who we also read about today – called Philip – controlled the parts of Israel east of the Jordan. So one day when Herod Jr. and his wife were visiting Philip’s court, Herod met Herodias, Philip’s wife. Some historians say she left Philip; others say Herod kidnapped her; at any rate she didn’t put up much of a fight. Herod divorced his first wife (which led to a war, but that’s another story for another day); and Herodias divorced her husband; and the two married each other.

John the Baptist’s objection to all these shenanigans was not just a matter of opposing divorce, although the Law of Moses does oppose divorce. The bigger issue was the issue of incest. The law of Moses allowed a brother to marry his brother’s wife only if the first brother was dead (which Philip wasn’t) and if the first marriage produced no children (which this one did – the dancer in our story today was the daughter of Herodias and Philip).

So that’s the backdrop against which today’s reading takes place. Mark tells us that Herod had mixed feelings about John the Baptist. It wasn’t Herod that wanted John arrested – verse 19 tells us it was Herod’s wife who had a grudge against him and wanted him dead. Herod’s feelings about John were all over the place. He feared John’s popularity. He was in awe of John’s holy life. Sometimes he wanted John dead, other times he took pride in protecting John. He enjoyed his conversations with John, even though they perplexed him.

Herod, having grown up in a dysfunctional and abusive family, learned how to be a people-pleaser, and he shifted with the wind. He didn’t know who he was, he didn’t know whose he was, and he couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted. He had learned to indulge himself – with food, with conversation, with fame and fortune, with women – but even these things didn’t really satisfy, he just toyed with them.

Until Herodias got the upper hand. Knowing Herod’s weaknesses, she sends her own daughter to dance a seductive dance for her husband, and to demand the head of John the Baptist as a reward. Can you imagine what that young girl must have felt when she got old enough to realize what had been done to her and through her? It’s not for nothing the Bible says the sins of the parents are visited on the children.

~

So far I’ve been retelling this story from a modern point of view, a point of view informed by psychology and family systems theory. When we look at the family backgrounds of Herod and Herodias it’s easy to see how they could end up doing the terrible things they did. In fact it’s almost predictable. Psychology sees people as products of genetics and environment, and Herod and Herodias had been traumatized by both. If the two of them were put on trial today for the murder of John the Baptist they would most likely plead ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ – and they’d have a good chance of winning the case.

But the Christian faith promises us there is more to human life than just family and environment. For example, Moses was raised by Egyptians, but he became the leader who freed Israel from Egypt. Ruth was a foreigner and a widow but she became the great-grandmother of King David. And David himself was just a shepherd-boy when he became the champion who killed Goliath. Throughout history, God’s word and God’s grace has lifted people out of their circumstances, healed their deepest wounds, and given purpose to their lives.

John the Baptist offered Herod God’s word and God’s grace and God’s purpose, over and over again. And Herod heard what John was saying deeply enough to feel torn… “perplexed” as Scripture says. Herod wanted that new beginning. But he also wanted power, and popularity… and Herodias… and he couldn’t decide what he really wanted most. And in the end the decision was made for him. And it cost John the Baptist his life.

After John’s death his disciples came and buried him and then went and told Jesus what happened. A little later on, after Jesus was arrested, Luke tells us Pilate sent Jesus to Herod because Galilee was in Herod’s jurisdiction. Herod was thrilled to finally meet Jesus – Jesus was a popular guy and he had wanted to meet Jesus for a long time. This in spite of the fact Herod had been trying to kill Jesus for some time. Again we see that love-hate dynamic, that divided heart.

Luke tells us Herod was hoping to see Jesus do a miracle. And Herod asked Jesus all kinds of questions. But Herod is the one person in the Bible who when he speaks to Jesus, Jesus answers nothing. Not one word. I don’t know about you but the thought of hearing nothing but silence from Jesus terrifies me. I wouldn’t be able to bear it. Herod reacted by mocking Jesus and sending him back to Pilate to die.

It’s a dark story to tell on a beautiful summer morning. It is a tragedy in every sense of the word, and sadly, very true to life.

Coming back to where we started: the idea that history turns on the questions “Who are you?” “Whose are you?” and “What do you want?” Herod never figured out the answer to the question “who are you?” He didn’t know himself. He couldn’t decide whose he was, and in the end he belonged to no-one. He and Herodias died in obscurity, having fallen out of favor with the Roman emperor. He didn’t even end up with the things he thought he wanted: power… popularity… wealth. Gone.

Most of us will never sink as low as Herod sank, thank God. But because we’re human, we deal with the same questions: “who are you?” “whose are you?” and “what do you want?” When we think about who we are, our family backgrounds and where we grew up help us to figure out who we are. But more important is whose we are – because if we belong to God then who we are will be constantly changing. As it says in the old hymn:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Which leaves the question what do we want? What do we really want? God calls us to want… God… more than anything else. Not that we don’t want other things – we do. Just that we want God more. That’s what Jesus meant when he said:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Jesus didn’t actually mean we should hate our families or hate our lives; on the contrary he teaches us to love them. But if forced to choose we should choose God first. This is a hard teaching, but Jesus would be less than honest if he said any different. And ultimately when we love God the most, when we put God first, our ability to love others grows beyond our natural human ability to love. When we put God first, when we give our lives into God’s hands, who we are becomes a creation born not of flesh, not pre-determined by heredity and environment, but born of the Spirit into God’s kingdom and into God’s design.

Herod wasted his life, wasted his opportunities. He caused pain to thousands of people, and he died with nothing but a bitter wife as a companion, all because he could not make up his mind whose he wanted to be. Whose will we choose to be?

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/12/15

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Living By Faith

“After the death of Saul, David returned from defeating the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days. […] David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and ordered that the men of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights.
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain,
nor fields that yield offerings of grain.
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul– no longer rubbed with oil.
From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan– in life they were loved and gracious,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!””
II Samuel 1:1, 17-27

“When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.
When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.” – Mark 5:21-43

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Today’s scriptures are a bit unusual in that they don’t talk directly about God. Jesus takes part in the New Testament reading, but he’s not talking about God, and the people around him don’t know yet that he is God. The people see Jesus as a prophet and as a healer. Except for a few of the disciples, no-one knows yet that Jesus is the Messiah.

So our readings today tell us three stories about people of faith.

I think sometimes when we read about people of faith in the Bible we tend to see them as sort of like super-saints, but they’re not. They’re everyday people like you and me. In this case, they are: a shepherd, a housewife, and a lay leader from the local synagogue.

What makes the people we meet in the Bible exceptional is they share everything with God. They hold nothing back. And God honors that.

As it happens, in today’s readings all three people we meet are facing some kind of crisis in their lives. In the Old Testament we see David dealing with the death of his best friend; and in the New Testament we meet a woman who has been sick for a long time, and a man whose daughter is dying.

Let’s take a look at each story.

Our reading from II Samuel – the reading itself – is a song of mourning, written by David on the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan. These two men lost their lives – in the prime of their lives – in a battle defending Israel. (If we go back into the history of Israel we find out the reason David was not fighting alongside them and defending them had to do with Saul’s disobedience to God and David’s subsequent estrangement… but at a time like this it would not be appropriate for David to point that out.) Saul was David’s father-in-law, and Jonathan was David’s best friend. David and Jonathan were like Butch and Sundance, or like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. They were inseparable, the very best of buddies.

If you’ve ever had friend like that you know friendships like that are rare. Men and women who have fought in battles together sometimes find this kind of friendship. Co-workers in the mission field, or in medical care sometimes find this kind of friendship. Every now and then it ‘just happens’. But most of us only get two or three friends like this in a lifetime, if we’re lucky. To lose a friend like this is devastating, because they leave a hole in your heart and in your life that can never be filled. When a friend like this dies we wish the world could stop turning just for a moment, to acknowledge that someone important is gone.

So what do you do at a time like that? David sang out his pain. David was a songwriter for many years. He used to sing to King Saul when Saul was troubled. He composed many of the psalms, which were the hymns back in those days.

David sings out his grief, praising King Saul as a mighty man of war, and grieving for Jonathan who he calls “brother”. David is not glorifying violence and killing here. What he’s doing is expressing honor to those who served their country and gave their last full measure in its defense. And in doing so he gives us a song that touches our hearts across the centuries, touching anyone who’s ever lost a good friend. ‘How the mighty have fallen!’ David cries. ‘Men of glory, worthy of love and honor, lie slain on the field. How the mighty have fallen!’

I’ll come back to David in a moment, but in the gospel of Mark we meet two more people. The first is a man named Jairus, whose daughter is very ill. Any of us who have ever sat up with a sick child know his pain. He’s worried, he’s spending sleepless nights, he’s praying, he’d give anything to make her better. He’d even change places with her if he could.

Being a lay leader in the synagogue, Jairus has heard of Jesus. He knows Jesus is miracle worker, and he needs a miracle right about now. He just has to get Jesus to where his daughter is before it’s too late. He begs Jesus to come. Some translations of the Bible say he begged Jesus ‘repeatedly’. Apparently Jesus wasn’t moving very quickly… which is understandable considering the size of the crowd.

And then, on the way to Jairus’ house, there’s a delay! We meet a third person, a woman whose name we don’t know, though some people in the early church felt she deserved a name and called her ‘Veronica’. For twelve years she has had some kind of medical condition that causes her to bleed – based on the description, most likely a menstrual period that won’t stop.

Anyone who has ever been through serious illness or surgery knows how frightening is, and the frustration of missing out on life, and all the expenses involved. Illness disrupts a person’s life in a way that nothing else does. In this particular woman’s case, her condition makes her anemic, and she’s getting progressively weaker, and most likely suffering from depression because of a low energy levels. And on top of that, she has a social problem. Under the Law of Moses, her condition makes her ritually ‘unclean’. According to the law she shouldn’t be going out of the house, and she certainly shouldn’t be mixing in a crowd this large! But she’s desperate. For twelve years – as long as Jairus’ little daughter has been alive – she’s been in pain. She has spent all her money on doctors and she’s only gotten worse.

And now she hears that Jesus can heal people with a touch, and she’s convinced he can heal her. Somewhere deep down she knows that what is impossible with human beings is possible with God.

So she makes up her mind to sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. She says to herself, “all I have to do is touch his garment and I’ll be well. I don’t have to say anything to anybody, I don’t have to disturb anybody, I don’t have to make anybody unclean from coming into contact with me.”

And things work out just like she planned. She touches Jesus’ robe and immediately the blood stops, and she can feel energy and health beginning to return to her body. After twelve years she’s finally well.

Except that’s not the end of the story. Jesus stops. Something has happened, he knows, and he calls out over the crowd, “who touched me?”

The disciples look around at a crowd that’s as tightly packed as Times Square on New Year’s Eve and say to Jesus, “How can you say ‘who touched me’? Everybody’s pressing in all around you.”

I suspect Jesus already knows who touched him, but he also knows the woman needs to share her story. And there are people present who need to hear it. So he creates a space in which she can speak. And scared and trembling, she falls at Jesus’ feet and tells him everything – every detail, the whole story. And when she’s finished, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

She came looking for physical healing, and she got that, but she got far more: healing of the heart, and healing of the soul. This is the meaning of the word shalom – holistic well-being and peace.

While all this is happening, and in fact as Jesus is still speaking, people come from Jairus’ house and say, “don’t bother the teacher any longer. Your daughter is dead.”

I can’t begin to imagine what Jairus felt in that moment. But before he can say anything, Jesus says to him, “don’t be afraid, just believe.”

And taking Jairus, Peter, James, and John, Jesus tells the rest of the crowd to stay put. The deathbed of a child is no place for curiosity-seekers and hangers-on. When they get to Jairus’ house Jesus chases out the mourners, who make fun of Jesus when he says the girl is not dead.

Jairus and his wife enter their daughter’s bedroom and look at their little girl. Gently Jesus takes her by the hand and says, ‘little girl, get up’. And she does. And grief turns into joy.

I find it interesting that at the end of this great miracle Jesus says to Jairus ‘don’t tell anyone what happened’ when in the previous miracle, Jesus makes public something that happened in secret. God’s ways are not our ways! At any rate, we’ve met three people who are very everyday people, living everyday lives. They don’t preach, they don’t quote the law… but where it comes to God they hold nothing back.

David shows us is how a person of God grieves. A person of God is open-hearted toward God. As people of God, when pain comes into our lives, we do not despair. We can hurt very deeply; but we pour out our grief to God. David is not afraid to be passionate in God’s presence. And neither should we be.

The woman with the flow of blood gives us an example of confession. Confession is not sitting in a box talking to a priest, or even necessarily admitting sin. The word confession simply means to speak the truth. Telling God what we see and what we’ve experienced and how we’ve felt and what we’ve lived through. Yes, God already knows it – so did Jesus in our story. But Jesus knows this woman needs to tell her story, and so he listens… and he knows other people need to hear it, and so he asks her to speak. And the same is true of us. We all, each one of us, have a story to tell, and we all need to share it, and there people who need to hear it.

Some of you know I was doing some training in a retirement home recently and as part of my training I interviewed four residents and basically wrote their histories. I listened to their stories and wrote them down and illustrated them with photographs from ‘back in the day’. What started out as something kind of fun became a lot more as one resident found forgiveness for something that had been bothering him for decades, and another resident, in the early stages of Alzheimers, lost her husband and she now has something that will help her children and grandchildren remember. Our stories need to be told, and they need to be heard, and that’s part of God’s plan.

And Jairus gives us an example of how to ask God for what we need, and keep on asking, trusting God in spite of what we hear and see around us. Ask, and then trust. Jesus knows what he’s doing.

So as we walk through life, we seek to be open-hearted and passionate with God; completely open with God about our lives and our experiences; asking God for what we need and trusting God’s provision.

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, open our hearts toward you more and more, and open our lives to you, and build up faith in us, for our joy and for your honor and glory, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 6/28/15

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