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“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

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Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

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Psalm 119:97-104

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly is God’s law? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth – Can we love God’s law?

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

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

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

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

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

And ultimately, God’s law leads us to Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Welcome members of Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church!

Below are the scripture readings and sermon for Sunday February 15.

Sorry I won’t see you tomorrow morning but I hope everyone’s staying warm! ~ Peg

Scripture Readings

2 Kings 2:1-12 NRS Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9  When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

12  Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Mark 9:2-9  2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Sermon

“And he led them up a high mountain… and Jesus was transfigured before them.”

What must it have been like to be there with Peter, James and John on that mountain? To see someone you know, someone you’ve been friends with and traveled with, suddenly change before your eyes into something beyond human understanding of reality? To see important people from history standing in front of you alive and talking? To hear God’s voice speaking out loud?

The transfiguration is a one-of-a-kind thing. There’s nothing else exactly like it in recorded history. People sometimes see visions, but not quite like this. People sometimes hear voices, but not quite like this. People sometimes, when they’re nearing death, see the faces of loved ones who have gone before, but not people they’ve never met, let alone historical figures from thousands of years ago. Mark tells us Peter and the disciples were “terrified” at what they saw, which sounds like a very reasonable reaction! How do we go about getting a handle on what Mark is telling us?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “mountaintop experience” before. Most of us have had one at one time or another. A ‘mountaintop experience’ is a high point in life, a time when we get away from everyday life and spend quality time with God. It may or may not take place on a mountain, but often it does. It might be a retreat with the whole church family. One of my favorite places to go when I need a ‘mountaintop experience’ is Jumonville. Many of you have been there too. I love to walk around the woods up there, and to the top of the mountain where I stand at the foot of the cross. The beauty of nature and the kindness of the people who work there really help me to feel close to God.

A ‘mountaintop experience’ is a good place to begin to get a handle on what’s going on in Mark’s story. Like our own experiences, the disciples are getting away from the world and away from the crowds and spending some quality time with God. But that’s just a start.

Mountaintop experiences also have to do with vision. I don’t know about you but I do some of my best thinking when I’m sitting on a mountaintop. I planned a business once sitting on a mountain-top, a long time ago. My husband and I had our first date on a mountain-top. It was a weekend a lot like this one, snow everywhere, and it was quite a hike. We like to joke that we walked up the mountain friends and came back down dating. The day I went to talk to my pastor about maybe going to seminary, that was on a mountain-top too. Mountain-tops are great for getting fresh perspective, getting the big picture, surveying the horizon, or getting someone else’s insights on the big issues.

When we think about the experience Jesus had on that mountain it brings to mind one other mountain-top experience: the one Moses had toward the end of his life, when God told him to climb a mountain and be the first to look out over the Promised Land. In a way Jesus is doing the same thing. Jesus was physically transformed, for a moment, into his future self… or, to put it another way, Jesus’ true self became visible for a moment… as it says in the book of Revelation:

I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire… (Rev. 1:13-14)

The disciples were seeing Jesus – the real Jesus – for the first time.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah that day. But we do know, after this meeting, Jesus started talking to his disciples a lot about his death. He started preparing them (as much as they were able to receive it) for the events about to unfold.

So I imagine at least part of the conversation would have been Jesus getting input from Moses and Elijah on exactly how His ministry should unfold from that point on. Did Jesus know the Cross was coming? Most likely yes. The Old Testament scriptures point to it. Did Jesus want to go there? No; Jesus asked God in the Garden of Gethsemane many times to take the cup from him. He was probably double- and triple- checking the Old Testament for other options, getting the advice and input of two men who knew a lot about God’s master plan for salvation.

Of all the people who had ever lived, it made sense for Jesus to talk to Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets). Moses was the only person in history who had ever talked to God face to face and lived to tell about it. The book of Exodus tells us “the skin of his face was shining” after he talked to God (Exodus 34:30) so much so that Moses had to wear a veil over his face in order not to frighten the Israelites. Moses knew what it was like to shine like Jesus shined.

And Elijah was the one prophet in the Old Testament who never died. He was taken into heaven alive, as we read in the Old Testament reading today. Elijah was one of the first prophets in Israel, and he was best known for taking a stand against the worship of false gods. (Talk about a message that is relevant to our own day!) In the book of Kings, when King Ahab and his wife Jezebel tried to turn God’s people away from God, Elijah confronted them and said to the people:

“How long will you go limping along between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him.” (I Kings 18:21)

Elijah succeeded in turning the hearts of the people, at least some of them, back to God. Turning peoples’ hearts back to God was Jesus’ mission as well, so the two of them would have had plenty to talk about.

Moses was the man who received the Law, and would have been able to talk about why God commanded the sacrifice of a lamb for the guilt offering, and what it might mean to be the Lamb of God.

Moses would also have known what the apostle Paul shared in the book of Galatians about the relationship between salvation by promise (that is, God’s grace) as represented by Abraham, and salvation under the Law, as represented by Moses. Paul writes:

“once a will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. 16 Now [God’s] promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; [scripture] does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17 …the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made…”

Paul the Lawyer can be really tough to follow sometimes. To sort of translate what he said into English, what Paul is saying, and what Moses was most likely reminding Jesus of, is that Abraham was the chosen patriarch. The covenant, or the contract, or (as Paul puts it) the will, was God’s promise to Abraham. The law, on the other hand, God gave to Moses 430 years later as a means of confronting sin, of dealing with covenant-breaking on the part of God’s people. The law is meant to bring us to repentance; but it cannot bring us salvation because we can never be perfect. We can never keep it 100% perfectly. The covenant itself is not law, it is God’s promise. Or, as New Testament Christians would put it, salvation is by God’s grace received through faith, not by works, lest anyone should boast.

So Jesus is the one offspring of Abraham, the fulfillment of the Covenant, of God’s promise, as well as being the fulfillment of God’s law. Jesus is the one seed, the offspring through whom (as it says in Genesis) “all nations of the earth will be blessed”. (Genesis 22:18)

Whatever Moses and Elijah shared with Jesus that day, it certainly tied together everything that had gone before, it detailed God’s plan for salvation in the big picture view of history, and left Jesus with clarity of vision and purpose.

So where are we in this story? We’re obviously not Elijah or Moses, but their appearances – the fact that Moses comes back from the dead, and Elijah comes back from heaven – give us a glimpse of our future. Their appearance makes real the promise that this life is not all there is. There are times when the veil between this world and the next is pulled aside for a moment and we get a glimpse, too wonderful to describe in words, of the life to come. The Transfiguration is a moment like that. We can take great comfort in the appearance of these two fellow human beings who lived thousands of years ago and are still alive today.

But more clearly, we find ourselves standing with the disciples, at Jesus’ side, ready to do whatever is needed, including offering hospitality to visitors, and ready to bear witness to who Jesus is when the time is right.

We may find ourselves standing with Elisha in the Old Testament reading – loyal to the prophet Elijah and longing for a measure of his spirit. Elisha’s repeated words “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” remind us of Ruth and her words to her mother-in-law Naomi:

Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; (Ruth 1:16)

We may resonate with Elisha’s tender-hearted passion toward God, or perhaps his desire to take up the mantle (so to speak) of the generation before us and carry on God’s work.

We certainly stand with the disciples in hearing God say, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” It seems so often we do a lot of talking but not so much listening. I don’t know about you but I’m constantly having to remind myself, when I’m praying or reading scriptures, just to be silent and let God speak.  God’s words also remind me of Mary’s words at the wedding at Cana when she says to the wine stewards, “Do whatever Jesus tells you.”

And to be certain all of us stand with the disciples in beholding a vision and getting a foretaste of glory to come. By God’s grace we have a vision that will encourage us and sustain us even if hope itself seems lost. AMEN.

 

 

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Thank you for your prayers as I have been recovering from my latest mishap. The foot is doing well, improving a little bit every day… I’m still not able to drive yet but hopefully soon.

One of the things I’ve noticed about myself when I’m stuck at home recovering is, I end up watching LOTS reruns of Law & Order. Sometimes three or four episodes a day. I’m not usually a big TV watcher, but I think the appeal of the show has something to do with bringing hope into dark situations. When I see the characters working with victims of violence and oppression to bring criminals to justice, something about their struggle makes me feel stronger, makes me feel like fighting my way back to health.

I think that’s part of what attracts me to Psalm 17. Psalm 17 is a prayer written by David when he felt powerless and surrounded. He turns to God, and his faith finds renewed power, not in himself, but in God.

We don’t know for certain the context in which this prayer was written. Most likely it was when David was being pursued by King Saul. But the psalm is appropriate in many different situations. For example I can imagine Jesus praying this psalm when he learned about the plots against his life.

And it’s a prayer we can pray on behalf of others. Over the past few weeks many of us have been reflecting on, and praying over, events in the news. I don’t know about you but I find sometimes I run out of words to pray. When we look at the children at our border, or the Christians now homeless in Iraq, or the refugees in Gambella – what can we say to God about these things? We ask God for peace, for protection, for justice… and then what?

This psalm gives us a model of how we might pray.

We might pray for example for the people fleeing Mosul: Hear [their] just cause, O LORD; attend to [their cries]; give ear to [their] prayers…” (17:1)

Or for the children at our border (no matter where we stand politically) we might pray: “show [them] your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge” (17:7).

Or for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan we might pray: “hide [them] in the shadow of your wings, from the… enemies who surround them.” (17:8)

This psalm is also a prayer we can pray for ourselves when we find ourselves in trouble. If we should find ourselves bullied or lied about or falsely accused we can make David’s words our own. So there are lots of possible applications.

This morning though, under the influence of many episodes of Law & Order, I’d like to focus on four things in David’s prayer:

  • The victim
  • The judge
  • The perpetrators
  • The plea /argument

…because David’s language, the way he turns his phrases, is highly suggestive of a courtroom drama. David has been found guilty by his enemies, who are attempting to carry out a sentence they have pronounced. And David is appealing to a higher court: God’s court.

So our victim is the one who is praying. He says he has been judged unfairly, he is being oppressed, and his life is in danger. David cries out to God, “my cause is just; my lips are free of deceit. (17:1)” David is not saying that he is sinless. He’s not saying he has never told a lie. What he is saying is he’s innocent of whatever it is his enemies are accusing him of. David says he has done nothing to deserve their anger.

In fact, going beyond that, he says to God, “By the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent,” (17:4). David says he has been following the court’s instructions. His innocence is rooted in God’s word and God’s righteousness.

And going even further, in verse five David describes an intimate relationship with God. He says, “My steps have held fast to your paths…”(17:5) The picture that comes to mind is one of watching a parent teaching a child how to cross a stream without getting their feet wet… stepping from rock to rock as the water rushes by. The parent says to the child: “watch where I put my feet, and when I move a foot, put your foot where mine was.” And the child follows the parent across the stream. David is saying, in essence, “I have put my feet in your footprints, and my footsteps are firm.”

David’s comment about footsteps makes me stop for a moment and ask myself: are there people I can pray for whose footsteps are shaky, who need to find God’s footprints for themselves? Are there areas of my life where I can ask this for myself? Who can I pray for along these lines?

Next in David’s prayer we meet the judge. David says he is glad to be pleading his case before this judge because he knows he will get a fair hearing. “Your eyes see the right,” he says (17:2). “Your words have kept me from the ways of the violent” (17:4); “Your paths are firm,” (17:5) “I know you will answer me,” (17:6) “You are the savior of those who seek refuge.”(17:7) David is confident in the fairness of this judge, both because the judge is fair and because the judge is knowledgable. David’s words remind me of Paul’s comments in his defense before King Agrippa in the book of Acts, where he says to the king, “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you I am to make my defense today… because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.” Agrippa was intimately familiar with the issues; and so is David’s judge.

And when we pray, we can share David’s confidence, remembering God’s faithfulness and goodness. We are glad to make our case before a judge who understands.

David then turns his attention to the perpetrators. He describes them as ‘violent,’(17:4) ‘wicked,’ (17:9) ‘deadly enemies.’ (17:9) Twice he says he is surrounded. His enemies seek his life. Even though David does not come straight out and say ‘they’re trying to kill me,’ he says in verse eleven, “they set their eyes to cast me to the ground” – which could also be translated ‘they seek to make me horizontal in the dirt.’ In other words they want to bury him.

In verse ten David says of his enemies, “they close their hearts to pity.” This phrase at first makes the enemies sound cold-hearted and unfeeling, but that’s not exactly the meaning. His enemies do have feelings – just not for David. The literal translation of the Hebrew expression can be found in the King James version: “they are enclosed in their own fat”. They are passionate about themselves; they aggrandize themselves; and as David says, their mouths speak arrogantly.

Having said all this David then makes his plea to the righteous judge. He pleads “not guilty” because he is the victim. He says: Hear me. Vindicate me. Show me your steadfast love. Guard me. Hide me in the shadow of your wings.

It’s interesting that David does not ask God to kill his enemies. In verse 13 the ‘sword’ of God might be interpreted as God’s word – an interpretation we find in the book of Revelation as well. David asks instead that God confront his enemies and bring them down. The Hebrew here might be translated, ‘bring them to their knees’ – or to put it another way, ‘teach the arrogant to kneel before you’.

A few days ago during Ramadan a prayer request went around Facebook asking people to pray that members of ISIS and other radical groups would, in their holiday prayers, truly encounter the living God. That’s the sense I get from David’s plea – asking God to make Himself known to his accusers and so put an end to their violence.

When David is finished he makes one more request: “deliver me from mortals whose only portion in life is this world”. (17:14) David knows what God has stored up for them. He knows, as we know, that death will come someday and after that the judgement, and he prays that he will not share their fate. Instead, David prays in confidence: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” (17:15)

The apostle John echoes David’s words 1000 years later in his first letter when he says, : “we are God’s children; […] [and] when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) and Paul also in I Cor 13:12 “then we will see him face to face.

Even though David’s prayer is not answered right away, from the distance of history we know his words were heard and the righteous judge ruled in his favor. In the same way even though we may not see immediate answers to our prayers, we can have confidence that the same righteous judge hears our case; and as we follow in his footsteps, he will rule in our favor. AMEN.

Incarnation Church, Pittsburgh, Sunday August 3 2014

Psalm 17
A Prayer of David

Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
2 From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
3 If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
4 As for what others do,
by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
5 My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
6 I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
7 Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
8 Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They track me down;
now they surround me;
they set their eyes to cast me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion eager to tear,
like a young lion lurking in ambush.
13 Rise up, O LORD,
confront them, overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked,
14 from mortals—
by your hand, O LORD—
from mortals whose portion in life is in this world.
May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them;
may their children have more than enough;
may they leave something over to their little ones.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.

 

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Numbers begins with the first-ever census of Israel.  Scholars argue over the accuracy of the head-count, but that’s not the point.  The point is, essentially, a record of the first “draft” in Israel’s history.  The men of Israel are being conscripted into an army.  In the process, the people are organized into tribes, clans, and families… the basic structure of ancient Israeli society.

Most of chapter one is a series of repetitive paragraphs, as follows:

From the descendants of Reuben the firstborn son of Israel:  All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were listed by name, one by one, according to the records of their clans and families. The number from the tribe of Reuben was 46,500.

From the descendants of Simeon:  All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were counted and listed by name, one by one, according to the records of their clans and families. The number from the tribe of Simeon was 59,300.  (Numbers 1:20-23)

…and so on.  The sheer repetitiveness makes the modern reader want to skip ahead to chapter two.  But hold on a second!  There’s a reason why these paragraphs are repeated.  In ancient writings, repetition indicates importance.  So what is it that’s important here?  That everything was done fairly and in order?  That God’s commands were carried out?  That the names of tribal leaders would be remembered?  That all these people were important enough to God that they should be publicly acknowledged? I think yes… and more.

As I took time reading these paragraphs, my mind’s eye wandered to the scene at New York City’s Ground Zero and the reading of the names of those who died there.  I think maybe this was a similar moment.  The people of Israel had been through a great deal, and were now standing at the beginning of a covenant relationship with a mysterious and powerful G-d… and it was appropriate to take time to acknowledge each tribe and each man individually by name.

But there is one tribe that is not counted: the tribe of Levi.  The Levites were not to serve in the army but rather were to serve in the Tabernacle.  God will have more to say about this later.

While they’re at it, God also organizes the order in which the tribes are to move, and the pattern in which they are to camp.  Here’s an illustration:

The Wilderness Years: Israel’s Camp

Here’s where a careful study of the text offers a great deal.  Whenever Israel packed up and started moving, the easternmost tribes (to the right) would start out first.  They would be followed by the southern tribes (bottom), then the Levites with the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant (center), then western tribes (left), then the northern tribes (top).

Looking at the numbers:

  • The tribes of Judah and Dan (the first tribe and the rear guard tribe) were by far the largest and most powerful of the tribes, affording the people great safety.
  • When camped or when moving, the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were always surrounded by Levites and always in the center of the people — a beautiful picture of God being in the midst of them.
  • The weakest, smallest tribes — Benjamin and the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (interestingly, the descendants of the patriarch Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and therefore related to Joseph) — were always closest to God’s presence.  This is a recurring theme throughout scripture: God favors the poor and has mercy on the weak.

All of this speaks of a God who is remarkably consistent throughout scripture: a God who speaks, who knows the name of every individual, who cares about families and tribes, who provides protection for the poor and less fortunate.  A God worthy of praise.

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Parting the Red Sea (Exodus)

I’ve been re-reading the Pentateuch in preparation for the class of the same name that I’ll be taking next semester.  The first requirement of the course is to read the first five books of the Bible three times before the first day of class, and I think I’m just going to make it (this is the second go-’round).

One might expect this to be a very dry exercise… especially reading books like Numbers and Deuteronomy, which center around head-counts and legal codes respectively.  One might expect the material to be way too old to be relevant: why on earth would one spend time reading laws against eating shellfish and getting tattoos?  But I am finding these books both interesting and highly relevant.   And in the places where they seem anachronistic, asking “why?” and “how so?” produces interesting answers.

For any others who may be on a similar journey, or who may be exploring these books for themselves, here are a few pointers that I have found helpful:

  • Context is crucial.  Ancient societies (in this case, approx 1450 BC) did not operate on the same principles as the modern world.  We would look very strange if not downright bizarre to the people in these histories.  It is up to us to try to understand where they are coming from and what these words meant to them… which is no easy task.
  • Contemporary events: As this history is unfolding, ancient Egypt is the greatest power in the known world; ancient Greece is just getting its footing.  The Amenhotep Pharoahs are leading Egypt around this time; King Tut is still some time in the future.  The ink (so to speak) is still wet on the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.
  • Ownership of slaves, women, and children is assumed in ancient societies.  Polygamy is accepted and is a mark of wealth and success (“how many women and children can you afford?”)  Society is organized around families and tribes… communities headed by patriarchs rather than non-familial structures with hierarchies.  The Pentateuch has some interesting and sometimes unexpected things to say about all this.
  • Not everything in the Pentateuch is meant to be read as history, as we moderns understand history.  The reader will not find newspaper-reporter-like accuracy and attention to detail.  Some of the material here is historical; some is meant to be read as parable – fictional stories that have a moral point.  Some of it is historical in nature but not precisely so… sort of like a based-on-real-events TV movie, kinda-true but not factually accurate in all regards.  Resist the temptation to jump to conclusions too quickly about what is factual and what is parable.  The best preparation for reading ancient texts, IMO, is reading Native American writings.  A reader who can understand something as different-to-us as a Native American mindset will likely be able to grasp an ancient mindset as well.
  • Above all, pray for understanding while reading.  Being in touch with the author always helps. 😉

All that said, my next few posts will be reflections on interesting stuff I’m finding here.  Hope you enjoy the material as much as I have.

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When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)  (Word #6 of the Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross)

The sixth word of Jesus from the cross has a number of shadings of meaning.  In the Greek it is just one word: tetelestai, which can mean ‘it is finished’, ‘it is completed’, ‘it is accomplished’, or ‘it is fulfilled’.

One thing it does not mean is ‘I’m done for’.  Tetelestai is not a sigh of resignation.  It is a declaration of victory.  In spite of appearances – in spite of the tortured body we see on the cross – Jesus has accomplished everything He came to earth to do.  He has accomplished the salvation of humanity, and His death will open the door for us to eternal life.

In ancient Israel tetelestai was also a business term meaning ‘paid in full’.  Writing tetelestai at the bottom of a bill would be the same thing as stamping a “Paid” stamp in our day.  Jesus paid the price for our sins, and the debt has been paid in full.  It is over.  “It is finished.”   Our sins are done away with, and we are free and forgiven.

Paid In Full

If we hear nothing else today, we need to hear that.  Everything we’ve ever done wrong, every mistake we’ve ever made, has been paid for.  It is finished.

That said, there’s another angle that I never really noticed before a few days ago, and that is: God the Father and God the Son have been in control the whole time.  They decided when righteousness was fulfilled, and they decided when it was time for Jesus to leave the planet and come home.  As Jesus says in the Gospel of John,

I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17b-18)

In other words, it wasn’t finished until Jesus said it was finished.

If you had asked the political and religious leaders of Jesus’ day they would have told you a different story.  If you had asked Herod he would have said “I got rid of John the Baptist and then I got rid of that preacher friend of his. I sent Him off to Pilate dressed like a king – wearing a purple robe and a crown of thorns.  He and his followers are finished.”  And then Pilate washed his hands of Jesus’ blood and sent Him off to be crucified.  In Pilate’s eyes Jesus was finished.  But as Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…” (John 19:11)  It wasn’t finished until Jesus said it was finished.

The religious leaders were no better. They knew that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah.  They knew the writings the Old Testament.  But they had become rich and powerful in their religious careers and they weren’t about to step aside for Jesus. So they conspired against Him.   They even bought the cooperation of Judas, one of His twelve ‘inner circle’ disciples.  And as Jesus hung on the cross they ridiculed Him saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.  If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him.” (Matt 27:42)  But the suffering of the Messiah had been predicted by David and Isaiah and all the prophets.  Everything that day was unfolding just the way God planned it.  The religious leaders thought they had gotten rid of Jesus for good… but it wasn’t finished until Jesus said it was finished.

Before Jesus died, he lived long enough to see the first sinner come to saving faith in Him, when the thief on the cross next to him said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”.  Jesus was not going home to His Father empty-handed… He was bringing the first redeemed human being with Him.  For that thief on the cross it wasn’t finished until Jesus said it was finished.

And the same is true for us today.  I am reminded of a Gospel song called “It Ain’t Over Till God Says It’s Over”.  The first verse of the song goes like this:

I know the odds look stacked against you
And it seems there’s no way out
I know the issue seems unchangeable
And that there’s no reason to shout
But the impossible is God’s chance
To work a miracle
So just know
It ain’t over till God says it’s over
(Maurette Brown-Clark)

 Jesus won the victory on Calvary and if we allow Him to, He will win the victory in our lives as well.  We here in this time and place, post-Calvary and post-Resurrection, we live in between the now and the not yet: Jesus’ victory is complete, but history is still playing itself out.

Society may say Christianity is a thing of the past.  People may ridicule Christian beliefs… but it ain’t finished till Jesus says it’s finished.  There may be a situation in life that looks hopeless, and we can’t find a way out… but it ain’t finished till Jesus says it’s finished.  People sometimes say our little parish church is done for… they say we don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough money… but it ain’t finished till Jesus says it’s finished.  God has ways that we can’t even begin to imagine, as we see so clearly at Calvary.

So here in the darkness of Good Friday… and in the darkness of our world… Jesus declares, “it is finished”.  The price has been paid.  The victory is won.  And when we come to the end of our days, we can say with confidence, as Jesus did, “Father into Your hands I commend my spirit”.  Until that day, it ain’t finished till Jesus says it’s finished.  AMEN.

~ Preached at Church of the Atonement, Good Friday 2012 ~

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