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Advent Hymn: Toda la Tierra (All Earth is Waiting) – Alberto Taule

  1. All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
    and open furrows await the seed of God.
    All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
    it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

    2. Thus says the prophet to those of Israel:
    ‘A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel,’
    one whose name is ‘God with us’ our Saviour shall be;
    with him hope will blossom once more within our hearts.

    3. Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
    open new highways, new highways for the Lord.
    He is now coming closer, so come all and see,
    and open the doorways as wide as wide can be.

    4. In lowly stable the Promised One appeared;
    yet feel his presence throughout the earth today,
    for he lives in all Christians and is with us now;
    again, with his coming he brings us liberty.

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

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In the darkest days of the Civil War, a poet had a son who was serving in the army.  The poet, whose name was Longfellow, wrote a poem that later became a Christmas carol. Some of you may know it:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head: “there is no peace on earth” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men”

Then pealed the bells more wild and sweet: “God is not dead nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men”

Our Advent hymn for today is called All the Earth is Waiting – and it has roots in a similar kind of background.  Where Longfellow’s carol has a backdrop of the Civil War, our Advent hymn has a backdrop of World War II and the civil unrest in South America in the 1960s and 1970s.  All the Earth is Waiting was written by a Catholic priest named Taulè, who lived in Spain but was educated in Italy just after WWII.  So he lived through WWII, and he had personal experience of life during wartime. For those of us who have parents or grandparents who lived through WWII (and some here may still remember WWII) you know it became a defining moment for that generation. It effected their lives from that point forward. And the same is true of these poets.

Neither Longfellow nor Taulè were personally involved in the wars, but they had deep relationships with those who were.  And in both cases the poets, in their songs, grieve the evil they see in the world: the hate, wrongdoing, mockery of good, violence, injustice, bondage, and despair.  And in both cases the poets find their hope in God.

Sounds like songs for our time, don’t they?

Taulè takes many of the ideas in his hymn from Isaiah 40, which is our lectionary reading for this morning. And Isaiah’s words are exactly what the poets were longing to hear in those violent days. Isaiah writes:

“Comfort, comfort my people” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity is pardoned.” A voice cries in the wilderness: “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

And when the mouth of the Lord speaks, things happen. Remember Genesis: God says, “Let there be light” and light happens.

This is what the hearts of our poets are crying out for. And is this not the message our world needs to hear, and longs to hear?

Isaiah continues:

A voice says: “Cry!” and I answer, “what shall I cry?”  All flesh is grass and all its goodness like the flower of the field. The grass dries, the flower falls, because the spirit of the Lord blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord stands forever.

Go up onto a high mountain, O Zion, bringing good tidings; lift your voice without fear and say to the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!”  Behold – the Lord God comes with a strong arm to rule. His wages are with him and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom; and gently lead those with young.”

This passage in Isaiah is not all sweetness and light. It speaks of the end of the world as we know it. It speaks of a time when people will be rewarded for what they have done, for good or for evil. And then the new world begins, where God will ‘gather the lambs in his arms’.

So the coming of the Christ Child is the beginning of the end for the powers of this world. And the powers of this world know it. That’s why, when Jesus was born, King Herod wanted so badly to put an end to this baby in the manger – why, when the wise men returned to their country without telling Herod where Jesus was, Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys under the age of two. The powers of this world don’t like being told they’re only temporary and their replacement has arrived!

With this prophecy in mind, then, we turn to our song for today. Verse one opens with the words: “All the earth is waiting” – and it sure is. As Paul writes in Romans:

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves… while we wait for adoption…” (Rom. 8:22-23)

All the earth is waiting. This is the definition of Advent: waiting for the Christ Child to arrive, and waiting for King Jesus to return. Advent looks forward to both the birth of the baby and the return of the King.

“…waiting to see the Promised One…”  “Open furrows await the seed of God”

The poet takes his word-pictures from the farmlands of Spain and South America, as well as from Jesus’ parable about the seed and the various types of soil it might land in. The seed is the Word of God – that is, Jesus. The open furrows are the hearts of people who prepare for the arrival of Jesus by waiting and watching and praying.

The song continues:

“All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for truth”

If these words sound like something from the protests of the late 1960s – they are.  But we can still find meaning in these words for our own time.  Our world is indeed struggling. We see this on the news every day, even on Facebook.  Our world is bound – as Pastor Matt said in his letter this month, when he wrote: “all around us we see folks in slavery to greed, to lust, to pride, to violence, to anxiety, to alcohol or other drugs, and most sadly, to despair.”  With the poet our hearts long for freedom and a better world.

And so we go on to verse two. “The prophet says to those of Israel” – that is, to God’s people – “a virgin will bear Emmanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’.  This verse is a direct quote from Isaiah 7:14 where Isaiah says:

“the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

In verse three the songwriter turns back to Isaiah 40, where he writes:

“Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
open new highways, new highways for the Lord”

This is a quotation from both Isaiah 40:3-5 and from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  For example, in Matthew 3:1-3 Matthew writes:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

So Matthew quotes Isaiah 40, and so do Mark and Luke. What these passages make clear is that John the Baptist’s ministry is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: John is the one Isaiah predicted whose voice would cry out in the wilderness. And the raising of valleys and the lowering of mountains is a metaphor that stands for repentance.

Jesus’ mother, Mary, sings about the same thing in Luke 1 in the Magnificat, when she says:

“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

There’s a double meaning here.  If we look at John the Baptist’s message, which is a message of repentance – he says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – this is a spiritual interpretation of valleys being lifted and the mountains being lowered.  Those who know they are sinners, who are ‘lowly of heart’ as Isaiah would say, who are ‘meek’ and ‘poor in spirit’ as Jesus would say – will repent of the sins of self-reproach and fear, and will be forgiven and will be lifted up.  And those who know they are sinners, who have been puffed up or proud or rude, will confess their sins and will be forgiven, and will be permitted to return to their proper place. (And the ground becomes level.)

The second meaning of the double meaning is found in Mary’s message: and that is repentance in society. The needs of the poor will one day be filled; and wealth of the great ones will one day come to nothing. (And the ground becomes level)

I do want to warn against one mistake that crops up sometimes in the interpretation of this hymn. The wording the songwriter uses in verse three – for example, “Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain…” – may lead people to believe we need to get busy lowering mountains and raising valleys. But it is not our job to usher in the second coming of Christ.

This error in thinking began in the middle of the previous century, where there were two equal and opposite social movements, one on the left and one on the right (echoes of which are still with us today), that made this mistake.  Both were built on what were originally Biblical principles, but both became movements that were willing to use political power and force if necessary to achieve their goals. Both are mistaken because they try to bring in God’s kingdom through human power. In other words, they believed if we properly set the stage by the perfection of our society, then Jesus will have to return. And that is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches this world will continue to be a mess until Jesus comes back. God’s kingdom will arrive in God’s timing, by God’s power, in God’s way. It’s not our job to remake the mountains and the valleys.

That said, Isaiah’s words still stand. There will come a time when the high will be lowered and the low lifted up and the crooked made straight and the rough made smooth, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

Which takes us back to our hymn, in verse four: “In a lowly stable the Promised One appeared” – this is the heart of Christmas! God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. Jesus left the glories of heaven to become one of us, to live and die just like us, to experience all the joys and sorrows of life here on earth, God with us, and we still feel his power and presence in the world today.

And as the song says, God lives in all Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit.  But that’s almost beside the point, because it’s not primarily through us that God sets the world free. We have the privilege of sharing in the work of heaven: we do our part to care for others and set people free, because as children of God, we are learning to become more and more like our heavenly Parent. But Jesus is the one who sets us free from captivity to sin and death.

Our Advent song for today is not an easy song to sing. It talks about hardship and heartbreak, captivity and injustice, and it reminds us that our world is a world of great need.  It calls us to work to meet those needs. But I think the songwriter’s hope in writing this hymn was that we would find in it a sense of expectation, that we would look forward to the Promised One who is ‘God with us’ – who comes in the virgin’s womb, who comes in the stable, who comes on earth today, who comes in all Christians, and who is with us now; and that we would see Jesus as a bringer of liberty, and justice, and truth. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.”

So during this season of Advent, let’s prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus by repenting of sin – and not ours only, but also the sins we see in the world around us. When we read the newspaper, or watch TV, we can bring what we see to God in prayer, and pray for the day when the world will be set free from captivity to sin.

We live in the ‘now and the not yet’. Jesus has come, Jesus has won the victory, and we are set free, but the mopping-up operation isn’t over yet.  So be watchful while we wait. Thank God for what He has already done, and thank God for what is yet to come… and keep watch, because the King is coming. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/10/17

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[Jesus said] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:14-30

[The apostle Paul writes:] “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!  4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.  6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;  7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” – I Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

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Well today is kind of a weird Sunday. We’re at the end of Fall but not quite at Christmas. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King and the week after that Advent starts. This week is Thanksgiving, and that’s sort of today’s theme, but there are no turkeys in Scripture, and our readings for today talk about Jesus coming back to earth at the end of time, which is usually something we hear about in Advent.

So we could consider today a sneak preview of Advent.

So at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, I think a message of encouragement will be a good thing. And of the two readings for today, Paul’s words in I Thessalonians are more encouraging, so I’m going to leave Paul for last, and we’ll start with the story from Matthew.

Our reading in Matthew is a familiar parable. Jesus told this story to the disciples a day or two before he died on the cross, so in a sense, these are a dying man’s last words. (There are actually three parables in Matthew 25, and together they make up Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples – and to us – on how to live a life of faith when Jesus is no longer here on earth in the flesh.)

Just to kind of fill in the rest of the chapter briefly – the first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, five of whom took extra oil with them and five of whom did not – and when the groom (who was late) finally arrived, the five who weren’t ready ran out of oil, and had to go get more, and they ended up being locked out of the wedding feast. The moral of the story being, stay awake and be prepared.

The third parable in the chapter is the story of the lambs and the goats on judgement day. The King says to the lambs on his right hand “welcome into my Father’s kingdom – for I was hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison and you took care of me…”.  And then he says to the goats on his left, “depart from me, evildoers, because you didn’t do these things.”  And both the sheep and the goats reply, “when did we ever do this (or not do this) for you?”  And Jesus answers, “just as you did it to one of the least of these (or didn’t do it), you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

Both stories tell us that what we do with our lives matters.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith.  Salvation is totally a gift from God; but as Martin Luther pointed out, faith without works is dead.  If we really believe, what we believe in will show up in how we live.

Today’s parable about three servants and their talents reinforces this point. So turning to the story…

There’s a rich man – a very rich man – who is going away on a long journey. While he’s away he wants his servants to take over management of what he owns. The rich man of course represents God, and the servants represent us – not just us present here today, but all people.

As for the talents – in Jesus’ day a talent was a measure of weight that was used to weigh things like gold or silver or bronze.  We don’t know exactly how much a talent was worth (depending on which book you read, a talent may have been worth anywhere from tens of thousands to 1.5 million), but the point is: each servant was given, basically, a lifetime’s wages. And that amount would be somewhat different for each person, just like it is for us.

The talents, then, represent what God has given us: our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our families, our abilities, all the things that make up who we are. These gifts are all God’s, but he hands over to our care.  He gives one servant five talents, another two talents, another one talent.

Is God playing favorites here? No. God knows each person, and gives what’s appropriate to each person.  Having more talents doesn’t make someone a better person – it just means that person has more work to earn!  And having fewer talents doesn’t mean a person’s efforts are less important. Remember the story of the widow’s mite: Jesus said the poor widow who gave two pennies gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had.  So it’s not about how many talents we have – it’s what we do with what we’ve been given.

So the first and second servant go out and trade with their master’s talents, and they double what they’ve been given: the one with five talents makes five more, and the one with two makes two more.  But the third servant… I’m going to come back to him in a moment.

Up to this point the story reminds me of Shark Tank on TV. Shark Tank is a reality show about rich investors (called “Sharks”) and average people like you and me who go to the Sharks with business proposals. And if the ideas are good a Shark will invest, giving the business owner money and advice on growing their business, and in a matter of years (or sometimes just months) an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars turns into millions. And both the Shark and the business owner are thrilled!

Of course God doesn’t need money, but God is an investor.  God invests in us!  And our job is like those business owners on Shark Tank: to take the talents God gives us, and the guidance God gives us, and make a profit with it.

So what would a profit look like in the kingdom of God?  It could take on many forms. Winning souls for Jesus, perhaps. Providing food and clothing to people after hurricanes. Building friendships between people from different countries. Bringing justice into an unjust situation. Welcoming strangers. Could be any number of things. Through prayer God guides us in investing the talents we have been given.

And imagine the joy of standing before God on that day and saying, “Look, you gave me these gifts and I made more!” And hearing God say, “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!”  No matter how many talents we’ve been given, the reward is the same: “Well done!”

So what’s up with the guy with the one talent? I could never figure out where he’s coming from.  Look at the things he says to God: “Master, I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matt 25:24-25)

Where does he get this? How does his brain get to the point of saying to God, “you’re a hard man” when God is neither hard nor a man?

For those of us who know God, this guy sounds completely out in left field. So where are his words coming from?  One theologian makes a good point when he says (paraphrasing) “one way or another, every stubborn sinner ends up blaming his sins on God.” In other words, what the man is saying is what psychologists would call denial and projection: looking at someone else and seeing a reflection of himself instead of what’s really in front of him.

So servant number three blames God for his own shortcomings, insults and falsely accuses God to his face, and then hands him one lousy coin covered with dirt. Is it any surprise the master says, “you wicked and lazy servant! The least you could have done was earn some interest! Take away his talent and give it to the one with ten, and throw him out into the darkness!”

Bottom line, we do not want to be this guy. We want to see God as God is: the loving Lord, the gracious God, the source of all good things, who wants us to do well and wants us to enter into the joy of our master.

And at this point, then, we turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul and his hearers would likely have been familiar with this story Jesus told here.  And Paul picks up the theme, saying, “you know the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Paul writes, “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thess 5:3).  (I think the “they” Paul is talking about are those guys with the one talent. “They” are false prophets.)

Paul continues: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness” (I Thess 5:4)  Darkness may represent lostness, confusion, lack of direction, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, lack of knowledge, lack of connectedness with God. Darkness is where people hide when they don’t want to be seen.  And darkness is where the guy with one talent ends up living.

But Paul says, “you belong to the day.”( v. 8)  Therefore, he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (I Thess 5:8)

Look at that equipment for a moment: faith and love, as a breastplate, to protect our hearts… and the hope of salvation as a helmet to protect our minds. And faith, hope, and love, these three (the greatest of which is love) which will direct us in investing our talents.

Paul adds, “so awake or asleep we may live with him.” (I Thess 5:10)

Therefore encourage each other. Encourage each other to good works, to investing talents wisely, to investing ourselves in God’s kingdom.  And likewise encourage the church to good works, and to faith and hope and love.

And I would add, when you see something, say something.  If you see someone using their talents, or see the church using its talents, say so.  Spread the good news! Give thanks to God, and give thanks to the people involved.

See… I knew we’d get around to Thanksgiving somehow.  Thanks be to God, who gives us the talents, and who gives us the hope and the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip, 11/19/17

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

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Artwork: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh

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Today’s parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a familiar story for clergy and congregations alike. It is – or at least seems to be – a straightforward story with a simple message, which is: “be ready.” Or “be prepared” as the Boy Scouts would say.

But as I was looking at this parable this week, I realized it’s not quite that simple.  Being prepared is only part of Jesus’ point.  The main point is in the last sentence following the word therefore: “Therefore keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (And some translations add, “in which the Son of Man comes.”)

So Jesus is talking about his return at the end of the age, and his main point is nobody knows when he’s coming back.

Jesus isn’t telling us this parable to make us paranoid. We don’t need to be thinking, every minute of every day, “what would Jesus say if he came back right now and saw me doing this?” It’s not like the old t-shirt that says, “Jesus is coming… look busy!”

Jesus is not trying to make us unbearably self-concious.  But he is telling us to be aware of how we invest our time.  We only have so much time in this life to get to know God, and to grow up into the children of God we were born to be. So Jesus is saying “stay awake, stay on your toes!”

And yet… as we look at this story of the bridesmaids, we see that none of them stays awake!  The wise ones and foolish ones alike grow drowsy and nod off.

So if Jesus’ point is “stay awake”, and none of the bridesmaids manage to do that, then what?

Often in scripture when Jesus told parables, the disciples would pull him aside later and ask, ‘what did you mean by that?’… but in this case they didn’t. So I think our best bet is to start with what we know, and then work our way into what’s less clear. And there are at least five things that we know about this story:

First, we know this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says so in the first sentence: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this”. So the story is about the time, sometime in the future, when God will restore creation to its original glory at the end of the age.

Second, this parable is the first of three parables Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 25 about the end of the age.  The other two parables are: (1) the parable of the talents (where three men are given 10 talents, 5 talents, and 1 talent, respectively, and the first two go out and earn more, but the third man buries his talent and gives the master back only the one. Jesus says to the first two “well done good and faithful servant” but says to the last “you wicked and lazy servant”.  And then parable number (2) is the parable of the sheep and the goats on the judgement day, when Jesus says to the sheep on his right hand “come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom” but says to the goats on his left hand, “depart from me into the eternal fire”.  And both the sheep and the goats say to him, “When did we ever see you hungry or naked or in need, and help you (or not help you)?” And Jesus answers “as much as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of these, you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

So in all three parables in Matthew 25, the human race is being divided into two groups, based on what each person did in their lives. And one group is welcomed into the kingdom and the other group is not.

These stories make us uncomfortable: because if we truly love our fellow human beings we don’t ever want to think of anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom.  (Which by the way is why mission and outreach are so critically important.)

On top of that it’s frightening to hear Jesus say words like “I don’t know you” and “depart from me” – because we begin to wonder if we’ve done enough in our lives… and we cry out to God for mercy (which is exactly the right thing to do, because our God is gracious and delights in showing mercy).

Third, we know that Jesus told these parables only two or three days before he went to the cross.  They are part of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples.  In a way they’re a dying man’s last words.  Jesus is not going to be with the disciples much longer, so he’s telling them – and us – what we’re going to need to know in his absence.

Fourth, we know what some of the people and events in the parable represent.  We know the bridegroom represents Jesus, and the bridegroom’s arrival represents Jesus’ second coming. The bridesmaids in this story represent the people who follow Jesus, that is, churchgoers or Christians. (In most end-time parables in the Bible, the church is represented by the Bride. But in this particular story we don’t see the bride, and the church is represented by the bridesmaids.)

Fifth, we hear Jesus repeating himself.  In Matt. 24:36 he says “about that day and hour no one knows.” In Matt. 24:44 he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and in Matt. 25:13 he says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When Jesus repeats himself three times – we need to be paying attention!

So with all this as background, let’s take a look at the story.

Jesus says: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  There were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

Of course wedding traditions have changed over the years.  Back in those days, the wedding was arranged, and the couple made their promises and vows (such as they were) at the betrothal.  The groom would then go and prepare a place for his bride – build a house, furnish it, gather together whatever was needed to raise a family – and when everything was ready, the invitation to the wedding feast would go out. On that day the groom would come and claim his bride from her father’s house, and take her to the banquet, and from there they would go home to their new home together.

And when the invitation went out it didn’t read “wedding at four, reception at six” like in our day. The invitation would arrive word-of-mouth and would tell the date of the groom’s arrival, and that’s all!  Usually the groom would arrive after dark, so the job of the bridesmaids was to light the path for the groom to the banquet hall. Partly this was to make the path visible, and partly it was a beautiful thing to see, it set the mood.

So the bridesmaids have only one job: to carry lamps to provide light.

So the bridesmaids who were wise took extra oil with them, in case the groom might be delayed.  The bridesmaids who were foolish figured, “naaah, he’ll be on time” and didn’t bother to bring anything extra.

And as it happened, the groom was delayed.  In fact he was much later than expected, and all the bridesmaids, whose job was to watch and wait and light the path, fell asleep.  And then at midnight the cry came, “the groom is here! Come out to meet him!”  And the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps and went out to light the way, but the foolish bridesmaids realized their lamps were going out.

So they said to their companions “give us some of your oil”. But the wise said, “No. If we do, we won’t have enough for ourselves. Go to the vendors and buy some.”

This may sound like a cold-hearted answer, especially after all the things Jesus has taught us about generosity and giving and sharing. Why would they say “no”? (Especially considering the oil vendors weren’t likely to be open at midnight.)

Because the wise bridesmaids are right: at a time like this, each of us must supply our own oil. Because the oil in the story represents our relationship with with God: and that’s something each one of us must do for ourselves. God has no stepchildren. Each of us individually must become children of God, believing in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to forgive our sins, and praying to receive the Holy Spirit. Nobody can do it for us.

So the story continues: the foolish bridesmaids dash off to try to find an oil vendor, and while they’re gone, the groom arrives, and the wise bridesmaids light his way to the feast, and they all go in, and the door is shut.

Some time later – probably hours later – the foolish bridesmaids return with their lamps and their oil (which are no longer needed at this point because the sun is coming up) and they say “open the door to us – we’re part of the wedding party too.” But the bridegroom says to them, “I don’t know you.”

…God forbid…

It’s tempting to take this story to mean that the things we do in our lives earn us a place at the heavenly banquet. It’s tempting to think Jesus is teaching ‘salvation by works’. But that’s not the meaning at all.  It is impossible for anyone to earn their way into heaven.

What Jesus is describing here, in the lives of these bridesmaids, are actions and habits of mind that are the result of, and the outworking of, what the people in the story truly believe. And this is true in all three of the parables in Matthew 25: whether bringing extra oil, or investing talents, or giving food and water to the hungry and thirsty, are all done because the people in the story know and believe and love God.

Jesus says, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When the cry goes out, “the bridegroom is here!” – it will be too late to develop the habits of mind, or to invest the talents, or to fill our lamps with the Holy Spirit’s oil.

In our parable, when all the bridesmaids sleep – while it’s not clear from the story – this may represent the sleep of death.  Because when Jesus returns, the vast majority of people who have lived on the earth, including ourselves, will most likely have passed into eternal slumber.  And it is Jesus’ voice that will call us back to life when that day comes.  It is always, always, God’s power and God’s grace that saves us.  We can’t save ourselves, any more than a dead person can raise themselves. But when Jesus calls, we will rise.

And when he calls, we will pick up our lamps and light the way to the wedding feast. And the things we have done for God in our lifetime – having faith, trusting God, receiving the Holy Spirit, obeying God’s word, loving and caring for God’s people – these things will become the oil in our lamps.

In the Greek, the ‘foolishness’ of the foolish bridesmaids is not a matter of intelligence or education.  The Greek word has shades of moral meaning. In the Greek definition, wisdom is knowing what is right and doing it.  Foolishness is knowing what is right and choosing not to do it, or to put it off.

As a side note, for those of us who have experienced setbacks in life – difficulties in careers, or in relationships, or in education – or who have had family issues, or health issues, or have faced poverty or neglect or violence – these things do not exclude us from Godly wisdom. God says in Isaiah 42:3, speaking of the Messiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish”. So each one of us should take whatever light we have, and go and meet the bridegroom.

But for those who say “ahhh, there’s always tomorrow” – “I’ll take care of it tomorrow” – “I’ll do what God wants eventually” – “I don’t have to deal with my bad habits today. There’s always tomorrow” – no, there isn’t always tomorrow.

I know many people here have already made the decision to follow Jesus and are already working on putting oil in their lamps.  I encourage you to keep on doing that.

If there are any here who have not yet decided to follow Jesus and would like to, please see me after the service.  And if there’s anyone here still thinking “I’ve still got tomorrow” – there’s no guarantee of that. Don’t wait.

The parable of the bridesmaids basically reminds us to stay on our toes, spiritually speaking.  To keep on with prayer; to keep on with reading scripture (both on our own and together with others), to keep on helping those in need, and to keep on staying close to our Lord Jesus. Because ultimately the oil comes from him… and only a foolish bridesmaid would look for it anywhere else.

God’s blessings as we struggle to stay awake and keep our lamps burning. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/12/17

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Nine years ago I wrote a post called “What Is the Great Cloud of Witnesses?” that talked about the saints who have gone before us — both those whose names are known in the Bible or in history, and those whose names are known by very few.

All of them together make up the “great cloud of witnesses” — people whose lives and actions have shown us the goodness and saving power of God, people who I believe are now in God’s kingdom cheering us on.

At the end of the original post I invited readers to write the names of the people in their own cloud of witnesses (suggesting first names only for privacy).  Today, All Saints Day, I wanted to open that invitation again.  Below please share the names of the people you know who are in the Great Cloud of Witnesses in glory with God.

Thanks be to God for their prayers and their love.

 

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“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Romans 8:1-9

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Luther

500 years ago this week was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To be exact, 500 years ago on Oct 31, 1517.  On that day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, hoping to inspire reform in the Catholic Church, but instead his words inspired thousands of people to join in the protest, and these people became known as ‘protest-ents’ or ‘Protestants’.

This 500th anniversary, then, is not so much something to celebrate as it is to remember. We don’t celebrate division in the church, because we believe in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ and one eternal destiny for all who love God. There is no division in Jesus.

So Reformation Day for us is kind of like Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day we don’t celebrate war because war is not a thing to celebrate; but we honor those who served, and especially we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom.

In the same way, when we remember the Reformation, we honor those men and women who stood up for God, who stood up for truth and justice, who stood up for God’s word, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could know God.

So it is fitting to remember the events that happened 500 years ago.

By the time Luther was born, the church in Rome had held practically unquestioned power over the churches in Western Europe for nearly 1000 years.  (Eastern Europe and Asia were led by the Orthodox Church, and Africa by the Coptic Church, but neither of these had much influence in western Europe.) And, as often happens, power corrupts.

Luther was a Catholic monk and priest who wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church from the inside.  At the same time there were many other monks, nuns, and religious scholars who loved God and studied the scriptures, and as they studied – and as they did their best to bring their lives into line with God’s will as they understood it – the more they ran into difficulty with Rome.

The issue that finally sparked the Reformation, at least in the public eye, was the issue of selling indulgences.  (Like most issues, even today, there’s what’s happening in the public eye and then there’s what’s really happening behind the scenes. The issue in the public eye was selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were – and to some extent still are in the Catholic Church – ways “to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after one dies. This has nothing to do with salvation. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, even a person who is saved still needs to be cleansed (or “purged”) of their sins before entering heaven.  So a person passes through purge-atory or purgatory. And indulgences were meant to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. In our day indulgences can be earned by (for example) making a pilgrimage to a holy place, or by performing good works; but in Luther’s day indulgences were for sale and the money was used for things like repairing the Sistine Chapel or furnishing the Pope’s living quarters.

Martin Luther first became aware of this when he traveled to Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery.  At that time Luther was a young and idealistic monk, and he couldn’t wait to see the Holy City with his own eyes.  When he arrived, he fell to his knees and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here!” – referring to Peter and Paul, who had been martyred in Rome.

But what Luther discovered in the church in Rome shocked and disillusioned him. He witnessed gluttony, and gambling, and any number of vices, and very little concern for the poor.  Later on Luther described his visit this way – he wrote: “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell…”

And indeed history tells us the Catholic church was in deep trouble at this point in time. There were many people inside the church at that time trying to work for reform; Luther was by far not the only one.

But Luther returned home to Germany in a spiritual dilemma. The question he was asking himself was not ‘how can I be a part of this corrupt organization?’ – in those days a person didn’t simply walk away from the Roman Catholic church – there was nowhere else to go. But Luther’s dilemma was this: how can any person be good enough for God?  When Luther saw sin in others, he was humble enough to see it in himself as well.  And he knew God’s standards were impossible for any human being to meet.

Luther wrote:

My situation was that, although [I was] an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy] (assuage) [God]. Therefore I did not love a just, angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.

 In other words, Luther was angry at God for demanding the impossible.

But when Luther read Romans 1:17 it stuck in his mind. In that verse Paul writes: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Luther wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean… that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. […]

Let me step aside here for a second, because Luther’s interpretation, Luther’s understanding – that the “righteousness of God” had to do with God justly punishing the unrighteous sinner – was the common understanding of God’s righteousness in those days.  This was the definition taught by Thomas Aquinas and other leading theologians for 400 years before Luther was born. Righteousness by grace through faith had been almost completely lost, and it had been replaced by church traditions like making pilgrimages or buying indulgences.  It calls to mind the words of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Matt 15:6)

As a result Luther took no comfort in the very words that Paul had written to comfort imperfect people.

Luther continues in his writing:

Yet I clung to Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”

It is my prayer for all of us, myself included, that we will hold onto God with the tenacity that Martin Luther did, and never let go.  Because all of us, at one time or another, will have issues with God, or with the scriptures, or questions we can’t find answers to.  I pray we will keep on holding onto God and keep on digging for answers, and not give up, until (as it did for Luther) doubt becomes certainty and faith becomes sight.

Martin Luther later wrote that this moment of revelation was the true beginning of the Reformation; the ‘real story behind the scenes’. This was the moment when Luther took God at God’s word, and it’s what made all the difference.

With his new understanding of grace and faith, the selling of indulgences – which before had looked like a simple injustice – now is understood as actually blocking people’s access to God’s forgiveness.  Luther could no longer remain silent.

So he brought the issue to the church’s attention on October 31, 1517.  And the church would not tolerate what it saw as heresy and mutiny. Luther was excommunicated and probably would have been martyred if he had not been kidnapped by his friends and carted off to an old castle.  While in hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (which was also not permitted by the church, because Latin was the only language permitted in the church). But Luther believed the people should be able to read the scriptures in their own language, and so he made the translation.

Luther survived all the death threats and legal actions that were taken against him, but not everyone who supported him did.  In 1523, two years after Luther’s “kidnapping”, the first Lutheran martyrs were burned at the stake. Two years after that, Luther was visited by the English scholar Tyndale, who (at Luther’s encouragement) published the first English translation of the New Testament. Tyndale paid for it with his life: he was hung and then burned at the stake.

I think it’s important to remember, whenever we pick up our Bibles, that people have given their lives so we could have this.  Just like we give thanks for those who have died for our freedoms, even more so we give thanks for those who died so God’s word and God’s promise of eternal life could be ours.

So in the coming week as we think about the Reformation:

  • When you have a moment look over the Reformation Timeline. There was a lot happening in the world during Martin Luther’s lifetime, and this helps make sense of the events that were happening during the Reformation.
  • The Reformation reminds us God takes sin seriously – as true today as back in Luther’s day. Luther was on the mark with the questions he was asking. He understood what the scriptures were saying.  God does require righteousness, and the requirement is  But rather than leading us to despair, scripture leads us to…
  • … God’s gift of righteousness by grace through faith. Two hundred years later, give or take a few decades, John Wesley was as firm and clear about this as Luther was. Wesley wrote:“All the blessings God has bestowed upon men and women are of his grace, his free, undeserved favor. We have no claim to the least of His mercies.

    “It was… grace that “formed [people] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into [them] living souls,” and stamped on [those souls] the image of God. The same free grace continues to us… And whatever righteousness may be found in us… is also the gift of God.

    Wesley continues: “With what then can we atone for even the least of our sins? With our works? Even if our works are many and holy, they are not our own, but God’s. Therefore, having nothing — neither righteousness nor works… our mouths are (utterly) stopped before God. If, then, we find favor with God, it is “grace upon grace!” “Christian faith is a full reliance on the blood of Christ; it is a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection.” “By grace you have been saved through faith.”

Wesley understood where Luther was coming from.  And in the 500 years since Luther, the message hasn’t changed, and the faith hasn’t changed, and God’s grace and mercy haven’t changed.  Our job is to be true to the faith we have received, from the saints who have gone before us, and pass it on to the people we know and to the next generation.

With thanks to God for His great grace and mercy, AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/29/17

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This week marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenburg, in hopes of inspiring reform in the Catholic Church. Instead he inspired the Protestant movement.

As with all events in history, context is critical in understanding the events that were unfolding, and the century Luther lived in was stunning in its creativity and genius. With this in mind I put together a very basic timeline of events in and around the Protestant Reformation, to give some background to Luther’s story. Enjoy.

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Reformation Timeline

1452 – Leonardo daVinci born

1455 – Gutenberg invents the movable-type printing press. Gutenberg Bible printed.

1473 – Copernicus born

1473 – Michelangelo born

1481 – Spanish Inquisition begins

1483 – Martin Luther born

1492 – Columbus sails to the New World, discovers corn

1494 – earliest record of Scots making whiskey

1495 – daVinci begins The Last Supper

1496 – Michelangelo begins the Pieta

1502 – Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, founds the University of Wittenburg

1505 – Luther becomes an Augustinian monk

1507 – Luther ordained priest, celebrates first mass

1508 – Luther appointed to teach at the University of Wittenburg

1509 – John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, is born

1509 – Henry VIII becomes King of England

1510 – Luther walks to Rome (approx 1000 miles) on a pilgrimage for his order (the Augustinians). He arrives with high hopes, but is “shocked by the lack of morality and piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of the Pope Leo X”

1513 – Luther’s “Tower Experience”: the meaning of Romans 1 (salvation by grace through faith) dawns on Luther’s heart and mind. For Luther this is the moment when the Protestant Reformation begins.

1517 – Pope Leo grants indulgences for rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica

October 31, 1517 – Luther nails 95 Theses to Castle Church door in Wittenburg protesting indulgences

1518 – Luther is charged with heresy in Rome, defends himself in Augsburg using Scripture rather than church doctrine. He is protected by Frederick the Wise.

1521 – Luther is excommunicated. He appears before the Diet of Worms. On his way home, Luther is “kidnapped” by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle and placed in hiding. He spends the next 10 weeks translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

1522 – Luther’s translation of the New Testament is published

1522 – Zwingli begins reformation in Switzerland

1523 – First Lutheran martyrs, Heinrich Voes and John Esch, burned at stake in Antwerp

1525 – Frederick the Wise dies; Luther marries the former nun Katherina von Bora

1525 – Tyndale visits Luther from England; under Luther’s influence the English translation of the New Testament is published and smuggled into England. Owning a Tyndale Bible in England carries a death sentence. Tyndale is declared a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake.

1527 – The Plague strikes Wittenburg. Luther’s home becomes a hospital. Luther writes the hymn A Mighty Fortress

1530 – Augsburg Confession presented to Charles V at Diet of Augsburg

1533 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated

1534 – Luther’s complete German Bible is published.

1536 – Henry VIII allows English Bible to be published in England

1539 – Catholic Counter-Reformation begins

1546 – Luther passes, age 63

1555 – the “Peace of Augsburg” gives the reigning prince of a country the right to determine the religion of his subjects (authors of this Peace hope to put an end to religion-based violence. Some days it works better than others.)  Reformation continues for the next hundred years or so.

 

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“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.  2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.  4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.  10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.  11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.  15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:1-19

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Over the past month we’ve been working our way through Philippians, and today is our final installment.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians has been, and is, a letter filled with joy.  It’s probably one of the few letters Paul wrote (that’s published in the Bible) where he’s not addressing some kind of crisis. (He addresses a few issues, but no major crises).

Before I dig into chapter four, I wanted to share something I read by theologian N.T. Wright this past week, which has a bearing on Paul’s message.  Wright was talking about Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and he commented, “I know churches where there’s a great… window with a picture of the Ascension… and all you can see [of Jesus] is a cloud with two feet sticking down.”  Wright goes on to say first-century Jews wouldn’t have seen the Ascension that way.  They would not have conceived of heaven as being somewhere in our universe.  Wright says in the New Testament, when people talked about Jesus coming back again, often the word used is “appears” rather than “descends” – “as though [Jesus is] behind an invisible curtain and one day the curtain will be removed and we will discover he’s been there all along.”

That ‘other reality behind the curtain’, as Wright puts it, is the reality of the Kingdom of God – and we are going to catch a couple of glimpses behind that curtain in the fourth chapter of Philippians.

So turning to the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter.  Like any letter from a loving father, Paul’s letter is full of advice.  And in this chapter, Paul’s advice falls into one of two general categories: (1) advice on generosity and giving; and (2) how to live the faith in daily life.  In this chapter living the faith comes first and giving comes second… but since it won’t be too long before we’re in stewardship time, let’s look at Paul’s comments on giving first.

As Paul is writing his letter, he has just received a generous gift from the Philippians to help support him while he’s in jail.  And Paul’s initial response is somewhat surprising. He says: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly for your concern for me” but then he immediately follows with “not that I’m in need, for I’ve learned to be content with whatever I have.” Paul says he knows how to live with little or plenty, how to be well-fed or how to be hungry. He says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me; in any case it was kind of you to share my distress.”

Kind of an odd thank-you note isn’t it? It almost sounds like Paul is saying “thanks for the gift but I really didn’t need it.”

But then Paul calls to mind the other times when the Philippians have been generous with him.  When Paul left Macedonia, they were the only ones who supported him; and when he was ministering in Thessalonica, they helped out more than once; and I’m sure there were more times that Paul doesn’t list in his letter.

Paul then adds:

“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough… the gifts you sent are a fragrant offering and a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

I think we could do with a bit more of this mind-set in the church.  Too often I’ve heard messages that say (or hint at) “without your money this ministry is in danger of shutting down”.  This is an attitude of fear rather than faith. We may be rich, we may be poor, but if God’s will is being done the church will continue.  For those who give, I pray for God’s blessing, as Paul prays for God’s blessing, for ‘the profit that accumulates to your account’.

Because for Paul the focus of verse 17 is “the profit that accumulates” (or in the Greek, “super-abounds”) to the accounts of those who give.

This is not a give-so- you-can-get kind of thing – that’s another mistake I often hear from a lot of pulpits. We don’t give so we can test God’s generosity.  We don’t give $100 hoping to get $1000 back. But in God’s economy, the oiko-nomos, the rule of the house, is one of continual giving and receiving, back and forth like in the dance of a relationship; except that as the giving is happening, it multiplies as it goes around. This is how it is in God’s economy – this is God’s doing – and it’s a glimpse behind the curtain of the Kingdom breaking into our reality.

Just about the entire letter of Philippians describes this Godly economy in one way or another: In chapter two, Paul talks about how “Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” and then when all was said and done, “God exalted him and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  First Jesus gives, and then God gives… and both are blessed.

In chapter three, Paul talks about how he himself, whatever he gained from being raised a Jew and a Pharisee, he “counts it all as rubbish… for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Paul gave up his past, his heritage, and God gave him a future.  And both are blessed. In short, in the words of missionary Jim Elliot, we as Christians give up what we cannot keep in order to gain what we cannot lose.

Paul’s second subject in this chapter – advice on how to live the faith – is also scattered throughout the letter, but the one theme that keeps coming back is the command, “be of the same mind”.  And again as we listen to Paul’s words we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom behind the curtain:

  • Phil 1:27 – stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the gospel
  • Phil 2:2 – be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind
  • Phil 2:5 – Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
  • Phil 2:14 – Do all things without murmuring and arguing
  • Phil 3:15 – Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind
  • Philippians 4:2 – I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

Euodia and Syntyche were not, as has sometimes been suggested, a couple of troublesome neighborhood gossips who had gotten on each other’s last nerves.  Paul describes the two women as “co-workers in the gospel”, two people who have struggled alongside Paul in his ministry, “together with Clement and the rest of Paul’s co-workers”.  These two were no spiritual lightweights!  It is possible for two deeply spiritual lovers-of-God to disagree on something.

Paul’s solution to the problem does not include sitting them down and teaching them proper church doctrine, or holding a conclave to allow the majority to decide which of the two of them is right.  Rather, Paul says in Greek, “Euodia, parakaleo; Syntyche, parakaleo”para as in parallel, and kaleo as in call – “I call you together”. And then he says to the disciples, “help these women, whose names are in the book of life.”

Christian unity is not the same thing as agreeing on everything.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a picture – a blueprint – for how to be one in Christ: how that unity is built, what it looks like.

And it all comes back to where we begin: with God’s love. Human love is imperfect; God’s love is perfect.  And here we catch a glimpse behind that curtain again.  Paul says, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)  What we’ve known here on earth is “rubbish” compared to knowing Jesus.

So how do we start? Paul says:

“finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable (or venerable), whatever is just, whatever is pure (or holy, or innocent), whatever is pleasing (or lovely), whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (or virtue) and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Why? Because of such are the Kingdom of Heaven.

Interestingly, the phrase “think on these things” in the Greek is taken from the language of accounting. A better translation might be, “Keep track of these things”. Stick them on your refrigerator. Track them on am Excel spreadsheet and give a monthly report.

Can you imagine if we actually did that? Keeping a list of all the good and lovely things around us on a spreadsheet? We’d start looking for spreadsheet-worthy things in everything around us: even in people whose points of view differ from ours… even in our enemies.

It may sound a little Pollyanna-ish; and there are certainly times when we need to talk about difficult issues.  But in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the Pharisees:

“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure…” (Matt 12:34-36)

If we fill our minds and hearts with good things, then good things will come out of our mouths. And then words become actions, and actions become unity.  Not that we’re ever going to see perfection in this life – but it will lead us in the direction of the Kingdom.

It’s kind of like the old Christian comedian said: “If you do all the things scripture says to do, you won’t have time to do the don’ts.”  In the same way, if we strive to think about and speak about “good stuff” – we won’t have time to be complaining. And life will change. And so I lay down the challenge, for all of us, myself included.

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Share these things. And the God of peace will be with you – right there on the other side of that curtain, closer than the air we breathe.

And so to wrap up his letter, Paul says to the Philippians: you have done well and are doing well. Stand firm and don’t allow yourselves to be divided or distracted or misled by false teachers.  Keep on loving God, keep on loving each other, and God will abundantly supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.

May this blessing be upon us all. AMEN.

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