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Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Today we’re going to talk about a love story… and a rather unusual love story at that.

Lots of our favorite movies and books are about love stories: two people meet, fall in love, overcome challenges, grow stronger together, and live happily ever after. Or not, as the case may be.

But the love story we’re looking at today is a very rare kind of love story. It’s a love story where the one who’s loved doesn’t know it. It’s a love unknown.

An old hymn-writer back in the 1600s in England captured this kind of love when he wrote:

“My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love for me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be…”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re going to be looking today at Acts 17:22-31, but first I want to touch briefly on our reading from John 14:15-21.

John is relating a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the disciples what they’ll need to know when he’s no longer with them on a daily basis.  And the disciples are not catching on very well.  Jesus is saying the Messiah (himself) is going to die – which goes against everything the disciples have ever believed about the Messiah – and then after three days he will rise again, and then ascend into heaven, and then he will send the Holy Spirit.  And – Jesus says – when all this happens, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Whoever loves me will keep my commandments and will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This passage tells us there is a love yet to be revealed by Jesus. A love unknown.  Bookmark that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Turning to our reading from Acts, the reading for today starts in the middle of the chapter, which means we are coming in on the middle of the story, so we need to back up and start at the beginning.

Paul and Silas were traveling through the part of the Roman Empire that was occupied Greece.  And as they traveled, they would stop at the local synagogues and share the gospel – because for people who attended synagogue, the gospel was not entirely unknown. It might be unexpected, but the Old Testament was taught in the synagogues, and the Old Testament included prophecies about the Messiah, so their listeners at least had the background to understand the gospel message.

First Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica. They went into the synagogue and taught and preached for a few weeks, giving evidence from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and then rise from the dead, and proving that Jesus met the criteria.  And some of the Jews believed, along with a large number of Gentile Greeks.

The synagogue rulers were jealous to see so many Gentiles responding to Paul’s message.  So they went out and stirred up a mob who went and grabbed these new believers and had them arrested.  Of course having no charges the people were released, but Paul and Silas (for their own safety) were sent on to the next city.

So they travelled to a town called Berea, about 45 miles away.  When they got there, again they went to the local synagogue and started preaching. And this time the good news about Jesus was well-received.  Verse 11 says: “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”  And many of them became believers, both Jews and Greeks.

Now the synagogue rulers in Thessalonica heard about this, and they were so ticked off they walked 45 miles to Berea stir up trouble for Paul and Silas. (45 miles is roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Uniontown!  Have you ever been so ticked off at somebody that you would walk to Uniontown just to bother them?)

Anyway for safety’s sake the Bereans suggested Paul and Silas move on, and they accompanied them as far as Athens (about 150 miles from Berea – at which point the Thessalonians gave up).

So Paul and Silas arrived in Athens.  During Paul’s lifetime, and for about 400 years before he was born, Athens was one of the greatest educational centers of the world.  Aristotle had taught there, and Socrates, and Plato; Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine (you’ve heard of the Hippocratic oath).  Athens was the birthplace of democracy – the first place democracy was thought of, and the first place it was ever tried.  Life in the United States in the 21st century would not exist as we know it, if not for Athens back then.

Even the Romans appreciated Athens.  Though they conquered all of Greece, they considered Athens a ‘free city’ so that it’s teaching and its arts and culture would continue uninterrupted.

Paul and Silas, when they got to Athens, had a lot to see, and a lot to take in as they walked around the city.  But what Paul noticed more than anything was that it was “a city full of idols”.  Verse 16 says he was deeply troubled at this; because the message Paul had to share was a love story – a story about a love unknown.  As Paul and Silas walked around the city, they saw people who did not know they were loved by God, people who were being led astray to worship idols and to serve what was not God.  And this moved Paul’s heart very deeply.

Paul started out, as usual, in the local synagogue. And he had a little success there.  But then he went to the marketplace – the Agora as it was called (you remember that name from high school social studies?). The Agora was a place where people would buy and sell, but it was also the central public space in the city – a place for events, a place where political speeches would be made, and where religious and philosophical debates happened.

So Paul joined in the debates in the Agora. Verse 18 says he got into conversations with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans belonged to a school of philosophy that taught materialism and the pursuit of happiness, and ridiculed the idea of God interfering in human affairs. The Stoics on the other hand belonged to a school of philosophy that believed the path to happiness is found in accepting what we’re given in life; and not being controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but using our minds to understand.

Do I really need to say how much these philosophies still influence people’s thinking?  We may not call it by those names any more, but we still live in a materialistic culture, that pokes fun at religion, that pursues happiness, and that values logic over too much drama in our relationships. Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years!

Paul made enough of an impact on the Greek philosophers to be invited to speak at the Areopagus where many of the great debates were held.  So he came, and they asked him, “what are you teaching?”  And that’s where our reading for today picks up.

What Paul said to the philosophers is a wonderful example of how we can share our faith in the world around us.

  • Step One, Paul begins where his listeners are. He says “I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Paul doesn’t attack their idols; he doesn’t stand up and call the people ‘idolaters and sinners’.  He takes his observation of their idols and casts it in a good light.  He praises the fact that they’re religious. In today’s culture we might say something like, “I see that you are very spiritual.  You care about living things, you care about the planet, you believe in doing what is compassionate, and you are mindful of how you treat others.”
  • Step Two, Paul builds on where his listeners are and finds a connection to the gospel. He says, “as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.”  Paul knows about this love unknown, knows that it is a universal truth, and he connects it to their ‘unknown god’.In our own day there are still many people who call themselves agnostic – who say they don’t know who God is, or they’re not sure. Even churchgoers sometimes can be sort of functionally agnostic –knowing there’s a God and his son’s name is Jesus but not really sure what that means. The word agnostic – a Greek word – literally means to not know.
  • In Step Three, Paul zeros in on the unknown and makes it known. He says: “What you believe is unknown, this is what I proclaim to you.’ And he goes on to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He says God created the world and everything in it; God does not live in temples or buildings made by hands; God is not served by people, as if God needed anything; in fact God gives us what we God sets the times and boundaries for nations and encourages people to seek God “groping around as we do, though God is not far from us” – Paul says – “for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And Paul adds, “as some of your own Greek poets have said, “we are God’s children.””

Can you imagine how people today would appreciate hearing that God does not live in buildings and is not served by people?  And that we live and move in God – and as God’s children, we are loved?

Paul does criticize the making of idols: he reminds his listeners that God isn’t made of silver or gold.  These days people don’t usually have household gods, but idolatry is still one of the most commonly practiced sins.  Today’s idols might include wealth, power, youthfulness, fame, food, sex, shopping… anything that becomes more important to us than God.

King Solomon once said: “the worship of idols… is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” (Wisdom 14:27 edited)  In Paul’s words, idols are “a representation by the art and imagination of humanity”.  I could preach a whole sermon on just that – but for now the important concept is that idols are made up. They represent a lie.  And when people put their trust in lies, tragedy is the result.  If Paul were here today he would most likely remind us that God doesn’t need fame, or political power, or front page headlines, or a pile of money in order for God’s will to be done.

Bottom line, Paul says in verse 30: in the past God has overlooked such ignorance – overlooked our not knowing – but now God requires all people everywhere to have a change of heart, because there is a day coming in which all people will be measured by the man who walked out of the grave alive.

As soon as Paul mentions the resurrection of the dead, the philosophers in the Areopagus begin to laugh and poke fun. But some believe and want to hear more.

As for Paul himself, he’s not interested in debating for the sake of debating (which sets a very good example for those of us who hang out on Facebook).  For Paul, once he’s delivered the message, his job is done, and he’s ready to move on.  Next stop: Corinth!

But back to our love story.  We’ve been talking about an ‘unknown’ God: a God who knew us and loved us before we knew God.  Can you imagine what that’s like for God – to love us, and for us to not even know it?

You don’t see that kind of love story in movies very often. But I did see a story like it once in an old TV show.  It was a story about two soldiers – a man and a woman, Marcus and Susan. They cared about each other as comrades: they teased each other, they had each others’ backs, but their duties kept them apart most of the time, so they were friends and nothing more.  But Marcus loved Susan… and for her sake and the sake of her career he never let on.

One day in the heat of battle there was an explosion and Susan was mortally wounded. She didn’t die right away, so Marcus found her and carried her back to the medics, but there was nothing could be done.

Except this particular story takes place in the future, and in the future there’s a machine used for healing by which a healthy person can transfer health into the body of an injured person in order to heal them.  So for example, if a child scrapes their knee a parent can hook up the machine to themselves and to their child and pour healing from their own body into the child’s body.  Or if the child breaks a bone, which is a greater injury, it would require more energy from the parent, but it could still be healed.  But if the wound was fatal… using the machine would be fatal.

And for that reason the machine was made illegal. But Marcus finds one, and hooks it up, and pours his life into Susan. And just as she’s coming around, with his last breath, Marcus whispers ‘I love you’.

That’s the kind of love God has for us: a love that gives all it can give, before we even knew it was there.

The good news is that Jesus lives.

Which brings us back to the Gospel of John, where Jesus says: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live.”  Jesus also says “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and the first and greatest commandment is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

So the first thing we can do with all of this is to know God’s love.  Don’t let God’s love go unknown. Read about God’s love, meditate on it, immerse ourselves in it, until our souls are convinced, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of how very much we are loved.

And second, tell others about the unknown God (who is now known) and about the unknown love that’s waiting for them.

The old hymn I quoted earlier ends with these words:

“Here might I stay and sing
of him my soul adores:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise,
I gladly would spend all my days.”  AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) Pittsburgh, 5/21/17

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[collection of video clips summarizing the story from which the illustration was taken:]

Acts 17:22-31  22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21  15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

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mountain

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” – Exodus 24:12-18

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ – Matthew 17:1-9
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The very best stories in the world are stories about love. Have you ever noticed that? They’re the ones that stick with you, whether it be movies, or TV, or books. The ones we go back to time and again are love stories. Not necessarily romantic stories (though they count). But take for example the Harry Potter stories – you’ve got Harry’s love for his parents, and his parents’ love for Harry, and Harry’s love for his friends, and the self-sacrificing love of Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape, which Harry honors by naming his first child after them. Love is what makes these stories so unforgettable.

Today’s scripture readings may not look like love stories at first glance, but they are. And like most stories about love, they’re not just about love, they’re about life. And, like most love stories, “the path of true love never did run smooth”.

Our love story for today – told in two parts on two different mountains – is a love story between God and God’s people. (The beginning of the story is actually back in Genesis chapter one but we’re not going to go back that far.) For today we’ll start where most love stories start: with a meeting. Only in this case we’re not talking about a meeting between people, we’re talking about a meeting between God and a group of people who are about to become a nation.

The scene opens at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Arabian desert. It’s been about three months since the people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry land. God has been leading them through the wilderness in a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke by day, but the people haven’t actually met God. They’ve only heard God’s words through Moses.

But then today comes. God has called 70 of the leaders of the people to come part-way up the mountain and have a feast with God. From where they are sitting they can see up the mountain just a bit of the glory of God. They see fire and smoke and “something like a pavement of sapphire stone” it says in verse 10.

This feast is a celebration of the new partnership between God and God’s people: because back in chapter 20 God gave Moses the Ten Commandments – verbally, that is (the written version isn’t here just yet). And when Moses gives God’s words to the Israelites they answer with one voice “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 24:3)

Giving and receiving a list of commandments may not sound like much of a love story, unless we look at it as a love story between a parent and children who are deeply loved. Because God is our parent, and we are God’s children. As Jesus says, the Spirit within us cries “Abba, Father”. And just like any loving parent, our heavenly parent has some house rules. We may not understand them right away, but as members of the family we are expected to follow them. So just like our parents taught us to shut the door, and “no snacks before dinnertime”, and “wash your hands before you eat”, God also has house rules: honor God, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no wanting what somebody else has.

So Moses gives this message to the people, and the people say “sounds good to us!” – and the feast is a celebration of that agreement.

But love stories are never quite that easy. After the banquet, God asks Moses and Joshua to meet him further up the mountain so they can receive the Ten Commandments written on stone. And this is where our reading for today begins. Moses goes up with Joshua. Before he goes he tells the 70 elders “stay here, wait for us until we come to you again. If you have any problems while we’re away, talk to Aaron, he will help you out.”

So Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and they see the glory of God. Seven days later God gives Moses the Ten Commandments written on stone. And then God decides to keep Moses a bit longer. God says Israel needs a place to worship, and God gives detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle. These instructions take up Exodus chapters 25 through 31 – six chapters! By the time God has told Moses all these things, 40 days have gone by. And that’s as far as our reading for today goes.

But we know what happens next. While Moses has been talking with God on the mountain, “the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses… we do not know what has become of him.”” (Exodus 32)

It’s only been four months since the people walked through the Red Sea, and less than a month since the people saw God’s glory on the mountain, and already they’ve forgotten what they saw and forgotten the promises they made. The creation of the golden calf breaks the First Commandment, which then leads to breaking all the other commandments.

But that’s another story for another day. For now let’s just say the path of true love never does run smooth.

One side-note: it is still true today that most of what is wrong in the world happens after the First Commandment is broken. False gods lead to ‘alternate truths’, ‘fake news’ and from there to every sin in the book. The sin of worshiping something other than God, or valuing something more highly than God – whether it be money or power or security or self-gratification, or whatever it may be – is the pressing sin of our generation.

So back to Exodus. The part of the story we read today – the part where Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and see the glory of the Lord – that’s the part we want to focus on today. And here are some things to sort of mentally bookmark before we head into Matthew.

As I mentioned earlier, God and God’s people are just getting to know each other at this point. In the book of Genesis, God’s relationship was mostly with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – the patriarchs and their immediate families. But now, 300 years after Joseph, Jacob’s descendants have grown into a huge group of people. And God has plans to make them into a holy nation.

So God is introducing himself, and God is making himself known to the people. The whole point of this scene of glory on the mountaintop is God communicating who God is. The fire and the smoke are not God, but they are an expression of God’s greatness and power. And the commandments are not God, but they are a reflection of the holy character of God, as well as instructions for the children of God.

But above all, God is a God of love. And it is the nature of love to want to share oneself with the beloved. And so God makes himself known. It is also the nature of love to hope to be loved back. And in order for the people to love back, they need to know who they’re loving, because it’s impossible to love someone you don’t know.

We tried when we were younger though, didn’t we? Do you remember your first crush? ‘Some enchanted evening’ we looked across a crowded room, and… there that person was! A crush might feel like love, but if the other person isn’t involved we’re just in love with the thought of being in love.

The same is true in our relationship with God. We may worship God from a distance, but ‘from a distance’ we don’t really know God. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like that song “God is Watching Us From a Distance” – because it’s not true. If God is at a distance, we can’t know God. We can’t know what psychologists call The Other. And God wants us to know, God wants to be known.

As we get to know God, one of the first things we notice about God is God’s glory. God’s glory has to do with beauty and majesty and holiness and weightiness (in the sense that it’s not something to be taken lightly). In Exodus, God’s glory is represented by fire and cloud. But a little further on in Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory specifically. And God answers:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’… But… you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God’s glory, taken straight on, is more than mere human beings can bear. So God says, “There is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by…” (Exodus 33:18-23)

So God makes provision for Moses by hiding him in a cleft of the rock. Which reminds me of that old gospel song:

“He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand…”

God shelters us, just like God sheltered Moses, in the cleft of the Rock. And the name of that Rock is Jesus.

Which brings us to the second mountain.

Matthew starts out his passage by saying “six days later” – which tells us we need to look back to see what happened six days before. Six days before, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven. And although they didn’t say exactly what they were looking for, what they probably meant was a sign to prove Jesus is the Son of God. And Jesus didn’t give them one.

But later Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am, and who do you say that I am?” – and Peter says, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. And Jesus answers, “God has revealed this to you… and on this rock” – that is, on the rock of knowing who Jesus really is – “on this rock I will build my church”.

And then Jesus starts to talk about being killed by the chief priests and the scribes, and rising from the dead three days later. And he tells the disciples, “you also must take up your cross and follow me.”

So six days after these conversations, Jesus takes Peter and James and John and leads them up a tall mountain. And when they get to the top, Jesus is transfigured – the Greek word here is “metamorphosis”. (Isn’t it wonderful when Greek actually makes sense?) And suddenly Jesus’ face is shining like the sun, and his clothes are dazzling white.

And suddenly Jesus is in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah are there representing the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. And Jesus is consulting with them. While the Bible doesn’t say what they were talking about, my guess is Jesus was talking with them about his death and resurrection. (Who else could Jesus talk to about things like that?)

While this conversation is going on, Peter offers to set up some tents, which would have been appropriate hospitality back then. But while he is speaking, a bright cloud comes over them – similar to the one in Exodus, I imagine – and a voice speaks out of the cloud saying “this is my Son, my beloved… listen to him”.

And the disciples are overcome with fear. (One version says “…and they were sore afraid.”) But Jesus says, “get up, do not be afraid.” And when they look up the vision is gone and they are alone with Jesus and things are back to ‘normal’.

Here on this mountain, just like on Moses’ mountain, God is making Himself known. What the disciples saw when they looked at Jesus, shining like the sun, is a glimpse of Jesus as he really is – the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s as if Jesus is saying “know me for who I really am, so that you can trust me and love me for who I really am.” Jesus already knows us, and loves us. Now we need to know Jesus.

At the same time the disciples learn something about God’s power. When God speaks to the disciples directly they fall to the ground in fear. When Jesus says “don’t be afraid” – this is not an expression of sympathy, it’s a command, spoken by the same voice that once said “let there be light”.

With a word Jesus takes away our fears, because it’s impossible to love someone we’re afraid of, and Jesus knows that. He makes it possible for us to stand in God’s presence.

In this moment we are touching God’s Kingdom. Because it will be the same way on that great resurrection day. It will be a fearful day, but Jesus will have the word of command to make it possible for us to stand. Jesus will make us what we need to be… and what we long to be. By the power of his word and by the power of his death and resurrection, Jesus makes us into children of God.

These two mountaintops give us the opportunity to know the God who loves us, and who invites us into a relationship of love that will last for an eternity.

In Exodus we learn about God’s mercy and God’s character. In Matthew, we learn about Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and about his glory and his word of command. These two mountains lift us out of the everyday. They help us to remember who we really are as children of God. They help us to grow into a mature love for God – knowing who we love, and loving without fear. And while all this is going on, we are being remade into God’s likeness.

And like the elders of Israel, we have been invited to a feast. It’s a banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, prepared for us by a God of infinite love. Our response (hopefully!) is to say “yes!” to the invitation… and then to share the invitation with others, telling them what we have seen and heard.

This is a love story. Like all love stories, the road has not always run straight – not even in each of our lives. There has been pain and struggle and hope and fear… but through it all there has been God’s faithful love.

And on these mountaintops – for a moment – we can see where this love story leads. And in the distance, bathed in brilliant light, we see the happiest of endings.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/26/17
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[scripture readings for today are at the end of this post]

The lectionary that gives us our scriptures every Sunday was created about 50 years ago, and it’s based on a lectionary used by the early church, which in turn is based on a lectionary used in ancient Israel before the birth of Christ.

I say all this in order to say: there is no way the creators of our lectionary could have known that our gospel reading for today – which talks about the end of human history as we know it – would fall on the Sunday after Election Day in America in the year 2016!

That said, I’m not going to comment on the election. I don’t ever want anyone to be turned off to Jesus because of my personal political beliefs. I would willingly give up my right to vote if it meant someone finding eternal life in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But that said, I do have one comment on the events of this past week:  Post-election, there are people who seem to think it’s now OK to harass and threaten people different from themselves: people of different races or religions, people from different countries, or even just people who voted differently than they did.  As Christians we are called by God to welcome the stranger, and to show compassion and hospitality to those in trouble. In the days ahead let’s be watching for opportunities to be peacemakers in our neighborhoods and in our places of work.

One small way to do this is something the British people did after the Brexit vote. (And you remember I was in England when the Brexit vote was taken – I’m going through this a second time now!) When British people realized the refugees and foreigners and minorities among them were feeling afraid, they put on safety pins as a way of showing solidarity. The pin basically means “you are ‘safe’ with me. If somebody gives you trouble, I will stand with you.” The pins are starting to catch on here in the States now so I brought a bunch with me today. I don’t expect everybody to take one – not everyone is physically or emotionally prepared to step into difficult situations – but if you feel you would like one, they’re on the back table, take one on your way out after church.

So having said all of that, let’s look at our scriptures for today.  We have three passages: one from Luke and two from Isaiah.  In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus talking about the final chapter of earth history. And in our passages from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about God’s kingdom that will follow the end of history, and the joy that will be ours when we see God’s salvation.

These three passages taken together create a panorama of history: past, present, and future.  In a big-picture sense they give us comfort, knowing that we are never without hope because we are never without God.

But in the short term we can expect trouble.

Let’s start with our passage from Luke.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and it’s only a few days before the crucifixion.  As Jesus is speaking, someone in the crowd remarks how beautiful the Temple is: hand-carved stonework, votive offerings… great beauty.

And Jesus says, basically: “See all this around you? The day will come when not one stone will be left on another, everything will be thrown down.”

If Jesus was here today, He could tell us the same thing.  The day will come when the houses we live in won’t be there any more. The day will come when the places we work and the places we worship will either be repurposed or torn down. The day will come when even our country will cease to exist. That’s the lesson of history. Nothing lasts forever.

The people hearing Jesus believed this message.  They did not ask “will this really happen?” they asked, “when will this happen? What’s the sign to watch for?”

The answer Jesus gives is a little confusing at first glance because it deals with both the immediate future and the long-term future (which includes us).

Jesus starts out with answers relevant to everybody, no matter when in history we live.  Jesus says “there will be others who claim to be me, who will say the end is near. Don’t listen to them. Don’t follow them. Don’t be led astray.”

Jesus says “there will be wars… and troubles… these things have to happen. Don’t be afraid, and don’t let it surprise you when they do happen.”  In Matthew’s account of the story Jesus adds the words “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  It’s as if the earth is pregnant and is about to give birth to the new earth.  In fact this same picture is given in the book of Revelation – of a woman in birth pangs. So don’t be afraid. What we see happening is what’s supposed to happen.

Jesus continues saying, “Nation will rise against nation.” The Greek here is ethne, it’s the word we get ethnic from. In other words, people groups will rise up against people groups (does this sound familiar?) and kingdoms against kingdoms. And there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences… and horrors, and signs from heaven.”

Up to this point Jesus has been describing the end of the age, and though we see at least some of it coming true already, be careful not to be misled. People in my parents’ generation thought Hitler was a sign the end was coming.  Not yet… the troubles we see right now are just a foretaste of the end.

Then Jesus switches focus and comes back to what the disciples will face. He says: “Before all this, people will lay hands on you and persecute you and hand you over to prison and lead you away to stand before kings and governors for the sake of my name.”

These prophecies begin to come true in the book of Acts, and they continued to come true for the next few hundred years, until the Roman emperor became a Christ-follower in the 4th century.

Persecution didn’t end completely though; it still happens today in some parts of the world. So Jesus’ next words are for anyone who is ever arrested or persecuted for his name’s sake. He says: “see this as an opportunity to witness.”  And the Greek word for witness is martyr. This doesn’t necessarily mean dying for the faith, but it does mean laying down one’s own interests and putting God’s interests first.  Jesus is basically saying that in bearing witness we will find our freedom. Even if we’re in chains, our freedom is found in bearing witness to Christ.  And that is as true today as it was back then.

Then Jesus says something surprising: “Therefore fix it in your heart – plan ahead and be ready – NOT to think beforehand how to answer.” We are not to defend the faith or bear witness with words planned out in advance. Jesus says, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom that no one will be able to oppose or contradict.”

Have you ever noticed how when Jesus got into arguments with the Pharisees and Sadducees, how he left them completely speechless? They walked away with nothing more to say. Jesus promises to give us the same wisdom when we are called to witness for our faith.

Jesus then continues to warn his disciples: “You will be handed over by family members… some will be put to death… you will be hated because of my name, but not a hair of your head will perish.”

And then comes the promise: “By your steadfast endurance you will gain your souls.” All we have to do is stand and endure.  Not attack, not defend, just take our stand.

So summing up this passage: Jesus warns about the destruction of Jerusalem – which happened in the year 70AD – and looks ahead to a time when everything we see will likewise be torn down. And Jesus promises if we endure – if we hang on tight to him – we will live. And that’s where our gospel lesson ends for today.

But it’s not where the story ends.  There is a Kingdom coming.  The prophet Isaiah – even though he lived 500 years or more before Jesus – takes us to God’s new beginning.

In Isaiah chapter 65 God speaks the words “Behold I create a new heavens and new earth; the former earth will not be remembered or even brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create…”

God’s Kingdom will be a joy forever.  And when the Bible talks about “joy” it’s not talking about mere happiness, as in, I’m happy the sun is shining or I’m happy to have mocha in my coffee. Joy is something deep, rich, satisfying, with a touch of awe – like watching a sunset over the ocean or holding a child for the very first time.

Joy like that, all the time, is more than we mere mortals can handle – which is why we need to put on immortality.  In our new life we will have the capacity to live in joy.  Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “I will rejoice in my people.”  God rejoices over us! The prophet Zephaniah says: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17) Can you imagine God singing? Over us? Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “No more will there be an infant that lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… they shall not build and another inhabit… they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. […] Before they call I will answer… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.  Someday that day will come.

Isaiah tells us that we will respond by saying: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid.” The word ‘salvation’ in Hebrew, is pronounced yeshua – the name given to Jesus.  We will say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known the things he has done… he has acted majestically – let the whole earth know!”  Someday that day will come.

But it’s not here yet.

There are some people who will call this kind of faith “pie in the sky when you die”. And they say “I’d rather have steak on a plate while I wait.”  But God’s kingdom is not just for the future. It’s not just for when we’re resurrected.  God’s kingdom begins at the beginning – when God said “let there be light” – and it stretches all the way to the end (of which there will not be an end). We just happen to be included in that eternity, in our little piece of history. For us, eternal life begins now and carries forward into eternity.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

From where we stand in history right now, the last days have not come yet.  This world is still standing, and God’s kingdom only breaks through into what we perceive as unexpectedly.  Right now it looks like the forces of darkness are winning. But there will come a day when everything will be thrown down and God’s kingdom will come in all its glory.

God will have mercy on God’s people, both now and in the days to come. We just need to be sure that we are with God, that we are preparing ourselves for eternity in God’s kingdom.  So I wanted to share with you a few things Scripture tells us about God’s kingdom and what life in the kingdom is like:

  • Jesus said: “the kingdom of God is near; change course, believe the good news.”
  • Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. […] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
  • Jesus said: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”
  • The apostle Paul said: “the kingdom of God is… righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
  • King David wrote: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. […] The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
  • The apostle John wrote in the book of Revelation: “I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Paul and Jesus also both warn us that nothing unholy can enter the Kingdom of God. We need to confess the things we’ve done wrong, and receive God’s salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.  We need to be growing in God’s likeness, and we need to live our lives in a way that bears witness to God’s truth… no matter the cost.

If anyone here has not yet made the decision to follow Jesus and to live forever in God’s kingdom, don’t wait. Do it today.

For the rest of us, preparing for life in the Kingdom is mostly inner work, spiritual work – both individually and as a church. This world is passing away and a new heavens and new earth are coming. We need to live in such a way that when people see how we live and how we love each other, they will catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

And if we’re not sure where to begin, the apostle Paul said: “in the end only three things will last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”  There’s no better place to start.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we live in fearful times. We hear angry voices around us and we see violence all around us.  Calm us Lord, with your presence.  Give us a confidence in your love that can’t be shaken. Forgive us, when we fall into sin. Give us courage and wisdom and compassion as we live and work with others who are also feeling afraid and angry. Fill us with your Spirit so we can be beacons of your love and your truth in the world. Guide us in the days ahead, O Lord. And help us to keep our eyes on the prize – eternity with you, that begins now and lasts forever. Thank you Lord for your great promises and your great salvation. May all the glory be yours. AMEN.

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Isaiah 65:17-25  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:1-6   You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Luke 21:5-19   When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;  for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/13/16

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[Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.]

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – talk about a story that’s right up my alley!  At one time or another I have been both a Pharisee (of sorts) and a tax collector (literally).  And I stand before you today as living proof that God cares for both Pharisees and tax collectors. And if God cares for someone like me, then for certain God cares for you!

So looking at our Gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9-14):  Jesus tells a parable that Luke says is directed at people who trust in their own righteousness and look down on others, and Jesus uses a Pharisee as an example.  So this parable is pointed at Pharisees, but it is not necessarily just about Pharisees.  People without religious training can act like Pharisees too. In fact listening to people who are so sure of their own righteousness, while putting others down, I think is part of what’s made all of us all so sick of the upcoming election.

But getting back to the Pharisees: I have known a few in my day.  I’ve been sorely tempted to become one, (although I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time).  Where it comes to Pharisees this is what I’ve experienced:

  • Pharisees are motivated by fear. (both in Jesus’ day and now.) Pharisees are very keenly aware of sin, and the seriousness of sin, and of God’s judgement on sin; and they are afraid of God’s judgement and so they’re afraid of anything that might cause sin. They’re even afraid of the appearance of sin. And all this fear gets pressed down and shaken together and then sometimes explodes in the form of anger at ‘sinners’ who are seen either as sources of temptation or as the cause of the decline in society’s morals.
  • In their fear, Pharisees turn their focus inward – on the little groups they’re a part of. They lose sight of the needs in the world, and they fail to see the pain that sinners feel at their own sin. They forget (if they ever knew in the first place) (for example) that drug addicts hate the drugs they’re hooked on… that prostitutes hate their customers… that most people who are caught in sin would welcome a way out it if they could find one.  Pharisees don’t see the needs. They lack empathy, and so they judge.
  • Pharisees also, as Jesus points out, love money. Not necessarily because they actually enjoy the things money can buy, but because poverty doesn’t look good.  Plus money makes it possible for them to move in the social circles they want to move in.
  • And the sins Pharisees preach most strongly against are the very sins they’re most likely to fall into. For example, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were all about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. This law had a practical, nationalistic side to it: because the Romans (who occupied Israel) didn’t observe the Sabbath; God’s people did. So Sabbath observance was the mark of a loyal Israelite. Kind of like standing up for the national anthem at a ballgame. It wasn’t so much about the object of worship (God and/or country – which often tend to get conflated in a Pharisee’s mind), as it was about conforming to expected, traditional standards of behavior. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day got on Jesus’ case about healing people on the Sabbath – but they saw nothing wrong when they themselves spent an entire Sabbath afternoon making plans to kill Jesus.  As if that was a permitted use of the Sabbath!  Pharisees are capable of the most amazing feats of hypocrisy… and they rarely if ever see it.

As for modern-day Pharisees, I’m sure we all can think of few.  Personally when I read about Pharisees in the Bible I tend to think of them as the televangelists of the ancient world.  It’s not a perfect parallel but it works on a number of levels.  Like them, the Pharisees were well known, supported by the people, highly regarded by their bands of followers, legalistic, and looked pretty clean on the outside.  For a while.

Back in the early 1980s I did some volunteer work for a ministry headed up by a man who once worked for televangelist Jimmy Bakker. Many of you here will remember the scandal Jimmy and his wife Tammy Faye fell into back then. One day I got up the nerve to ask this friend what happened – what really happened behind the scenes?  (My friend had left the Bakker ministry shortly before everything broke loose.) He said this: “it got to the point where there was only a handful of trusted people around Jimmy and Tammy Faye – only about five or six people. Nobody else could get close to them. Not their congregation, not the public, not me, and – as became obvious – not their accountant. Those of us who could have warned them something was wrong were not allowed into the inner circle.”

The problem with Pharisees – the core problem – is that they rely on human strength and human righteousness instead of on God and on the Holy Spirit.  And what a powerful illustration this is of how that works out!

As a postscript to that story, Jimmy Bakker has since renounced his former teachings. He has admitted, publicly, that the first time he ever read the Bible all the way through was in prison; and that doing so he was confronted with mistakes and false teachings he had fallen into. In the late 1990s he wrote this:

“My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”

That is true repentance.  And praise God, salvation can come to even Pharisees.  Remember that whenever you feel like you’ve made the worst mistake of your life. There’s nothing God can’t forgive, and there is no place so low that God’s mercy can’t reach.

Which brings us to our tax collector.  (I love it when Jesus talks about tax collectors!)  Speaking as a local tax collector, if you want to ‘win friends and influence people,’ becoming a tax collector is not the way to do it!  As a tax collectors I am required to uphold the law, whether I like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, whether I think it’s fair or not. I have seen the struggles of some of our senior citizens trying to keep the taxes paid on their homes.  And there have been days I’ve gone home from the tax office saying “God forgive me.”

But compared to Roman times, tax collecting today is an honorable profession. At least I know the taxes I collect will be spent on the town and in the school where the taxpayers live. In Jesus’ day, taxes were collected by and for the Romans – and there was no guarantee money collected in Galilee (for example) would stay in Galilee.  It was more likely to end up in Rome.

And tax collectors back then were basically traitors to their own people. They were Israelis who were paid by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen.

As Americans we have never known what it is to pay taxes to a foreign government (except for in the 1700s when we had that little tea party in Boston Harbor).  We have never known what it is to be conquered (I pray God we never will).  We have never known what it is to have a neighbor or a friend working for the enemy and extorting money.

These tax collectors in Jesus’ day were basically collaborators. They collected more than the Romans told them to, and got rich on the backs of their families and friends. They sold themselves for money. That’s why the Bible refers to them as “tax collectors and sinners”.  They knew what they were. They knew what they were doing. They were about as low as you can go.

But one day one tax collector decided – for whatever reason – to get right with God. So he went to the temple. He didn’t raise his hands in prayer, he didn’t even look up as he prayed, but ‘beat his breast’ and said “oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to bargain with God. He just appealed to God’s mercy.

Our God has a heart that is quick to answer a prayer like that. God declared this man righteous. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed to be seen with tax collectors like him (even though the Pharisees criticized him for it).  It’s no surprise the tax collectors loved Jesus so much and wanted to around him all the time!.

So to sum up the parable:  The prayer of the Pharisee is full of pride, self-dependence, and self-righteousness, lacking in charity and compassion. Theologian Charles Simeon writes, “The Pharisees… were extremely diligent in the observance of outward duties: but, while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were as far from the kingdom of God as if they had been openly profane.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, humbly stands at a distance, admits his faults, and trusts in God alone.  And the result was: the tax collector goes home justified by God; and the Pharisee does not.

There’s one more thing that we haven’t looked at yet in this story: context.  The context of this story – the big picture – is the kingdom of God.

In the passage from Luke we read today, in the chapter immediately before it, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God is coming. And this parable is, in part, an answer to that question – as well as a warning about something that may prevent people entering into the Kingdom of God.

Our Old Testament reading from Joel also speaks of the Kingdom, and Joel gives us the big picture back-drop against which this parable plays itself out.

The passage from Joel begins by saying to God’s people ‘be glad and rejoice in God, because the day of the Lord is finally coming’.  God says, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten… you shall eat and be satisfied… your God has dealt wondrously with you.” The prophecy continues, “my people shall never again be put to shame.”  Twice God says that: ‘you shall never again be put to shame’.

And then Joel’s prophecy turns very dark. It talks about how terrible and frightening the day of the Lord will be.  The Kingdom will come, he says, in darkness and in blood; and ‘those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ and ‘among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’. (Notice there’s a mutual calling here: God’s people call out to Him, and God calls to His people; calling in both directions, the calls meeting each other.)

When we read Joel’s description of the coming Kingdom, and then look at the Pharisee and the tax collector, their story takes on real clarity.

First, the parable is full of shame.  The Pharisee shames the tax collector. The tax collector shames himself. To be alive in this world is to know shame.  But the prophet Joel says the day is coming when God’s people will never again be put to shame.

Second, held up against the backdrop of the darkness and destruction at the end of this world, the Pharisee’s words sound a bit ridiculous. He says: “God I thank you I’m not like other men. I fast twice a week, I gave away a tenth of all my income…”  How on earth is that going to benefit anybody when the world is ending?

But listen to the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Isn’t that what any sane person would say when they’re witnessing the end of the world?

Third, Joel gives us the same good news Jesus preached – and it is this: “I will restore the years the locust has eaten.”  Some translations say “I will repay…” but the actual verb here is shalom… ‘I will bring peace, I will bring wholeness’. In those very places where we have been injured… in those places where the world has ridiculed us for our faith in God… in those places where we could find no answers to the question “why?” – God will restore, and will give us shalom, and will take away our shame.  Jesus himself, who was shamed with the words “The King of the Jews” nailed above his head – will at last claim his kingdom.

Phariseeism is, at its roots, a lack of courage of convictions and a lack of real faith in God.  A Pharisee fails to trust God’s heart or to grasp God’s truth. The tax collector on the other hand appeals to God’s heart, to God’s loving-kindness (his hesed). He knows that salvation, forgiveness, and mercy belong to God alone.

So our take-aways for today:

  1. For those of us who are called to minister or to leadership in God’s church – and for all people – pray that we escape the temptations of Phariseeism. Pray that God will save us from that question which has no good answer: “am I being humble yet?” Pray we stay focused on Jesus.
  2. Pray we don’t waste time comparing ourselves with others, that instead we are honest with God and trust in God’s mercy.
  3. Pray we keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to be with Jesus in the coming kingdom of our God. The coming of this kingdom is the Good News we share. And this goal infuses everything we say and everything we do in life with meaning and purpose.
  4. Praise Jesus for His boundless love and mercy, and thank God for God’s promise that one day we will never again be put to shame.

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Joel 2:23-32  23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) – Pittsburgh, 10/23/16

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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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“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.

In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town.  “Repairers of the breach rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in. To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.

With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town.  There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay.  At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?

The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.

Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.

With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa.  Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.

But there was another side to that story.  J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town.  They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods.  (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)

The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering.  Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.

The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”

Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community.  In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?

The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”.  It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.

After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.

Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”

I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.

Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done.  Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down).  The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.

All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.

And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”

Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.

Isaiah 58, verse 2:  God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”  In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us).  And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.

The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future.  Here’s what I mean:

Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.

But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t.  Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past.  The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.

God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.

And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?

God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us.  And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there.  The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.

Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:

  1. Your light shall break forth like the dawn
  2. Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
  3. Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
  4. The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
  5. You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
  6. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
  7. You shall raise up foundations for many generations
  8. You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
  9. You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
  10. God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”

That’s the vision.  Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands.  All these things will happen if we will do the following:

  1. Work for justice
  2. Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
  3. Feed the hungry
  4. Welcome the poor
  5. Cover the naked
  6. Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
  7. Stop pointing fingers at each other
  8. Stop speaking evil
  9. Satisfy the needy
  10. Honor the Sabbath

That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath.  In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.

Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.

As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”

And in our own towns, things are starting to happen.  In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.

So let’s take the next step.  I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16

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Readings for June 5, 2016: Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

 “Praise the Lord!” These are the words that open Psalm 146 – a call to praise God.

These words were written around 3000 years ago, but sometime during our lifetimes the words ‘praise the Lord’ became a kind of a catch-phrase – a way to stereotype people who have more heart than head about their religion.

It started back in the 1980s when people in the ‘born-again Christian’ movement starting using the words ‘praise the Lord’ almost like a way to identify who’s really a Christian and who’s not: if you say it, you’re saved; if you don’t, you need to be witnessed to. One televangelist who eventually ended up in a famous scandal even named his ministry PTL Ministries which stood for ‘Praise The Lord’.

So in our time the phrase ‘praise the Lord’ has gotten a bad rep.  So today I’d like to restore these words to their original meaning and intention.

First, in the original Hebrew, this phrase is only two words: Hallelu and jah, which translates ‘praise Yahweh’ or ‘praise God’.  Put it together and you’ve got hallelujah – a beautiful word, one of my favorite of all words.

Second, saying ‘praise the Lord’ is not in itself praising the Lord. It’s a command to others (or to ourselves) to praise God. Actually praising God means telling God how wonderful God is and why.  We praise God when we sing hymns to God. We praise God when we talk to others about what God has done for us. We praise God when we pray.

Here’s an example what I mean:  Let’s say I wanted to praise my husband for taking good care of me while I’ve been dealing with these back problems.  Would I walk up to him and say “Praise the husband!”?  Of course not!  I would look at my husband and say “You’ve been taking such good care of me. Thank you.”  You see the difference.  Saying the word ‘praise’ is just talk. Praising is actually telling the person, saying out loud what we appreciate about them.

So the psalmist today is encouraging us to praise God.  And then he goes on to say why we should praise God. Let’s dig into this.

First the psalmist says God is the greatest power in the universe, and he compares God to people the world considers powerful or great. He says “do not put your trust in princes… when their breath departs they return to the earth: on that very day their plans perish.”

These are wise words for us to remember anytime, but especially during a presidential election year. No matter who you like as a politician or who you plan to vote for, these ‘princes of the earth’ – as the psalmist calls them – are mere mortals. They won’t live forever. Their words will not live forever. And whether they succeed in keeping their campaign promises or not, their plans and their policies won’t last forever. No leader is forever. No nation is forever, for that matter.

But God is forever. God will live forever. God’s word will last forever. And God’s plans will come to pass.  Therefore, as the psalmist says, “happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob… who keeps faith forever.”  We praise God because God is always with us, and can always be trusted. Those who hope in God will not be disappointed.

The psalmist goes on to give us more reasons to praise God: God executes justice. God feeds the hungry. God sets the prisoners free. God opens the eyes of the blind. God lifts up the lowly and the downtrodden. God loves the righteous and puts an end to wickedness. God welcomes the stranger. God provides for orphans and widows.

So many of these things are things politicial candidates try to offer us: Food. Justice. Medical care. Care for the disadvantaged. Protection for honest citizens. They promise these things every election cycle – but do things ever really change? Not much. A little maybe, but not much – because political leaders don’t really have the power do these things, at least not perfectly, or with perfect fairness. At some point the implementation of their programs fails: the result of imperfect human beings running imperfect institutions.

All these things that the world’s power can’t deliver, God can deliver.  Look at that list again, and think about what Jesus has done: Feeding the hungry? Jesus fed 5000 people with just a few loaves and fish, and had 12 baskets of food left over. Setting prisoners free? Remember the woman caught in adultery – she was forgiven, and all the men who were going to stone her walked away.  Opening the eyes of the blind? Jesus did this a number of times. Lifting up the lowly? Remember the people who fell at his feet begging for healing for their loved ones, for their families. Not one of them went away disappointed. Welcoming the stranger? Even a Roman centurion and a woman from Samaria – people who were hated by the Jews of his day – were welcomed by Jesus.

Providing for orphans and widows? Our Gospel reading from today gives us an example of this: Jesus and the disciples run into a funeral procession coming out of the city. And Jesus, seeing a widow who had lost her only son, is moved with compassion and brings the young man back to life, and gives him back to his mother.  The people who witness these things immediately praise God. Why? Because, in their words, “God has looked favorably upon his people”.

There are examples all through scripture of God providing for God’s people, and Jesus’ ministry is a shining example of that. Where leaders of nations disappoint us, God succeeds. God meets every need perfectly.

But what about those times when we feel like our needs aren’t being met? Or we feel like our prayers aren’t being answered? It happens sometimes. We may lose a loved one, or some tragedy touches our lives, and we ask God ‘why?’ Or we may ask “how can a good God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God do something?”

I’ll be honest – there are no easy answers to these questions.  Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with these questions for thousands of years and they are no closer to finding answers than I am.

What I have found is that God can use the difficult times to bring good things into our lives.  Going through difficulty makes us more compassionate, because we can understand others who are going through difficulty. And I find, even in difficult times, if I look around I can usually find reasons to praise God. Not that I’m praising God for pain or for trouble, but I’m praising God that God is with me through them, teaching and guiding. And that’s enough for me.

Getting back to our scriptures for today – the apostle Paul, in our reading from Galatians praises God because the gospel he preaches is not of human origin but was revealed by Jesus Himself. Paul praises God that God’s word is made known. And the people Paul is writing to praise God because the man who was once trying to destroy them – that is, Paul – is now “proclaiming the faith he tried to destroy”.

So we see in our scripture readings for today many reasons to praise God.

What then do our scriptures lead us to be doing?  Well, praising God, of course!  Throughout the day, every day. When we see something that touches us – praise God.  I look at the flowers in our gardens, for example – the exquisite and detailed beauty of every petal and leaf – and I praise God for beauty.  I look at ourselves and our families – the amazing complexity of every human being. Have you ever looked at, for example, your hand, and thought about all that goes into it? The bones, and the muscles, and the skin, and the fingernails, all moving the way they do. The hand is an engineering marvel! God’s creativity is astounding!

Secondly, our goal as God’s children is to grow up in God, to become more like our Father as time passes.  To have a family resemblance.  And so, whenever and wherever it depends on us, we need to be doing the things we praise God for.  In our Psalm for today that would include working for justice, feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, setting captives free, working for healing, lifting up the poor and lowly, welcoming strangers (especially, in our time, the many refugees who are finding their way to Pittsburgh from around the world); helping provide for orphans and widows. And sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  When we do these things we show we are God’s children, sharing God’s righteousness and God’s mercy in the lives of those we meet… and praising God by our actions.

The psalmist says: “Praise the LORD, O my soul!  I will praise the LORD as long as I live….”  Let’s take a few minutes right now to pray and thank God for all God has done for us. And if a hymn of praise happens to pop into your mind, sing it out.  Let’s pray.

Lord, we praise you for your many blessings in our lives… [silence]  Lord thank you that you have made us your children. Help us to be more like you. Create in us that family resemblance so others will praise you. Thank you Lord that you are forever, faithful and trustworthy. We look forward to an eternity spent telling you how wonderful you are. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 6/5/16

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