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…and they took him and threw him into a pit. […] Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. (Gen 37, excerpt. Full reading at end of post.)

“…they threw him in a pit…”

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Preamble: There are so many ways in which today’s scripture reading parallels yesterday’s events in Charlottesville VA, it’s a bit scary.  Both are stories of murderous hatred between brothers.

In the context of yesterday’s news this sermon may be difficult to talk about and to hear. But as the apostle Paul says, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the evils of this world. It is a spiritual battle.  No human being, no group, no political party, ever perfectly represents God’s will.  Only God can do that. And so today, even in the midst – especially in the midst – of our fear and our anger, we turn to God’s word for comfort and for direction.

As our sermon opens, we’ll be listening in on one of Jacob’s sons expressing his hatred for his brother.

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“What a brat! Can you imagine living with a kid brother like Joseph?  Oh, he’s Daddy’s favorite, he is.

“His mama was Daddy’s favorite wife too, Rachel. Of course she’s dead now so we can’t speak ill of her. But we older boys in the family have always had to pick up the slack from little Joseph and his bratty little brother Benjamin.

“Those two never pull their weight around here.  All of us – the sons of Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah – we do all the work.  Put up the tents! Take down the tents! Feed the animals! Take the animals out to pasture! Defend the family from creeps like those Shechemites who raped our sister! But nobody helps us!

“Meanwhile Joseph sits around the tent in the pretty robe Dad made him, doing absolutely nothing.  Oh, yeah, he’ll come out and help the younger brothers with the animals sometimes. But then he runs home to Dad and tattles on us.  I mean, so what if Dan and Asher drink and rough-house a little? So what if people in the town don’t like it? They’re young, they’ve got wild oats to sow. What’s that to Joseph?

“But noooo… he has to run home and tell Daddy.  And of course Dad believes every word he says. He could tell Dad the moon was purple and Dad would believe him.

“I can’t stand that brat.

“Oh! And here’s the best part.  Lately he’s been having dreams.  He dreams he has a big tall sheaf of wheat and all of our sheaves gather around it and bow down to it.  I mean, who does he think he is?!?  He’s the second-youngest son of twelve sons.  Reuben is the oldest – if anybody’s in charge he is, and he would never lord it over us. But this little runt thinks he’s going to be king?

“Oh, and then he had another dream.  He said he saw the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. Even Dad objected to that one – he said, “son, you think me and your mothers and brothers are going to bow to you?” But you know what, even while he was saying it I could tell Dad half-believed him.

“One thing’s for certain though – Dad will never punish Joseph for going on about those dreams. Oh, no… not the golden boy. Who needs him? Stick to the tents you little runt… go home and be with Daddy.  Sometimes I wish he would just drop off the face of the earth.

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That’s what I imagine Jacob’s boys would tell us if we could transport ourselves back in time 4000 years.  Many of us here today have brothers and sisters and have had our share of sibling rivalries, but for most of us it was nothing compared to this.

But I think it’s easy to sympathize with Jacob’s boys.  Even in average families, the oldest kids always complain they do all the work, and the youngest are getting away with murder. In Jacob’s family the youngest  sons were favored, because their mother was the favorite wife – which wasn’t fair to the rest of the boys.

And in our story when some of the boys actually do try to take matters into their own hands, it’s the oldest – Reuben – who is responsible and talks them out of it. When the younger sons throw Joseph into a pit, Reuben figures he’ll leave Joseph there for a while to think things over and then come back later and pull him out and send him home safely.

But when Reuben isn’t looking, the other brothers see some traders on their way to Egypt and decide to make some money instead of committing murder.

Picture the scene: Joseph, all of 17 years old, stripped of his robe, crying out for mercy, while his brothers haggle over what his life is worth.  How angry were they to ignore their brother on his knees, weeping and begging for his life?

Unknown to all of them, in this horrific moment the wheels of history are turning. What the brothers are doing is reprehensible, and the pain their father will feel is unthinkable.

Yet on a larger scale, this one action will set into motion a series of events that will save millions of lives and define the nation of Israel from which the Messiah Jesus will come.

Years later Joseph will say to his brothers, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.”  And that’s very true. But in today’s story that’s still many years away.

For today we need to spend some time with the tragedy of this deeply dysfunctional family – because we see in this story a microcosm of the deeply dysfunctional human family in which all of us live.

So two things I’d like to focus on today: (1) what scripture tells us about Jacob’s family; and (2) what Joseph’s story says to us as Christians in the 21st century.

  • What Genesis tells us.

Genesis tells us Jacob was living in an town called Hebron, south of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea. Jacob’s sons were feeding the flocks in Shechem, a city about 50 miles away, north of Jerusalem in what Jesus would have called Samaria.  The distance between Jacob and his sons is about the same as the distance between here and Morgantown WV.

Shepherds back in those days needed to move around to find good pastures, but it’s doubtful they needed to go that far to find green grass.  The whole issue with Joseph caused such hard feelings that the boys were putting physical distance between themselves and their father.

On top of that, Shechem is also where, a few years before, Jacob’s daughter (their sister) Dinah had been raped and the brothers took revenge by killing a bunch of Shechemites. So they had worn out their welcome in this part of the country.  When Joseph arrived in Shechem he found his brothers had already moved on, even further north, to a city named Dothan, which is about as far from Shechem as we are from Monroeville, so Joseph had about another day to walk to get to them.

The name ‘Dothan’ translated from the Hebrew means “Law” – and we could say that the sons of Jacob, having run away from their father Israel and his God, are now trying to live by the Law (so to speak) and not by the grace of the word of God. We’ll come back to that in a moment. Physically, the brothers are moving northwest, headed in the direction of the Plain of Megiddo, or as we call it today, Armageddon.

I don’t think that’s coincidence. To make a long story short, they’re headed in the wrong direction. They’re moving away from their father, away from their families, away from those who care about them, away from righteous living, away from God, and into major trouble. And they’re so angry with Joseph, scripture says they couldn’t even greet him with the traditional greeting: they couldn’t even say shalom to him.

On some level their father Jacob must have known they were in trouble, which is why he sent Joseph to them. But the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance and made plans to take his life. When Joseph got to Dothan, they stripped off his robe, tossed him in a pit… and then sat down to have lunch!

Can you imagine doing that? And yet even today people kill and steal and lie and cheat and abuse their spouses or their children – or light torches and surround churches in the night – and then go sit down and eat a meal like it’s nothing.

In our passage, Joseph’s brothers then spotted the caravan of Ishmaelites.  We met Ishmael earlier this summer: he’s the half-brother of Isaac, son of Abraham.  So the men in the caravan were their grandfather’s brother’s grandchildren. We don’t know if they actually knew each other, but Jacob’s sons were able to identify them as “Ishmaelites” on sight.

So the brothers decide to sell Joseph to their second cousins. And now they can go home and honestly say they didn’t kill Joseph, and they don’t where he is – they have total deniability – and they will come away with little extra money in their pockets.

And Joseph – the one who was sent by their father to help them – is bound and carried away to Egypt.

At first glance this story doesn’t seem to have anything to recommend it at all.  There’s nothing here we want to model our lives on. There are no good examples to follow (except for maybe Joseph, and Joseph comes across as innocent but very naïve).

  • So what does this all mean to us as Christians in the 21st century?

One of the common themes in Christian theology is that Joseph is a ‘type’ of Jesus.  That is, there are similarities between Joseph’s story and Jesus’ story – so much so that Joseph’s life can – in some ways – be interpreted as a prophecy of the Messiah. Looking at Joseph helps us understand Jesus.

For example: Genesis 37:3 tells us “Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his children.” In Matthew, God says about Jesus: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Not that Jacob didn’t love his other children, and not that God doesn’t love all God’s children.  But Jesus is set apart, just as Joseph was set apart. Joseph was clothed by his father in a special robe; Jesus was clothed by his Father in the Holy Spirit and in power.

Here’s another. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers hate him out of envy. In the gospels, the religious authorities – the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees – hate Jesus out of envy.  Mark 15:10 says, “the chief priests delivered Jesus up out of envy.” And Jesus in his parable of the vineyard says, “the tenants saw the son coming and said ‘here is the heir – let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.’”

Here’s another. In both stories there is a prophecy that the Son will one day rule as king.  Joseph dreams of his brothers bowing down to him – which ended up actually happening. Joseph knew his dreams had to do with the future. He never intended them to lord over his brothers – he was trying to tell them the future that was coming!  And in Matthew, Jesus says, “you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64)  And the apostle Paul says one day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is not Jesus ‘lording’ himself over us. He’s telling us what’s coming.

Joseph and Jesus both are sent to look out for the welfare of their brothers (and sisters). Both willingly go and search diligently until the people they’re seeking are found.  But as it says in the gospel of John, “he came to his own, and his own received him not.”  And this true of both Jesus and Joseph. The people who have gone to Dothan – that is, to the law – have rejected salvation as the gift of God, and both Joseph and Jesus plead with them to hear the voice of the Father and change direction – because the law cannot save; only God the Father can.

Joseph and Jesus both are condemned to die by those they came to help.  Both are stripped of their robes. Both are thrown into a pit (in Jesus’ time, prisons looked more like pits than jail cells).  Both are denied justice, or even a fair hearing. Both are sold for silver placed in the hand.

And as Joseph begins his new life in Egypt, the parallels between his life and the life of Jesus will continue. We’ll look at that next week.

For today, we leave ten brothers in a field, with hatred and violence and guilt in their hearts, far from where they should be, far from God, and far from home.  In a few days Jacob’s heart will break when they show him Joseph’s robe, covered in blood.

For today we leave Joseph on the road to Egypt… and Jesus on the road to Calvary. And just like back then, people are sitting down and eating and going about life like nothing has happened.

Next week we will see how the stories end. Until then, think about the people in these stories. Think about the choices they made. Think about their fear and hatred and anger, and where it leads.

Then think about God the Father, who like Jacob, suffers when his children suffer. Think about Jesus, who like Joseph, willingly searched for us and found us no matter what it cost him. Think about Joseph’s dreams of someday ruling, and the prophecies that Jesus will one day rule.  Are we, his brothers and sisters, ready for his coming kingdom? Are we ready to lay down our anger and our fears and make peace with God?

Think on these things… and we’ll pick up here next week. AMEN.

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Genesis 37:1-28  Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.  2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.  3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.  4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.  6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.  7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”  8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.  9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”  14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem,  15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”  16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”  17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.  18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.  20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”  22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”– that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.  23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;  24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.  26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.  28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/13/17

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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

When a parent takes their child to the big city for the first time, walking down the street, it’s “I’ve got you… don’t let go!”  Or when a child is learning how to swim: “Go ahead, try it… I won’t let you go.”

Lovers say it to each other, and love songs are full of the feeling. “Hold On” “I’ll Never Let You Go” “Stand By Me”  “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”

Sometimes love songs go a little too far, for example Sting:

“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.”

(…which Sting calls his “Stalker Song”. Sting says he gets a bit worried when fans play this song at their weddings!)

This passionate sentiment of ‘not letting go’ is expressed in our readings from both Genesis and Romans today. In Genesis 32 a man says it to God, and in Romans 8 God says it to us.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel – Arthur Sussman
“Kick at the Darkness Until It Bleeds Daylight”

Let’s look at Genesis first.  In this passage we see the patriarch Jacob alone in the wilderness, wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be… sort of a human manifestation of God.  How Jacob came to be in this particular place on this particular night is a long story. So to make a long story short:

Jacob has been struggling and wrestling with God all his life. Even before Jacob was born, God told his mother Rebekah that her younger son (Jacob) would be blessed by God and would rule over her older son Esau.  As time went on, this started to become true, but for some reason Jacob and Rebekah felt a need to help God out a bit.  So first Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, and then he cheats him out of his father’s blessing.

At this point Esau is so angry he starts plotting to murder his brother Jacob.  So Rebekah sends Jacob about 500 miles away to stay with her brother Laban for safe-keeping.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder, on which he sees angels going up and down into heaven, and hears God say:

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15, edited)

Jacob is so amazed and moved by this meeting, he sets up a stone and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God.” Jacob has now heard, with his own ears, the same promise his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham heard God speak.  And yet when he gets to Laban’s place, Jacob still takes matters into his own hands.

And now, twenty years later, he finds himself with two wives (only one of which he asked for), eleven sons and a daughter, and huge flocks of sheep and goats – most of which he has more-or-less cheated his father-in-law out of. So Jacob’s family is now quite rich, but Jacob himself is tired and discouraged, and has worn out his welcome with just about everybody, and is caught between an angry father-in-law and an estranged brother.

So now Jacob is on the way home. Afraid of what he might meet, Jacob sends his wives and kids and animals on ahead while he spends a night alone.  But suddenly he finds himself wrestling with a mysterious man.

All.Night.Long.

As the night wears on, the wrestler puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go.  Finally the sun begins to rise, and the wrestler says “let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

…as if Jacob would be able to prevent God’s departure!  You have to admire Jacob’s chutzpah. You also have to admire the rich grace of a God who is willing to spend a whole night wrestling with a mere mortal – just to teach him how to say “I will not let you go.”

So the wrestler, now revealed as God, blesses Jacob with the words:

“You shall no longer be called Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’) but [you shall be called] Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

In the ancient world, names meant something, much more than they do in our culture. And the meaning of the name ‘Israel’ has been much debated.  I’ve often seen it translated as ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘he wrestles with God’.  But the Hebrew word, Isra-El, describes God, not Jacob. So a more accurate translation might be “God struggles” or “God wrestles”.

Of course it takes two to tango.  God has been wrestling with Jacob… and Jacob has been wrestling with God… all his life.  Now, finally, Jacob is at the point where he’s ready to put things in God’s hands.

For us, where we are today, if we find ourselves at the end of our ropes or at the end of our strength, if we’re hurting and ready to quit, if we feel like strangers in a strange land, will we look to God (as Jacob did) and say “I will not let you go unless you bless me”?  Will we hold on to God with all the passion of a romantic lover?

It’s a choice. Holding on to God is not so much rooted in feeling, as it is a decision.  It’s a persistence.

[As an aside – I think the ‘holding on’ and ‘not letting go’ that popular love songs sing about often has more in common with addiction than it does with faith. One of the things I discovered in my younger days is that it’s impossible to get ‘hooked on’ God.  A person can get addicted to religion or to church (or to church music) or to one kind of theology or another. But somehow God in His mercy has made it impossible to get hooked on Him.  For those of us with addictive streaks in our personalities, it would be easier to be a Christian if we could just get hooked on God because then we wouldn’t have to worry about letting go. We’d have to have God. There would be no choice in the matter.  But God has made human beings in such a way that our faithfulness and our tenacity has to be a choice, moment by moment, day by day.]

The fly in the ointment of course is that none of us is perfect, so none of us can hold on to God perfectly. And none of us is infinitely strong, so none of us can hold on forever. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in. Romans assures us that when we come to the end of our strength, the end our abilities, God will not let go.  Jesus, who loved us even to death, is holding on to us and will not let go.

The apostle Paul says this is true in spite of any persecution or trouble we may face. It’s true no matter what. And then Paul lists a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from God.  They include:

  • Death. Life. (That covers most of it, doesn’t it?)
  • Angels (fallen or otherwise)
  • At this point the Greek gets a little open to variation – most translations say ‘principalities’ (which is true enough – principalities can’t make God let go of us). But the word looks more like ‘the first things’ followed by ‘the present’ and then ‘the things that are to come’. In other words, past, present and future. Nothing in our past can make God let go of us. Nothing in our present can get in God’s way. And the future is nothing to fear when we’re in God’s hands.
  • Heights or depths (this can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The highest high you’ve ever known can’t surpass God, and the deepest depression you’ve ever felt can’t overwhelm God.)
  • Nor anything else in all creation (Paul says) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God will never let us go.  Is this not good news?

And so as we move into this week and into our daily lives, think about how Jacob wrestled with God, and refused to let go.  Try approaching God in prayer with that kind of mindset and tenacity.

But also remember God is holding on to us, and God won’t let go, so we are secure no matter what happens, no matter what comes our way. We go out into the world in the confidence of God’s love that cannot be shaken.

God loves you – and will never let you go.  AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Home and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 8/6/17

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

“Kick at the Darkness” article by Victoria Emily Jones. Pull-quote:

“In the painting God’s various sets of hands are breaking Jacob down and holding him up. Some of his faces speak gentleness, some fierceness. Whatever mixture of approaches God may use on us, his goal is this: to bring us through our brokenness to a place of blessing and glory.”

With thanks to Fr. Paul Johnston for bringing these works into our worship today.

~

Scriptures

Genesis 32:22-31

“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”

 

Romans 8:35-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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Genesis 29:15-28  Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”  Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.  Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”  Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”  So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”  So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast.  But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.  (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)  When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”  Laban said, “This is not done in our country– giving the younger before the firstborn.  Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”  Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. – Genesis 29:15-28

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The Little Chapel, Gurnsey, UK, is made up of broken pieces of porcelain cups, saucers, and dishes.

This morning we continue in our summer series on the Old Testament, looking at the foundations of our Christian faith as it’s found in the early history of the people of Israel.  But the events in today’s reading are dark, and they seem a looooong way from the Christian faith.

So to lead off, a quick summary of the message in today’s lesson:

Mortal nature is to mess things up, but God’s nature is to set things right. Ultimately, God will set all things right through Jesus the Messiah. Today’s story helps us get to know the family into which the Messiah will be born.  Like them, we can’t do God’s will apart from God’s help.  But also like them, if we trust God, God uses the raw and imperfect material of our lives to create blessings for the world.

LittleChapel2

Detail of one of the walls of the Little Chapel, where the pieces of porcelain can be clearly seen.

That’s the summary. Here’s how we get there.

The story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, which we read today, takes place in a culture that’s very foreign to us, and therefore is open to misunderstanding.  As I thought about that this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had a number of years ago with an English friend.  She’d been living in the States for a few years and was still learning about our country. In the course of a conversation I said to her “the coffee shop is catty-corner from the bank”.  And she said “what?” And I repeated myself, and she said “spell that please”.  I said, “Catty-corner? I’m not sure. Some people say ‘kitty-corner’ – I don’t know which is right.” She said, “I thought you were giving me directions, why are we talking about cats?”

And it dawned on me that we were tripping over one of the differences between American and British English… so I thought about it… and I said to her “the coffee shop is diagonally opposite the bank”. She said, “Why didn’t you say so?!?” And we laughed and talked for about 15 minutes about words and the proper spelling of ‘catty-corner’ and the fact that no American would ever say ‘diagonally opposite’.

So if this level of confusion can happen between two women of the same age, with similar backgrounds, with similar education, speaking the same language (theoretically) – how difficult is it for us to grasp the mindset of people living 4000 years ago, halfway around the world, who spoke a language that is about as different from English as a person can get and still be on the same planet?

On the other hand, today’s story is shocking to any audience, anywhere – though maybe not for the same reasons.  For example, when Jacob barters for his bride this may strike us as a form of human trafficking; but the tradition of a ‘bride-price’ was not about selling women; it had to do with compensating a family for the hardship of removing one of the family members.

I remember talking to a classmate from Africa about this once. He told me he gave 14 cows for the right to marry his wife.  And I looked at him and asked, “you mean 14 actual cows? Or the money that would buy 14 cows?” He laughed and said, “14 actual cows.”  And he explained, these cows would help to replace some of the food and some of the labor that his wife’s removal from the family would take away. It makes sense in a country where people live off the land and work with their hands.

So turning to our story for today: Laban – Jacob’s uncle – comes to Jacob one day. Jacob has been visiting for about a month and has been helping out around the farm, and Laban says, “you are my kinsman: why are you working for me for free? Tell me what you’d like for your wages.”

Laban is opening a negotiation here. He’s getting ready to bargain.  But he’s doing more than that.  He’s exploring Jacob’s motives.  Laban knows Jacob’s family is rich. A generation earlier, when Abraham sent a servant to Laban’s father to look for a wife for Isaac, Laban was witness to the negotiations.  He remembers the rich treasures the servant gave his family.  He saw how Abraham’s servant was led by God to Laban’s family and to his sister Rebekah, who married Isaac and became the mother of Jacob.

But unlike Abraham’s servant, who came with piles of jewels, Jacob arrived empty-handed.  So Laban knows something’s not quite right at home. How much he knows we don’t know.  Whether Jacob told him about his feud with Esau, or that his brother was trying to kill him, the Bible doesn’t say.

But Laban has also had a month to watch Jacob work. And he has observed a young man who is hard-working and gifted with animals.  And while Jacob has been with Laban, God has increased Laban’s flocks and his wealth, and Laban is liking that.

So Laban is not just opening a negotiation. He is asking a leading question in a very polite way. He knows Jacob is in love with his daughter Rachel, and he’s giving Jacob the opportunity to ask for her hand.

And Jacob pounces on the opportunity.  He says: “I will work for you for seven years in exchange for your daughter Rachel.”

It’s interesting that Laban didn’t haggle over how many years. He accepted Jacob’s first offer, so it must have been a good one. And the writer of Genesis tells us the seven years “seemed to Jacob but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

In that culture, in that time, as soon as Laban and Jacob made the agreement, Rachel was considered legally married – even though they didn’t actually get married right away. A similar thing happens in the Christmas story, where we’re told Mary and Joseph were ‘betrothed’ but had not come together yet.  In that culture marriages were considered legal when they were agreed on, not when the ceremony happened. In the in-between time both the man and the woman would be getting a home ready: furnishing it, gathering or making goods they would need as a family… and when everything was ready, then there would be a marriage feast, followed by the couple moving in together.

So what we’re seeing here in this story is the traditional course of events: Jacob and Rachel have seven years to get their household ready.  And finally when the seven years are up, Jacob comes to Laban and says, “My seven years are up: Rachel and I would like to start a family.” So Laban puts on a feast and gathers all the family and neighbors together and they have a huge party.  And at the end of the evening, when Jacob goes to bed, probably a bit tipsy, Laban comes to Jacob’s tent, bringing a bride who’s wearing a veil, and leaves the two of them together.

And in the morning Jacob wakes up and discovers Leah!

This is where the story gets shocking. Even in the old days this kind of thing was not done.  This is a deception of epic proportions. How could a man do this to his nephew? How could a father do this to his daughters? And did Rachel and Leah go along with this? Or were they given no choice? Why?

Scripture never answers these questions. When Jacob confronts Laban the next morning saying “What have you done? Where is my wife?” Laban answers, “It is not done in our country that the younger daughter should be married before the firstborn.”  And that’s a bogus reason, because Laban has had seven years in which to find a husband for Leah. He didn’t do it.

The only thing we do know – from our perspective in the distant future – is that somehow God’s will and God’s plan is moving forward anyway. Not that God approves of lying or cheating or deceiving or two sisters marrying one man, far from it. But in spite of all this: in spite of Laban’s deception, in spite of the pain Leah feels at being rejected by her husband, in spite of the pain Rachel will feel seeing her sister having baby after baby while she is without children, in spite of the pain Jacob will feel because there’s no peace in his home… it will take years, but eventually the blessing God promised Jacob will come.

Before Jacob went to Laban’s house, God promised Jacob to bless him and to bless the world through his family. And slowly God’s plan moves forward. In time Jacob becomes wealthy and moves home to Bethel with all his children and his wives and his livestock. On their way home, God gives Jacob a new name: Israel – which means ‘he wrestles with God’. And Jacob’s twelve sons will become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel – the founders of a nation.

Two things I would like to point out from this story today:

  1. Even though we believers believe in love, sometimes love is not enough
  2. God can create beauty and blessing in spite of our human brokenness

To the first point: The story of Jacob and his family is essentially a Jewish story, so I turned to some Jewish theologians to hear what they had to say.  One of the things that comes through clearly in Jewish writing is love.  Writers point out that nowhere in scripture does it say that Jacob hated Leah – in fact he probably liked her and may have loved her. He just wasn’t in love with her. He didn’t want her the way he wanted Rachel.

One Jewish theologian says: sometimes love alone is not enough. Sometimes justice is needed. In this story, both Rachel and Leah are loved – but not equally, and so there is no justice. Not for Leah, not for Rachel, not even for Jacob.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says the following about this passage: “If you want to live well, love. If you seek to be close to G‑d, love. […] But love is not enough. […] Justice without love is harsh. Love without justice is unfair, or so it will seem to the less-loved. […] At the heart of the moral life is a conflict with no simple resolution. There is no general rule to tell us when love is the right reaction and when justice is [the right reaction]. Let us love, but let us never forget those who feel unloved.”

In a perfect world, love and justice would never conflict with each other. And in God’s kingdom, love and justice are two sides of the same coin.  But in our broken world, if and when love and justice come into conflict, we have prayer and we have God’s Holy Spirit to guide our decisions and our actions.

To the second point, that God’s plan continues, and that God will bless even through our brokenness: God’s design throughout Genesis is to create a nation, a people, for Himself.  God is creating a group of people who, as God’s people, will bless all the nations of the earth.

In spite of everything Jacob has done to his brother Esau, in spite of everything Laban has done to Jacob, God’s plan is moving forward.  The sons who will be born to Jacob and his wives will be the fathers of the nation from which the Messiah will be born.

So as it says in Romans 8:28 – “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” and in Romans 8:31 – “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

In life there are lots of things that happen that we don’t understand.  I don’t know why my one friend is unemployed; I don’t know why another friend just can’t seem to get free of the drugs.  So many things in life we don’t understand. But we can trust that in God’s hands all these broken pieces will somehow come together to create beauty and to be a blessing. Because if God is for us, who can be against us?

So today we see in the story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah three broken people who, like many of us, were thrown into a life they didn’t exactly choose.  God takes those broken pieces and builds a people, and builds a future, and blesses the world through them.  Through their faith, and by God’s grace, someday in God’s kingdom all of Jacob’s family will be wearing crowns and standing around God’s throne… and if we remain faithful, someday each one of us will be wearing crowns too.

To God be the glory, AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/30/17

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“The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.  12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.  16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 21:8-21   

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Today’s sermon is the second installment in our summer series on the Old Testament. And our scripture reading for today, from Genesis, tells the story of a party.

The party takes place about 4000 years ago and is given by a man named Abraham to celebrate his baby boy starting to eating solid food – which was something to celebrate back in those days because many babies didn’t survive past infancy.

But there is so much drama going on in his household, the story sounds more like a soap opera than a party.  There are cat-fights and betrayals and outrageous if not downright illegal behavior. So I’d like to subtitle this sermon The Not So Young and the Restless.

And as with any soap opera, before we can make sense of what’s happening we need to know the characters and their back-stories.

So the main character is Abraham, the patriarch of the family.  Abraham walks with God.  He has conversations with God and he has received promises from God.  In fact God changed his name from Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) to Abraham (which means ‘father of a multitude’). In Genesis Chapter 12 God says to Abraham:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This is the promise that has guided and defined Abraham’s life.

The second character in our soap opera is Sarah, Abraham’s wife.  Sarah was known for her beauty in her younger days, and now that she’s older she is still a handsome woman, and a formidable woman as well. She is in charge of Abraham’s household, but to her great sorrow she’s never been able to have children.

The third character in our soap opera is Hagar, Sarah’s slave-girl. She’s from Egypt and doesn’t have the same religious or cultural background as Abraham and Sarah.  But Sarah, after waiting for years and years for God’s promise of a child to arrive, gets discouraged and gives Hagar to Abraham to have children for her – which was not an unusual thing to do back in those days.

But when Hagar becomes pregnant she starts to get cocky and lords it over her mistress, and a baby-begetting rivalry begins.  Finally Sarah has enough of Hagar’s attitude and abuses her to the point where Hagar runs away. In Genesis 16 we read, “The angel of the Lord found [Hagar] by a spring of water in the wilderness… and he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Of course the angel already knows the answers to these questions.  But in the Hebrew culture questions like these are not looking for information. They are a respectful way of scolding someone… and also an opportunity for the other person to explain their actions.)

Hagar answers, “I am running away from my mistress Sarah.” – which is more of a pout than a defense.  And the angel says to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”  In other words, ‘grow up’.

But the angel also says, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted… […] You have conceived and will bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael (which means “God hears”), for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.”  So while Hagar has a rough road ahead, she will be comforted by a son – whose name will always remind her (and everyone else around her) that God is watching over her and listening to her voice.

The angel also says Ishmael will be “a wild donkey of a man” who will “live at odds with all his kin.”  And in these words we meet the fourth character in our soap opera, Ishmael, Hagar’s son. The Bible doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Ishmael’s childhood but it does say he was circumcised along with all the other men in Abraham’s family. So Ishmael is in every way a member of Abraham’s covenant family under God.

A few years before today’s drama takes place, when Abraham is about 90 years old, God visits him and repeats his promise about Abraham’s offspring.  But Abraham, in discouragement, says, “You have given me no offspring, and a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  But God answers, “This man shall not be your heir…” And he took him outside and said, “…count the stars… so shall your descendants be.”

And Abraham believed God, and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  This is the first time in scripture where righteousness is defined as believing God; where faith is defined as the key to a right relationship with God.  We can watch for that theme to repeat itself as we progress through the Bible.

Then last Sunday, on Fathers’ Day, we read about Abraham finally becoming a father.  By the time God’s promise finally came true, and the baby boy was born, Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah was in her 90s.  And since by that time both Abraham and Sarah had laughed when God told them a child would be born to them, the baby is named “Isaac” which means “he laughs”.

And this brings us to the beginning of our soap opera for today.

The scene opens on Isaac’s weaning party, celebrating the fact that Isaac has made it through infancy and his life ahead looks good.

But for Ishmael, if he ever had dreams about being Abraham’s heir, this day pretty much puts an end to that.  And scripture says, “Sarah saw [him] playing with her son Isaac.”

This is not as innocent as it sounds.  A better translation might be ‘mocking’ or ‘picking on’ Isaac. And Ishmael, being around 14 years old at this point, should have known better.

For Sarah it’s the last straw. She says to Abraham: “[Get rid of] this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Notice Sarah doesn’t even say their names… it’s just “this slave woman” and “her son”.

Abraham is not happy about this.  He doesn’t want to get involved in a cat-fight, but he also knows this time things are not going to blow over. So God has a word with Abraham and says:

“Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring will be named for you.”  God also adds, “I will make Ishmael fruitful as well, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes will he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” (Gen 17)

So both boys will be blessed, and so Abraham’s mind is put at rest.  The next morning Abraham gives Hagar bread and a skin of water and sends her off with Ishmael.

Not knowing where to go and what to do, Hagar and Ishmael wander around in the wilderness of Beer-sheba for a while, until the bread and the water are gone. (The name Beer-sheba means ‘seven wells’ but for some reason they’re not coming across these wells in their travels.)  And as thirst grows, Ishmael becomes weak. Hagar, devastated, throws him under a bush and then goes off at a distance to wait for the inevitable. She says, “do not let me look on the death of the child” – and she breaks down and weeps.

And Genesis says, “God heard the voice of the boy (interesting it doesn’t say ‘heard the voice of his mother’ – at this point the boy’s voice would have been the weaker of the two, but God still hears it.)  And God calls to Hagar and says, “[I have] heard the voice of the boy where he is… lift him up, hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” And then God opened her eyes to see a well, and she went and got water for them both.

Hagar responds to God with faith – the same kind of faith that Abraham showed when God spoke about Isaac.  Whoever she’s been in the past and whatever she’s done, Hagar now trusts God and walks with God.

And that’s where our story today ends. But there’s a lot more to the story. Over the next few weeks we will be hearing more about Isaac’s story, and his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they become the people of Israel.

But we won’t hear about Ishmael again in our series.  So here’s the rest of his story.  Hagar found Ishmael a wife, and the family settled in the wilderness of Paran, which is sort of a desert area. Later in life Isaac and Ishmael together will bury their father Abraham in the family cave – so the two boys don’t lose touch with each other completely.  And Ishmael will go on to have twelve sons, just as God told Abraham. And these twelve sons will lead twelve tribes, paralleling Jacob’s sons and their twelve tribes. Jacob and his sons will end up in Egypt eventually, and then to the Promised Land; Ishmael and his sons will settle in what is known today as west-central Saudi Arabia.

And that’s where Ishmael’s story in the Bible ends. But there’s one more postscript in history: Ishmael will spend his last years living in a city called Mecca, and he will become the ancestor of a man named Mohammed. And the family rift between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael will grow wider and wider over the centuries, always at each other – just as the angel predicted.

And this continues even to our own time. And when we think about how this rivalry between brothers plays out in today’s world, the story doesn’t look like a soap opera any more.  It’s painful and it’s violent. And we begin to understand the depth of the conflict that was going on inside Abraham’s family.

So what do we do with this ancient story today?

First, we need to try to set politics aside. Our world is SO politically charged – but this story is God’s word, and it’s God’s message we want to listen for.

Second, we see in these events a God who forgives sin. God gave Abraham and Sarah a promise, of a son. And they believed that promise, for the most part.  But did their faith slip a little? – or did they think they needed to help God out? – when they gave Hagar to Abraham? God never said anything about Abraham needing a second wife!  One commentator notes: “The bright ideas that God’s people get with good intentions to hurry the Lord’s plans along, often create more frustration and heartbreak…” than anything else. (http://www.hvcog.org/e-mails/2016e/october_20_2016.htm )

But God forgave the parents, and blessed both boys as children of Abraham. God may not remove the consequences but God redeems the circumstances.  If any of us should find ourselves in a place where we have made a doozy of a mistake: God will forgive if we turn to him. God’s plans for good in our lives are not changed or prevented by our mistakes. So be encouraged.

Third, God is as committed to blessing Ishmael as he is to blessing Isaac.  Both boys were predicted by God. Both boys were received into the covenant and were circumcised.  Only one of them can become the forefather of Jesus – and that will be Isaac – but this does not mean Ishmael is loved any less by God.

This passage shows that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam find a physical connection in Abraham. And in all three faiths God is understood as one God (as opposed to many gods, like in Hinduism) and God is a personal God (as opposed to a ‘force’ or ‘life energy’ of some kind).

But salvation is and always has been by faith in God’s promise – which ultimately is Jesus – no matter who we are or where we find ourselves.  The apostle Paul tells us there will come a time when the Jewish people will understand that Jesus is the Messiah and will believe (for more details see Romans chapters 9-11).

And for Muslims, the good news of salvation by faith alone is probably the most attractive aspect of Christianity today.  I mention this as friends and colleagues return from mission work among the refugees in Europe, where Muslims are coming to Christ by the thousands. I think for us it might be helpful to draw a parallel between the Muslims of today and the Samaritans of Jesus’ day.  Remember Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John – the woman began by saying to him:

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:20-24

So in Jesus we see all three streams coming together, because Jesus is the completion of all three streams, received by faith and worshipped ‘in spirit and in truth’. This gives hope for those of us who reach out across religious lines to share our faith in Jesus.

Fourth and last, in this story we see a God who hears.  God hears both Sarah’s laughter and her anger. God hears Abraham’s discouragement.  God hears the pain of a pregnant slave-girl who has been abused. God hears the cries of a young man near death. And God not only hears, but God responds.

God does not remove the difficult situations; but neither is God’s blessing lost just because people have messed up.  God’s good plans to bless Abraham’s family and to bless the whole world through Abraham’s family, are still going forward, and God’s people will not just survive but thrive.

So if we find ourselves going through difficulties, we can be assured that our mistakes and our shortcomings won’t put a stop to God’s blessings. Our imperfections don’t stop God’s good plans for us and for our children.  We are not rejected just because we mess up.  God has made a road through the wilderness and through the pain and into glory.

God’s kingdom is never lost to us, and God’s love is never lost to us, so long as we stay with God. So take heart – and follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, trusting God and following God as they did: imperfectly, but faithfully.

AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/25/17

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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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