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Paul writes: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:4-14

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Last weekend I had the joy of officiating at my first-ever wedding ceremony as an ordained minister. The couple who were getting married were one of those couples who you just know belong together. During our planning meetings I asked the couple to find a scripture reading that expressed their love for each other, something we could use during the ceremony.  They chose an unusual passage from the Song of Solomon:

“Hang my locket around your neck,
wear my ring on your finger.
Love is invincible facing danger and death.
Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.
The fire of love stops at nothing—
it sweeps everything before it.
Flood waters can’t drown love,
torrents of rain can’t put it out.
Love can’t be bought, love can’t be sold—
it’s not to be found in the marketplace.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love
It would be utterly scorned.” – Song of Solomon 8:7-8 (edited)

What a passionate passage!

In our reading from Philippians today, the apostle Paul shows the same passionate love for Jesus.  He says: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul was willing to risk everything, and lose everything life has to offer, in order to know Jesus and become more like him.

Love like this is the greatest thing life has to offer!

The world tries to offer us all kinds of cheap imitations – celebrity-worship, wealth, fame, politics, popularity, success – but like Solomon said, love is not to be found in the marketplace. In fact the kind of love Paul is talking about is very costly.

As an example: I remember back when I was in middle school, former Beatle George Harrison came out with a song called “Give Me Love”.  Some of you might remember it:

“Give me love, give me love,
Give me peace on earth,
Give me light, give me life,
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope, help me cope
With this heavy load
Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul…”

The song is a prayer (if you have any doubts about that, take a close look at the liner notes sometime).  Back in those days, Harrison was a devout Hindu, and he took a LOT of flak for going public with his religion.  The media – especially the rock ‘n’ roll press – had nothing good to say about him, and his live concerts were shredded in the reviews (in spite of the fact the concerts were very good).

As a teenager watching all this, what I saw was a man who loved his god passionately and was willing to take all the fame and fortune of a Beatle and put it on the line for the god he loved.  As a Christian, I was wishing it was Jesus he was in love with… but even so, I was touched by the depth of commitment and passion Harrison sang about in his songs. And when I looked around at the church back then, with rare exceptions, very few people I knew were willing to put their reputations on the line for God like that.

I also learned this kind of passionate love for God is attractive (at least for some)… or scary (for others)… either way it is noticed and it holds people’s attention. When hearts are on fire with love for God, people notice.

So it became my prayer back then: to learn how to love Jesus that much. And I can’t say I’ve quite gotten there yet – I’m still working on it.  I also prayed that God would lead me to other people who love Jesus that much, who could show me how it’s done, and God has answered that prayer and still is answering it.

Paul is one of those people who loves Jesus that much and can show us how it’s done.  So let’s listen to what he has to say:

Paul starts out today’s passage talking about ‘having confidence in the flesh’.  To get his meaning we need to back up a few verses, where Paul says “beware of those who work evil, who mutilate the flesh, for it is we who are the circumcision.” (Phil. 3:2-3 paraphrased)

What Paul is referring to is false teachers who are trying to tell the Gentile believers they have to be circumcised in order to be saved.  Paul is saying there is nothing we can do, in or to the body, that can make us holy – because true circumcision is circumcision of the heart. We who worship, worship in spirit and in truth, and we boast in Christ, not in the flesh.

Paul goes on to say “if anyone were to have reason to be confident in the flesh, I would be above them all.”  Paul was circumcised at eight days old, he was born an Israelite in the tribe of Benjamin; he was a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, he was absolutely blameless under the Law of Moses. Going by Old Testament righteousness, Paul was about as holy as a person could get.

But Paul says “whatever profit I had, I consider it loss because of Christ”.  Another way to translate this phrase might be “whatever gains I made, I consider them damage.”  Not just losing the profit, but actual damage.

Paul goes on to say, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” (the Greek translation could also be ‘offscourings’… that gross stuff that gets stuck to the bottom of the frying pan when food gets burned, that you have to scrape off) – “I consider everything as offscourings in order than I may gain Christ.”

Paul gave up his family life, hometown, native country, career, reputation, his standing in the community – he went from being a promising up-and-comer in the temple to being in jail. He gave up freedom, he gave up possessions, he lost his physical health, basically he lost everything – and he says “I regard it all as offscourings in order to know Jesus, and gain Christ, and to be found in Him, not standing in my own righteousness but in the righteousness from God…”

Not every Christian is called by God to give up all the things Paul gave up, though we may be called on to give up some of them. The point is, Jesus means so much to Paul, that he doesn’t even miss these things just so long as he can know Jesus.

And then Paul says “becoming like him in his death”. Paul is not suggesting trying to get crucified, and he is not suggesting his own death has any redeeming power.  The Greek expression here is more like “to come together with Jesus and be changed into his likeness”. Not Paul changing himself – Paul being changed by a power outside himself.

“Not that I have already received it” Paul says, “but I pursue to overtake and apprehend it, because I have been overtaken and apprehended by Jesus”. (Read that again…)

Isn’t that just like love? It’s like the old saying “he chased her until she caught him”. Paul is pursuing Jesus until Jesus catches him… and then Paul begins to change and become like Jesus.

So Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and stretching out for what is ahead, I pursue the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This kind of love is profoundly different from anything the world has to offer. In our culture I think people are hungering for authenticity, joy, purpose, direction — and this is where it’s to be found.  This kind of love is noticed, and it’s what attracts people to Jesus. The kind of love Paul has for Jesus is the most compelling witness there is.

Paul says “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering…” – and I’d like to focus on each one of those ideas just for a moment:

“I want to know Christ…” Paul is talking about…

  • Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth as a helpless baby.
  • Who grew up in a family, just like us.
  • Jesus, who welcomed children and said “Let the little children come to me… for… to such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19:14)
  • Jesus, who looked in the temple and saw it full of moneychangers and dealers, and was so angry that people were being prevented coming to God that he turned over their tables and threw them out saying “it is written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”
  • Jesus, who looked at the woman caught in adultery and then looked at her accusers, and said, “whoever is without sin… cast the first stone”… and then said to her, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
  • Jesus, who said, “come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
  • Jesus, who said, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22?16)

Who could look at Jesus and not love him? Who could hear his words, and not want to be with him?  And then Paul continues: “…[I want to know] the power of Jesus’ resurrection…”

  • The power of Jesus’ resurrection begins with Jesus himself. The grave could not hold him.  The love of God is more powerful than death
  • Jesus said: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:18)
  • Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
  • The apostle John said: “to all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12)
  • And Paul writes in I Corinthians: “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  […] then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:51-57)

Paul wants to know Jesus, and the power of his resurrection. AND Paul wants to share in his sufferings.  In other words, if Jesus is going to suffer, he’s not going to suffer alone.  Paul is going to stand with Jesus no matter what, and in the words of the late Tom Petty, he “won’t back down”.

Unlike Jesus’ suffering, our suffering can’t save anyone.  But we can stand with Jesus as his friends, and when we do we will share in his sufferings. Think about some of the things Jesus suffered in his lifetime:

  • Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt when he was a child
  • Jesus suffered temptation and hunger
  • Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
  • Jesus was rejected by the people in his own hometown.
  • Jesus was harassed by the religious leaders – the very people who should have known who he was and been on his side.
  • Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was brutally murdered for his loyalty to Jesus.
  • Jesus was accused of serving the devil and/or being the devil. He said to his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!  So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matt 10:25-26)

As Jesus’ followers, we may suffer some of these things, and when we do, Jesus says “Rejoice! For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”

When we think about all that Jesus suffered for us, before we even knew him, how can anyone not love him?  Which brings us back to the beginning of Paul’s thought: “I want to know Jesus”.

There’s a church in the south of England where, when a preacher walks into the pulpit, they see a plaque that reads, “we would see Jesus” – a reminder to the preacher to stick to what’s important. I hope we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus this morning.

The challenge for us, now, is to look at our lives and remember those times when we have seen Jesus working in our own lives… when Jesus’ words have touched us, when our lives have become different because we know Jesus. These things become part of our story – that we can share with others, so they can know Jesus too.

But just for today, we join with Paul in saying “not that we have already attained it, but we press on to make it our own” so that we can know Jesus, and stand with him in his sufferings, and know the power of Jesus’ resurrection both now and in the age to come. AMEN

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 10/8/17

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  – Philippians 1:21-30

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Welcome to week two of our series in Philippians.  Last week we kicked off the series by setting the scene for this letter, and this week we begin to dig into the meat of Paul’s message.  Before I do, just a quick review of the cast of characters in this correspondence. Last week we met:

The apostle Paul – the author of the letter, who also wrote probably about half the New Testament.  Paul was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, and moved to Jerusalem as a young man to study with the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his address to the council saves Peter’s life after he was arrested.) Eventually Paul became a Pharisee himself, and when Christianity came along, Paul persecuted the church because he believed they were teaching heresy… until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and at the time Philippians is being written, Paul is in jail awaiting trial, most likely in Rome. We also met…

Timothy – Paul’s disciple and pastor-in-training.  Timothy traveled with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. While Timothy was not arrested, he was with Paul to provide for Paul’s needs while Paul is in jail. Back in those days jails didn’t supply much so it was necessary to have a friend ‘on the outside’ who could bring in what was needed, and that’s what Timothy was doing. We also met…

“The saints in Philippi” – Philippi was the first European city where the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached – and when Paul preached there, one of the first believers was a woman named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth.  She was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.  We also heard about…

The Imperial Guard – who were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to protect the Emperor and his household, and who were also guarding Paul.  So because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Imperial Guard and members of the royal household were hearing the good news of Jesus, and some were becoming believers… and Paul is thrilled with this.  It’s interesting to note the emperor at the time was the infamous character Nero… and it’s entirely possible that Nero heard about Jesus because of Paul.

Paul opens his letter by giving thanks to God for the Philippians – for their faith, and for their faithfulness in friendship, and for supporting him while he’s in jail.  Paul says he’s been praying for them that their love will continue to grow, infused with knowledge and wisdom.

And then he begins to give the Philippians an update on what’s happening in his life, because Paul knows the Philippians are concerned. They know he’s in prison, and they know prison is not a healthy place to be (dirty and disease-ridden compared to our modern prisons, and even today they’re no walk in the park). So Paul fills them in on how he’s doing, and that’s where we pick up today.

Paul is sharing that in spite of the fact he’s in jail, and trying to recover from physical injuries he suffered from shipwreck and flogging, he says he is overjoyed that his sufferings are leading to glory for Jesus and to new life for the people around him. He says he doesn’t mind being in jail when it means others will come to know Jesus. And he’s excited to see his experiences making other believers bold in sharing God’s message.

Paul then declares, “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – and this is such a striking statement I had to make it our focus for today.

“For me, living is Christ” – can we relate to that? When we think about our daily lives, is Jesus so close that every moment is touched by his truth and his love? The answer to that question of course is “yes” whether we’re aware of it or not – because as scripture says, “in him we live and move and have our being”. So Jesus is always close.

But I don’t know if it’s actually possible to be consciously aware of Jesus’ presence every minute of the waking day. When we get really involved in what we’re doing – like driving or cooking or fixing the vacuum cleaner, we tend to block out everything else… and it’s probably a good thing that we’re not distracted when we do these things. But if we stop and reflect for a moment, do we find ourselves thankful for the good meal we just had, or for the skill and knowledge it takes to drive a car or to repair a vacuum? Do we sense God’s goodness with us?  Do we see God working through us, even in small ways, to make our corner of the world just a little bit better? For a Christian, living really is Christ, and many times it is the little moments that make the difference.

But then Paul goes on to say “and dying is gain” or to translate it another way, “dying is profit”. This is tougher to take in, because it seems from our point of view like death means not gain but loss. Death takes away everything we own, everyone we know, our country, our town, our home, our education, our career, even our own bodies. So how can this be gain?

On the other hand, there are times when eternal life with Jesus looks pretty good… especially during painful times.  When we’ve lost someone close to us, or when we’re suffering through a serious illness; or when we’re facing major surgery; or when we get older and realize we’ve got more years behind us than in front of us, and more friends and family already in the Kingdom than here on earth. Those of us who are trusting Jesus, who believe Jesus meant what he said when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” – we know the truth of Paul’s words. None of us looks forward to the actual process of dying, but when we look past death we see something glorious and far better than anything this world can offer.

That’s what Paul has in his sights.  Paul has been through beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment, and now he lives with chronic pain. He’s very aware of his mortality: he’s in prison accused of capital crimes, and he may not get out.

But Paul tells the Philippians he believes he’s going to be released, because God has more for him to do, and because the Philippians have been praying for him. Paul says If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  By the way, this is not Paul being egotistical – he’s not saying “I have to stay here on earth because you need me”.  It’s more like a loving parent who wants to stay alive as long as possible – even if it’s painful – to see their children grow and become the people they are becoming.

Besides that, the Philippians have been praying for Paul, and Paul says ‘I look forward to sharing in your boasting in Christ Jesus’ when Jesus answers their prayer. Paul is saying ‘When I come to visit, there will lots of answered prayers to talk about. You’ll tell me what Jesus has been doing in your life, and I’ll tell you what Jesus has been doing in my life, and we can brag on the Lord.’  It’s kind of like being in the Steelers locker room after a win.  You can hear the guys saying “Man, did you see that play? Did you see Antonio make that catch? Man he pulled that right out of the stratosphere!”

There are times when boasting is appropriate – and when Jesus has given us victory is one of those times! Granted, we need to boast appropriately. There’s a saying in the Old Testament, in the book of I Kings, that says, “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  But when we get the chance to sit down after the spiritual battles and take off the armor for a little while, and share stories of what God has done, it is entirely appropriate to boast. And Paul tells the Philippians he is looking forward to “sharing abundantly” in that boasting.

In the meantime, Paul says, ‘until I can join you, live your lives in a way that brings honor to the gospel of Christ and to the name of Christ. Be one in spirit; strive side by side with one mind for the faith; and don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.’

I wish our churches today – all the denominations – would take these words to heart!  Because all the churches are struggling against divisions right now.  The mission of the church – given by God, to all believers – is to share the gospel message Jesus gave us, and that message is: “the kingdom of heaven is near: change course and believe the good news. Jesus has died and has risen and has broken the chains of sin and death. Trust in him and receive salvation.”

That’s it!  The church’s job is to be God’s ambassadors to a dying world, to save lives. So how can we allow ourselves to be pulled off course by controversies?

Paul says, “stand firm in one spirit… with one mind.”  Does this mean we all have to agree on everything? No!  What it means is we know why we’re here and we agree on the gospel message and we work together in unity to share it.

Paul says: the enemies of the gospel, hearing God’s words through us, understand the words to be the evidence of their own end. And Paul is not being snarky here, he’s telling it like it is.  For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we tend to forget what the gospel sounds like to people who oppose it or who don’t believe it. The words sound sweet to us, but they’re convicting to people who aren’t there yet.  And Paul says, “this is God’s doing” and he leaves it at that.

So coming back to Paul’s original thought – that for him, life is Christ and death is gain, or profit… I wanted to think about the profit angle for a moment.  People who have money learn to invest, and people who have lots of money learn to make the highest possible profit from their investments.

I knew a guy in college whose goal it was to a make a million dollars by the time he was 30 (he was about 18 when he said this). I don’t know if he ever succeeded but I imagine he might have. Because to reach a goal – any goal – takes focus and energy and an unwillingness to be distracted from that goal… and he had those qualities.  I also imagine if he made that first million he probably looked around and said, “OK…what next?” Because human beings have a need for life to be about something.  When we reach a goal, we need another one.

So what if we looked at the things we do every day, and the words we speak, as investments in God’s kingdom? What if, as Jesus suggested, we spent the majority of our time building up treasure in heaven, where rust and moth cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal?  The question then becomes – what can we do that invests in God’s kingdom and what might we do sometimes that might take away from that investment?

The answers to those questions are not easy as one might think. I mean, there are some things we can be sure of: when we obey the Ten Commandments we are investing in God’s kingdom. When we tell others about Jesus we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do the things God has asked us to do, like showing mercy, or welcoming the stranger, or providing for the poor, or feeding the hungry, we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do what Paul is talking about in this letter: living a life worthy of Christ without fearm living in a way that brings honor to God, we are investing in God’s kingdom.

But there are times in scripture when God is doing a new thing and God’s will doesn’t seem to be quite that clear. And in the Christian life, past experience is not always the best guide for future action. God may want to do something totally unexpected. That’s why Paul prays in verse 9 that the love of the Philippians will “overflow with knowledge and full insight”.

Paul knows, as Jesus taught, that love is the fulfillment of God’s law.  But Paul also knows human love can go off course – unless it’s guided by knowledge and has wisdom to infuse it with beauty.

So if our words and actions are rooted in love, that is guided by knowledge or truth and infused with wisdom, we can be confident what we do and what we say is an investment in God’s kingdom.

Paul ends this passage by saying if we do these things there will be times when we suffer for it. So not only is investing in the Kingdom challenging, but when we finally start to get it right, people aren’t going to be thrilled about it!  But Paul sees suffering for Jesus’ sake as a privilege. And Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt 5:11-12)

This doesn’t mean Paul wants to be persecuted or tries to do things that will bring on suffering. There have been times in the church’s history when people have gone overboard with this idea and tried to get themselves persecuted, or even martyred, so they could get God’s blessing.  This is not sound thinking. But if we are doing God’s will, suffering will come, and Paul is honest about that. But Paul says when it comes, we share in the suffering together and we bear each other’s burdens, and God will bless us.

So the bottom line is, whether in suffering or in joy, whether in life or in death, Jesus Christ will be exalted. And no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with us. So to live is Christ; and to die is gain.  Let’s pray. 

 Lord, we are challenged by Paul’s words, and yet we are encouraged to hear about his joy and his boldness in the face of adversity.  Show us how we can invest in your Kingdom in our own time, by what we do and by what we say. Help us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Help us to be one in spirit and in mind as we share the faith and fulfill your commission. Help us to be faithful, as the Philippian church was faithful, bringing honor and glory to your name. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/24/17

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Welcome to the first installment in our our sermon series in Philippians!  This past summer we were in the Old Testament, and now we move into the New Testament, which is a bit closer to our own period in history, and a bit more familiar, thank goodness.

But we’re still looking at history. So for those of you like me who struggled through history class in school: for whatever it’s worth I think history is supposed to be about people, not memorizing places and events and dates. And people are always interesting, no matter what time period they lived in. So as we begin Philippians, I want to start by introducing the people.  If you have a Bible near you in the pews and would like to follow along feel free to do so.

So diving into Philippians. First, the book of Philippians is a letter. It was written by the apostle Paul, when he was in jail, probably around the year 55AD give or take a decade. Paul was writing to the congregation at Philippi. Back in those days when people wrote letters, they would start by identifying the writer first, and then say who the letter is to. The opening of this letter says “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, along with the bishops and deacons.” So Paul is writing the letter, with Timothy by his side in the jail. Timothy himself is not under arrest; he is there as Paul’s helper – to run errands, to get things, to send letters.

So the letter begins with Paul, who is a familiar person in the New Testament.  In fact probably about half the New Testament was written by Paul.  Paul’s birth-name was Saul, and he was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, in a devout middle-class Jewish family, and he was trained in the family trade of tent-making.  But he also had a gift for theology, so at some point his family sent him to Jerusalem for religious training. Saul developed a reputation as an up-and-coming young man, and he became the student of the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (BTW Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his words save the life of Peter who had been arrested.)

So Saul was educated as a Pharisee, and he was trained not only in religion but also in in Greek philosophy, and eventually Saul became a Pharisee himself.  As a Pharisee, Saul believed in resurrection (which Sadducees did not. The Pharisees and Sadducees were always fighting over this issue.) And as a Pharisee Saul believed in keeping the law of Moses as perfectly as possible. So when Christianity came along, Saul persecuted the early church, not because the church believed in resurrection, but because Saul felt they didn’t observe Jewish law correctly. In fact they allowed Gentiles in the church.  And on top of that Saul wasn’t convinced that the Messiah was supposed to be crucified, so he wasn’t at all certain Jesus could be the Messiah…

…until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and you might say he saw the light. Meeting Jesus turned his whole world upside-down. Jesus called Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (of all things), and Saul’s name was changed to Paul, not because of the conversion, but because Saul is a Jewish name; and Paul is a Greek name – more user-friendly for someone ministering to Gentiles.

Timothy, who was with Paul, was one of Paul’s disciples… sort of a minister-in-training. Timothy’s dad was Greek but his mom and grandmother were devoutly Jewish, and all three of them became believers in Jesus through Paul’s preaching.  Paul invited Timothy to travel with him on his missionary journeys, and Timothy stayed by Paul’s side through thick and thin.  So our letter opens, Paul is writing from his prison cell, with Timothy by his side.

In the first line of the letter, Paul and Timothy describe themselves as “servants of Christ Jesus”.  The Greek word here is actually translates slaves. What they’re trying to tell us is that they are committed to living lives of unquestioning obedience to Jesus Christ. Paul and Timothy understood that to say “no, Lord” is a contradiction in terms.  For Paul and Timothy this is a matter of both duty and pride.  Just as – for example – our military personnel are expected to obey orders, but they also take pride in wearing the uniform, Paul and Timothy obey Jesus’ orders, and they take pride in serving the Son of the Living God.

Paul addresses his letter to the “saints in Philippi”.  Philippi was a city in north-eastern Greece, probably best known in the ancient world as the city where Marc Antony (you remember Marc Antony from the story of Antony & Cleopatra) tracked down the assassins of Julius Caesar and put them to death.  Because of this, Philippi was granted special status in the Roman Empire. Citizens of the city enjoyed tax breaks, and rights other conquered cities didn’t have, and Philippi attracted a lot of people from Rome. So the culture of the city was a mix of Greek and Roman and Jewish, and the religious scene was even more mixed. People in Philippi could worship Roman gods, Greek gods, Egyptian gods, the Jewish God, or any number of gods.

So early on in Paul’s ministry, Acts chapter 16 tells us Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia (the area surrounding Philippi) saying “come and help us”.  And Paul obeyed the vision, and as a result Philippi became the first place the gospel of Jesus Christ was ever preached in Europe.  Paul came to Philippi, and found some Jewish believers meeting on the banks of the river, and when he shared the gospel with them the first person to believe was a woman named Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth, and she was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.

So Paul addresses his letter to “all the saints… in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”.  In Greek the words here are episkopoi and diaconoi (episkopoi is the word we get “Episcopal” from… ‘episcopal’ is just a fancy word meaning “we have bishops”) and diaconoi we get the word ‘deacon’ from. In those days bishops were more like the business managers of the church, sort of like the president of Council would be today. And the deacons were like our care teams: they helped to take care of the sick and the hungry and the poor. So the church hasn’t changed all that much since then: we may have different titles but we’re doing pretty much the same work.

The other thing we need to know about this letter is: why is Paul writing? What moves him to put pen to paper?  Because people back in those days didn’t just whip off letters at the drop of a hat. Back then you had to make your own paper, and make your own ink. So what moved Paul to go to the trouble?

There are a number of reasons, and we’ll be talking about those reasons over the next few weeks.  But our reading for today sets the character of the letter, and the overall feeling is one of great love and great joy, that Paul wanted to share.  The Philippians were Paul’s first Gentile converts to the faith: that alone made them special in his heart.  But beyond that they stayed faithful, through persecutions, through hard times, giving generously to people in need – and Paul was like a proud papa, he loved these people. And that love shines through the whole letter, even from the first line.

In ancient Greece a letter would usually open with a flowery greeting like “most gracious and humble salutations”. But Paul changes the traditional greeting into a blessing. He writes, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul does not consider his own greetings to be worthy of mentioning. Instead he gives them God’s greetings, with a prayer for grace and peace.

Paul goes on to say, “I thank God every time I remember you”. Can we relate to that? Do we have people in our lives, who whenever we think of them we say “God, thank you for this person”?  I believe many of us do. And some of us are that person for someone else. Having people around us who love Jesus and encourage us in the faith is one of the great blessings of being a member of the family of God.

Paul then goes on to say why he feels this way. He says: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now”.  This letter was probably written around ten years after the church at Philippi was started, and since that time Paul has suffered beatings, stonings, shipwreck, and imprisonments for the sake of the gospel. But when he looks at the faith of the Philippian church he says “it’s all been worth it”.

More than that, the Philippians have given Paul fellowship in the gospel – that is, they have been sharing the good news by his side from the very start. And so Paul is “confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus”. What’s more, the Philippians have not forgotten Paul while he’s in jail (for people in jail, it’s not unusual to feel ‘forgotten’ by the outside world), the Philippians have kept in touch, they’ve sent visitors, they’ve stood by him. So Paul is not only encouraged, but he longs to see them again – and he will, if and when he is set free.

Paul then tells them, “this is my prayer for you: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.”  This prayer is the heart and soul of the Christian life.  As followers of Jesus we are called to love everyone we can, as best we can. We believe in a God whose very nature is love. The Bible says “God is love” – not in the sense that love is God (which is a common misunderstanding) but God is love in the sense that rain is wet.  If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain; if God ever stopped loving, God wouldn’t be God.

But the word love can mean so many things, so Paul qualifies his prayer by saying “love with all knowledge and insight.”  Human love can be (and often is) misused, deceived, or led astray. How many love songs have we heard that talk about broken hearts because ‘somebody done somebody wrong’?  In order to love we need to trust and sometimes people just aren’t trustworthy. So love needs discernment and wisdom. Love and truth are two sides of the same coin: you can’t have one without the other. So Paul prays for love infused with knowledge. The Greek word here is epignosis. We know the word a-gnostic – which means to not know – epi-gnostic means to know all. Kind of like epic knowledge.  So love infused with great knowledge.  And then Paul adds “and insight” – and the Greek word here is eisthesis, which is the word we get aesthetics from. In other words, the study of beauty.  Which makes sense, because truth alone tends to be a two-edged sword: it can get judgemental, it can be harsh.  But if we combine truth with Godly beauty we get a richness of wisdom that informs and inspires Godly love.

So Paul prays for the Philippians that their love will infused with knowledge and a principled insight into beauty, so that the Philippians may approve what is excellent, and in the day of Christ be found pure and blameless, having produced a harvest of righteousness in their lives. How beautiful is that? This is a prayer that we can pray for others, and I’d like to encourage us to do so this week.

So having prayed this prayer for the Philippians, Paul then gives the Philippians an update on how he himself is doing.  He writes, “beloved friends, I want you to know that what has happened to me” – that is, being thrown in jail – “has actually helped spread the gospel.  It’s become known through the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is for Christ…”.

Aha! So we have an addition to the cast of characters: the ‘imperial guard’.  These were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to be Caesar’s household guards. Most likely Paul’s letter was written when Nero was emperor, which means it’s entirely possible that Emperor Nero heard the gospel on account of Paul being in jail. At the very least we know that many in Nero’s household heard the good news and became believers.

When this happened, Paul’s courage rubbed off on the Christians around him.  Paul says, “most of the brothers and sisters here, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with great boldness and without fear.” And they bring joy to Paul’s heart. Paul sums up by saying “between your prayers and the Spirit of Jesus I expect to be set free from prison… but whether or not I am, whether I live or die, Jesus is being exalted.”

When I read words like these it’s tempting to picture Paul like an evangelistic Arnold Schwarzenegger – as if Paul is this big tough swash-buckling dude who dares to brave prison and laughs in the face of death. Not so. People who knew Paul say that he was actually a small-ish guy, and had some physical difficulties the details of which we don’t know, but at any rate he was no action hero.  The beatings and shipwrecks and imprisonments were not easy for him to bear.

But in spite of all this Paul rejoices to be in jail in this time and in this place because his imprisonment means that people are hearing about Jesus and coming to faith and are finding new life in Christ.  And I wonder: Would you and I be able to say the same? Would we be willing to go to jail if our being there meant people’s lives would be saved?

It’s a tough question to answer. And we really don’t know for sure, unless we find ourselves in the situation.  But I will say this: Christians are called by Jesus to visit those in prison, and if you ever have the chance, I encourage you to do so.  I’ve only had a small taste of prison ministry myself but Paul is right: the opportunites are endless and the joy is amazing.  It’s like taking water to people in the desert.

But there’s a question beyond that, and the question is: What would we be willing to risk if it meant people’s lives being saved? What would we be willing to do so that someone else could know Jesus? Would we risk our jobs? Would we risk our possessions?  Would we risk inviting a foreigner or a refugee into our homes?

I’m not asking these questions to make us feel guilty, but rather to challenge us (myself included) to love Jesus more than anything else we have in life.  To be like the believers who looked at Paul in jail and were made bold, speaking out for the Lord with confidence, and love, and without fear.  We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to say boldly:

“Jesus is King, and the kingdom is coming. Change course, and believe the good news”.

And yes I sometimes do feel shy about sharing the faith, even as a pastor, and sometimes I feel tongue-tied. But I’ve learned we don’t have to worry about results, because God is responsible for the results. It’s enough for us to show up and speak the truth. God takes care of the rest.

Paul loved Jesus so much, and loved people so much, he was willing to be in jail in order to share the gospel with others. And I know there are people here today who also love Jesus that much.  If there’s anyone here today who has not met Jesus yet, and who’s thinking what I’m saying is a bit radical – you’re right. It is radical. And I invite you to join us.

Let’s pray about this… Lord thank you for Paul and thank you for his loving care for the church at Philippi. Thank you that Paul loved your people enough to stay in jail and risk his life if it meant us finding you and getting to know you.  Thank you for Paul’s friends who shared your good news even in the household of Caesar. Thank you most of all Lord that you came to earth to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to God through your death on the cross and your resurrection from the grave.

This morning Lord we rededicate ourselves to you and to sharing your message. And if any are hearing this message for the first time – Lord, we want to know you and love you and be your people.  Forgive our sins and accept us into your kingdom. Help us to experience the joy Paul knew praying for others and sharing the good news. We place our lives in your hands. Use us where and when you will, so that in all things Christ will be exalted. AMEN.

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“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel,  13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ;  14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.  15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel;  17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.  18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,  19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.  20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.” – Philippians 1:1-20

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/17/17

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Joseph1

Joseph and his brothers meet again

[Scripture reading of the day can be found at the end.]

If we had been following the Old Testament lectionary readings for the past few weeks, last week our sermon would have ended with the words “To Be Continued…” – because at the end of last week’s reading, Jacob’s son Joseph had just been sold into slavery by his brothers, and Jacob was grieving for his son.

Today’s reading in Genesis picks up the story more than twenty years later. By now all of the brothers (including Joseph) have grown up, and gotten married, and had kids. And Joseph – who is now almost 40 years old – has become the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

That’s a huge leap forward! So I want to go back and pick up the story where it left off last week, and then bring us into today’s reading.

At the end of last week’s reading, Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph to a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. Picturing the scene, I imagine the caravan slowly moving south along the highway, while Joseph is still looking to the north, weeping and praying his brothers will change their minds and come and get him. But after a while, Joseph realizes they’re not coming; and life as he has known it is gone forever.

For those of us who have lived through the grief of profound loss – whether it be the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a career, or a serious injury or illness (the loss of health) – part of the grieving process is realizing the world as we knew it is gone. People and places may be familiar, but the ‘feel’ of reality has changed. We keep on living in the face of sorrow because we must; but things will never be the same again.

Joseph began that grieving process on the road to Egypt. He began to come to terms with his new reality. By the time the caravan arrived in Egypt – days, maybe weeks later – Joseph was ready to step into his future. Not that his pain was gone, far from it; and not that his tears were done; but with God’s help he had reached a point where he was able to deal with day-to-day life.

We know this because Joseph did well in his new life in spite of his pain. Joseph became the property of a man named Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. In Potiphar’s service, Joseph served with skill and excellence. And God blessed his efforts – so much so that Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his whole estate. Genesis tells us:

“The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all he had, in house and field” (Genesis 39:5)

So with Joseph in charge, Potiphar becomes rich, and Joseph enjoys as good a relationship as is possible between a slave and an owner: Potiphar had become more like an employer than a task-master.

There was just one problem. Someone else noticed Joseph: noticed his youth, noticed his build, noticed his good looks. Potiphar’s wife has set her eyes on Joseph. And every time he turned around she was trying to seduce him.

I wonder how many slaves over the course of history have been caught in this catch-22? Say ‘no’ to the lady and the slave is disobedient; say ‘yes’ and the slave is disloyal to the master. There’s no way this is going to end well.

Joseph gives Potiphar’s wife the very best answer he can. He says to her, “my master has put me over everything he has – the only thing he has withheld from me is you, his wife… how could I do this wickedness?” (Genesis 39:8-9, paraphrased)

But she doesn’t listen. And one day when she’s teasing him, she grabs him, and Joseph pulls away, and his coat comes off in her hands, and she uses the coat to frame him for rape. Joseph is thrown in jail. No trial. No appeal. No rights.

God tells us in scripture that slavery and prejudice and mistreatment of foreigners are evil – and Joseph’s story illustrates why. Joseph did good to all, but he suffered cruelty and injustice in return.

While he was in jail, Joseph earned the same respect from the wardens as he had from Potiphar. God continued to be with him, and the jailer put Joseph in charge of the prison. Genesis says “whatever was done there, Joseph was the one who did it.” (Genesis 39:22)

And then one day Pharaoh threw two of his servants in jail and they ended up in Joseph’s care. This is a long story, but to make it short: they both have dreams. And God has given Joseph the gift of interpreting dreams. So Joseph does, and his interpretations come true. And Joseph says to the one: “when you are restored to your job working for Pharaoh, remember me. I’ve done nothing to deserve being in this jail.” (Genesis 40:14 paraphrased)

But the servant forgets Joseph.

And two more years go by.

And then Pharaoh has a dream. And the servant remembers there was this guy in jail who knew how to interpret dreams. So Joseph is brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh says, “I hear you can interpret dreams.” And Joseph says, “not I; but God will give Pharaoh an answer.” (Genesis 41:15-16, edited)

And after hearing Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph tells Pharaoh: God has revealed to you the future. There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. “…therefore (Joseph says) let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh… take one-fifth of the produce of the land… during the seven good years…” (Genesis 41: 33-34, edited) and store it up for what is to come.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people… only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” (Genesis 41:39-41 edited)

In one day Joseph goes from being a convict in jail to being the ruler of all Egypt. Only God could invent a career path like that! Meanwhile 13 years have passed from the day Joseph was sold into slavery until the day he was appointed by Pharaoh. Joseph is now 30 years old.

On that day, Pharaoh gave Joseph a wife, and she gave him two sons. The first son Joseph named Manasseh, which means ‘to forget’. He said, “for God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house”. (Genesis 41:51) And the second son he named Ephraim, which means ‘fruitful’, “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” (Genesis 41:52

If the story ended there, it would be enough. It would satisfy our desire to see justice done, and to see wrongs set right. It would give Joseph’s story a happy ending. By the same token it would have been enough if Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand, and the story ended there. But in both cases God is just getting started…

And so back in Egypt, there are seven years of peace and plenty, which fly by. Joseph builds up stockpiles of food and enjoys his family life.

And then the famine comes. And it doesn’t just strike Egypt; the whole region around the Mediterranean Sea is suffering a severe famine. Joseph opens the stockpiles and sells food, first to the Egyptians and then to foreigners.

And then one day ten men come from Canaan looking for food.

These men left their youngest brother at home with their father, who is still grieving the loss of his son Joseph. The ten brothers have known years of bitterness – being unforgiven, and unable to forgive themselves.

When he sees them, Joseph recognizes them immediately. But in the past twenty years, Joseph has changed. He’s no longer a teenager, he dresses like a wealthy Egyptian, and he talks like a native. The brothers have no idea Joseph can understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.

Realizing he hasn’t been recognized, Joseph orchestrates a series of tests for his brothers to see if they’re sorry for what they did to him, and if they would do things differently now, given the chance. As the final test, Joseph tells the brothers they must go home and bring back Benjamin – something their father Jacob would never allow. But eventually Jacob and his sons are so hungry they have no choice.

Which where today’s passage picks up.

Joseph and his brothers have just eaten a banquet in Joseph’s house, which is connected to the royal palace. Then Joseph springs the test: he puts Benjamin’s well-being in jeopardy. He wants to know: if Benjamin’s life is threatened, will his brothers defend him, or will they abandon him? As it turns out, Judah – the same brother who came up with the idea of selling Joseph in the first place – offers his life in exchange for Benjamin, and in doing so proves that the brothers’ hearts have changed. At this point Joseph can no longer control himself, and all the emotions of the years flood to the surface. Joseph orders the servants out and then weeps so loudly Pharaoh can hear it in the other end of the palace.

And he says to his brothers:

“I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3)

His brothers feel like they’re seeing a ghost. It’s bad enough they’ve been carrying around all this guilt, all these years – but then to look into the face of a stranger and see the brother they sold into slavery…!

Joseph draws them closer, and he says, “I am your brother, who you sold into slavery in Egypt.” Joseph confronts the sin, and then he forgives. He says:

“Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves… for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life… it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:4-5 edited)

Say what?? It was them who sent him here! It was them who laughed at his tears and sold him for 20 pieces of silver! How can he say ‘it was not you who sent me here…’?

It’s the difference between seeing things without faith and seeing things through the eyes of faith. Without faith we only see what’s right in front of us, and we pass judgement on a human level. With the eyes of faith we see the hand of God moving behind all things, and we are free to choose mercy.

After greeting his brothers with tears, Joseph gives them a command: Go, tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and bring my father and all your families here. There are five more years of famine to come. I will provide for you and for all of them.

Now our story has more than just a happy ending. Now we see grace; we see forgiveness; we see reconciliation, and the restoring of relationships. We see shalom – the peace and well-being that passes understanding. Genesis 37:4 tells us that back in the day, the brothers couldn’t even say ‘shalom’ to Joseph; but now they have found peace.

This joy of reconciliation goes beyond justice and makes a retribution a thing to be scorned. For Joseph, his joy is not complete until his family is reconciled, to him and to each other; until what was broken has been restored. The same is true in the story of Jesus: his joy is not complete until the human family is reconciled to God and to each other; until what was broken in creation has been restored.

So to draw this ancient story into the 21st century – three quick points:

1) God is and always has been in control of history.
When Jacob was told “Joseph is dead”, it must have seemed to him like the whole world had gone mad. Jacob must have wondered: where were God’s promises? God said “your offspring will be as numerous as the stars” but his offspring are at each other’s throats. Where was this great nation God promised? How could God’s word ever come true?

Meanwhile Joseph was keeping the faith – and when all was said and done he was able say to his brothers “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” Joseph trusted God, and God used the tragedies in his life to put him in a position to save people from many nations.

God has a master plan for creation. God had a master plan back then and still does now. History has a goal. The human race has a destination. Our destination is not “progress” as the world thinks of it. The destination of history is not a thing or even a set of morals but a person – the person of Jesus Christ. God is guiding all of history to the focal point of our Lord Jesus.

(2) There are parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus. Theologians would say Joseph is a “type” of Christ because many of the events in his life are like a prophecy of the Messiah. Some of the parallels to be found in Joseph’s story include:

  • God blessed Joseph and made him successful in his work; God blessed Jesus and made him successful in his ministry.
  • Joseph was falsely accused by someone in his own household (Potiphar’s wife) and then turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison. Jesus was falsely accused by one of his own (Judas) and turned over to a foreign legal system and a foreign prison.
  • The formal accusation against Joseph is the very thing he did NOT do (sleeping with his master’s wife). Jesus is also accused of the very thing he did NOT do (trying to take over the kingship of the Jewish nation.) The charge they nailed over Jesus’ head on the cross read: “King of the Jews” – but Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”. They weren’t listening.
  • Joseph descended into jail and ministered to people while he was there; in between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and ministered to people there. Both Joseph and Jesus work to set the captives free.
  • Joseph is raised from jail and made king over all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Jesus is raised from the dead and “is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • Those who sinned against Joseph came to him in their need and were reconciled; those who sin against God come to Jesus in our need and are reconciled.
  • Pharaoh gives Joseph a wife; God gives Jesus the Church, that is, the family of believers. In both cases their joy is so great it makes them forget their hardships. Joseph says: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”

(3) One last parallel, but one that deserves its own bullet point: The great joy for both Joseph and Jesus is the restoration of relationships and of love. What this means for us is our stories also – as we remain faithful to God – become stories of restoration of relationships and love.

Of course this will never happen perfectly until Jesus comes into His Kingdom. Until then we struggle, as imperfect people, to follow a perfect Lord. But because we know Jesus is our destination, we can say “fear not!” Troubles will last only a little while; the kingdom of God is forever.

While we wait for that kingdom to come, our calling is to follow the earthly examples of Joseph and of Jesus. Minister to those in prison. Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. Listen to the lonely. Encourage the despairing. Welcome the stranger. Be a friend to the friendless and a servant to the weak. Bring the good news of the kingdom of our Lord to everyone – because like Joseph, “God has sent us ahead to preserve lives.” Let’s be about it. AMEN.

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“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:1-15

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh – 8/20/17

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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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

 

~

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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On this day churches around the world are remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a major holiday for most folks – there are no Hallmark cards for it, and not every church in the world will be talking about it today.  But Pastor Matt and I both felt it was too important to miss.

A few years ago when my pastor led a tour of Israel, he took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, which is where the Ascension took place.

Here’s a photo of the chapel that was built on what’s believed to be the spot where the Ascension happened.  They’re not absolutely certain, but we know it’s within a few hundred yards.

You can see from the number of languages on the sign, the importance that’s given to this place.

And as you’re looking at the chapel, if you turn around you see this – looking out over Jerusalem.

As our tour group was standing here I’ll never forget what my pastor said:

“If not for the Ascension, you and I would not be standing here as Christians today. And I wish more churches taught that.”

Now I thought this was kind of an odd statement.  I could see saying something like “we wouldn’t be here without” Christmas or Good Friday or Easter. But the Ascension?  Two of the four Gospels don’t even mention it. So how could it be that important?

In our creed it says we believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, and then “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty”.  If Jesus didn’t ascend – if the creed is wrong, then Jesus still has a human body – and is either impossibly old, or would have died again, and we’d be believing in nothing.

But that’s not what happened.  After Jesus’ resurrection things weren’t the same as they were before. Jesus’ body wasn’t the same as before. His resurrected body could do some really unusual things, like getting into a locked room without opening the door.

The Creator of the Universe, when he took human form, gave up a lot. Jesus entered into creation and became one of us, and lived and died like one of us, in order to open the door for us into God’s kingdom.

In Luke chapter 12 Jesus, speaking about his death and resurrection says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”  In other words, there were things he couldn’t do when he was one of us.  For the creator of time and space to be limited within time and space is almost beyond imagination.

But that time of limitation, for Jesus, is almost over. And our readings for today tell us about how Jesus chose to spend his last 40 days here on earth, before returning home, where he could be fully himself again.

So let’s look at these readings.  Both of our readings for today were written by the apostle Luke.  They tell the same story but in slightly different ways.  The reading from Luke comes from the end of Luke’s gospel – which is about the life of Jesus.  The reading from Acts is the story of the beginning of the church.  We’ll look mostly at the reading from Acts (for those who want to follow in pew Bibles).

In the first verses of Acts, Luke dedicates his book to “Theophilus” – which is the same dedication as in the book of Luke. Nobody knows for sure if this is a man’s name or if it’s a title, but in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ – and I think it’s safe to say Luke’s books were written for any of us who love God.

Luke starts out by saying

“after his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs.”

Luke is using legal language here – if I were going to translate this into American English I would say Jesus ‘proved his case beyond the shadow of a doubt’ – not once, but many times over.  The disciples had absolutely no doubts that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive.

For people in the 21st century who may doubt Jesus’ resurrection – I think one of the strongest replies we can offer is that so many men and women in the book of Acts were willing to die rather than deny what they saw.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and we’ll be remembering those who gave their lives so that we could be free. Today let’s also remember those who gave their lives so that we could know the truth, so that our freedom would be something worth having. These men and women in the book of Acts were eyewitnesses to the living Jesus, who was crucified but didn’t stay dead, and they refused to say otherwise even if it cost their lives.

So having proven to the disciples that he was alive, Jesus gave them these instructions: stay in Jerusalem, and don’t leave until the promise of the Father comes.

Jesus had mentioned this before. He said: just as John baptized with water, soon you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Wait for it. He said, “Stay here… until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And the disciples asked him, “Lord… is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

At this point a lot of theologians and commentators roll their eyes at how dense the disciples can be.  They still don’t get it that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?  But I wouldn’t be so fast to roll eyes at the disciples – because their question about restoring the kingdom is still around today, just in different forms.

What I’m about to say here is not meant to be political – I don’t support any particular party – but looking at Acts 1:6 in the Greek, the phrase “restore the kingdom to Israel” sounds familiar. What the disciples are asking about is a return to a previous state of being: a restoration of greatness.

Their mistake is not in wanting to be ‘great again’.  Their mistake is in looking to the past rather than the future.

The thing is, the past is easier to imagine than the future, because we know the past – it’s familiar.  I was in the bank the other day, and they had on the wall an artists’ rendering of downtown Pittsburgh back in the late 60s or early 70s: streetcars, Kaufmann’s windows decorated for Christmas, the Kaufmann’s clock at the corner of 5th and Smithfield… the way things used to be… my banker and I had a ‘moment’ right there in the bank.

The past has such a strong pull on our hearts! And the future… sounds like an awful lot of work.

Of course we only ever live in the present – not the past or the future. And that’s true for the church as well as the nation.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is not about the past: it’s about the kingdom of God, which, to Jesus, is the present but to us feels like the future. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by saying: the times and periods of nations are in the hands of God the Father.  YOUR job is to be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will give you power to do that. And the Holy Spirit is coming very soon.

Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus spent his last 40 days on earth teaching the disciples “about the kingdom of God” – giving them a vision of the kingdom.  And Luke’s gospel says  Jesus reviewed with the disciples “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

This word ‘opened’ is an interesting word in the Greek. It’s word often used to describe the opening made when a woman is giving birth to her first child. It means to open completely, as far as their minds can stretch, so that they see clearly, and can bring all the parts of Jesus’ story together in a way that makes sense.

And then, having taught the disciples from the Old Testament how all these pieces come together, and having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus blessed them and was carried up into heaven.

Luke says Jesus disappeared into a cloud, and suddenly there were two men in white standing near the disciples saying “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will come back again the same way.” And so the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and waited until the Holy Spirit came. And we’ll talk about that next week on Pentecost!

So I’d like to focus on two things from today’s readings: (1) what the ascension means to Jesus; and (2) what the ascension means to us.

What Ascension Day means to Jesus is going home.  It means Jesus’ work here on earth is done. It’s a time when heaven rejoices at the return of her King.  (You think the Steelers got a victory parade?)

It also means Jesus’ work in heaven is just beginning.  Jesus is now at God’s right hand, praying for us, forgiving us, preparing a place for us. He is our high priest in the temple of God, as Hebrews says, “entering into heaven with his own blood” for our forgiveness.

It means Jesus’ time of being limited to one time and one place is over.  Now he can send the Holy Spirit to be with every believer, everywhere, at all times.

Ascension Day for us is little different.  For us, it’s a reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  God’s kingdom is something we are saved into, redeemed into, by our Lord Jesus, not something we have to work for.

But Ascension also means the disciples will have new work to do, just like Jesus has new work to do.  Our job is to bear witness. And this work will be directed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ascension means that the Holy Spirit is now available to every believer. So the disciples are told to wait until the Spirit comes, because God’s work can only be accomplished through God’s power.

Even today, we as believers need to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit’s direction and gifts – like the disciples waited – in order to accomplish God’s will.  This not ‘religious talk’.  There was a time when I thought it was.  I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was hardly ever mentioned, and in my 20s when I first saw someone ministering in the power of the Spirit my question was “What kind of power is this?” (which is pretty much how people reacted to Jesus in the Bible.)

Just in case your experience has been anything like mine: I want to assure you the Holy Spirit is real.  If Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us.  And sometimes it takes awhile to grow into this.  John Wesley himself was an ordained minister for 10 years before his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at that meeting at Aldersgate (an event whose anniversary is also remembered this week). That’s when he met the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the Spirit gave Wesley such power as a preacher – preaching not in human power but in the power of the Spirit – that God used Wesley to change the course of history.

(Not all of us are going to be called to change the course of history – but that’s an example of what the Holy Spirit can do.)

The Holy Spirit is a gift given by God, to God’s people, for the purpose of ministry.  So for us, Ascension Day gets us ready for Pentecost. It points to the coming of the Holy Spirit and to our calling to bear witness to what we know about Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

No one believer could possibly cover all this ground! But as a group – as the Body of Christ – they did.  By the time Peter and Paul were martyred, the good news of Jesus had spread throughout the Roman Empire and into northern Africa and parts of Asia.

One of the helpful things one of our seminary professors taught us is: we can think of witnessing as being in three concentric circles: local, national, and international.

For the disciples, Jerusalem was local, it’s where they started; then they went on to preach throughout the region and nation (Judea & Samaria), and then to the rest of the known world.

So how might we define our concentric circles?  The local one would probably be Brentwood or Carrick.  The middle circle could be Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania, or the United States.  That’s a little flexible. And the outer circle is still “the whole world”.

For those of us who are involved in the ministries and missions of this church, either as groups or as individuals, I’d like to suggest reviewing our outreach programs, and praying over them, in terms of these circles.  What does God want us to do in our neighborhood? In the region or the nation? And in the world?

I’m not suggesting we run out and start throwing money in all directions. Just the opposite: I’m suggesting building – and continuing to build – personal relationships on each of these levels.  Let the Spirit guide us into those relationships. And then – as needs arise – respond to the needs. Because in the Kingdom of God, it’s Jesus who makes the difference, and it’s love that makes the difference, not money and not social programs.

Pray about it, and see where God may lead with this.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate with joy the anniversary of our Lord’s homecoming – and his promise to return for us and bring us to where he is, in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/28/17

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Scripture Readings

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning  2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;  5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

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“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24:44-53

 

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