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

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

 

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

So we could consider today a sneak preview of Advent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…God forbid…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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“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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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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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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Scripture reading: the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia for the grocery shoppers in the congregation.  (Those of you who like yogurt may already know this.)

A few years back, not too long ago, the Dannon company came out with a new brand of yogurt.  They used a Greek method for making the yogurt, and they wanted to emphasize the Greek tradition, so they gave it a Greek name. They called it Oikos.

This yogurt came out while I was in seminary studying Greek.  And it puzzled me why anyone would name their yogurt ‘house’ — which is what oikos means.  When you buy yogurt you’re not buying a house. I’ve heard of ‘house wines’ but I’ve never heard of a ‘house yogurt’.  Is that a thing?

The word ‘oikos’ does have a secondary meaning of household, so maybe what they’re suggesting is this yogurt is ‘right for your household’.  But I don’t know. And Google didn’t have any answers.

So what does all this have to do with our scripture reading for today?

I always like to glance over our weekly scriptures in the original Greek just to see if anything odd jumps out. And this week something did. I found the word oikos in the story of the road to Emmaus – which is definitely odd considering there is no house in the story. In fact the disciples, as they’re traveling, are about as far away from a house as they can get.  So this caught my attention.

The word appears in verse 18, which reads:

“Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?””

The word oikos in this sentence is combined with the prefix ‘para’ – the word we get parallel from – so the word is para-oikos. It literally means ‘to dwell alongside’ – but the implication is that the home isn’t permanent. The word describes a person who doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.  In the 21st century we might call this person a migrant.  But in verse 18 the word is translated ‘stranger’.

Para-oikos is what the disciples call Jesus. And there’s a deep irony in calling a friend, who also happens to be the savior of the world, a ‘stranger’.

But there’s also some truth in it, because as Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world.  The apostle John says in his gospel, “[The Messiah] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10)

Even as mere human beings we sometimes find ourselves feeling like strangers in a strange land.  And when we do, I think it shows we were meant for something else, something greater than just this world. We were made for the kingdom of God.

This feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is part of what the disciples are wrestling with as they walk to Emmaus. Exactly a week before this story takes place, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches.  They thought the Messiah had finally come. Then that same week the religious leaders arrested Jesus and crucified him. And the disciples were shattered.

Cleopas and his traveling companion decided to get away from Jerusalem for a while and walk to Emmaus. And just before they left some of the women visited Jesus’ tomb and came back to the disciples saying “he’s alive!” – but that couldn’t be, could it? I mean, dead is dead, right?

These two men have had their entire sense of reality shaken. No wonder they feel like strangers in a strange land. No wonder they’re talking things out, over and over, calling to mind everything they can remember of the past few weeks, trying to make some sense of it, trying to rebuild some foundation to their worlds.

And while they’re talking, Jesus walks up and joins them, but they don’t recognize him.  Luke’s choice of words here implies something supernatural. It’s not that the disciples are so upset they can’t see straight. The words imply they were temporarily prevented from knowing Jesus.  Luke says their eyes didn’t recognize him.  But something in their hearts did.  Later on the disciples say to each other, “did not our hearts burn within us as he was speaking?” So there was something familiar about this stranger.

So Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, and they repeat the story of the crucifixion, and they describe Jesus (to Jesus) as “a prophet mighty in deed and word” who they “had hoped would be the one to redeem Israel”.  His disciples expected the Messiah would save the nation – that he would take charge politically or socially.

It’s interesting that even today people make the mistake of either seeing Jesus as ‘a great prophet’ or as someone who will ‘save the nation’.  These thoughts are, at best, half-truths.  Then, as now, people tend to miss one of two things: either (1) that the Messiah must pass through suffering before he comes to glory, or (2) people grasp Jesus’ suffering, his ability to relate to our pain and walk with us through our trials, but they miss the Messiah’s glory: his awesome power and his kingdom.

It’s not easy to hold in our minds and hearts both the Messiah as Suffering Servant and the Messiah as Glorious King.  But if it makes us feel any better, even the disciples – who knew Jesus personally – didn’t know it perfectly either. Knowledge is a good thing, and studying the scriptures is a very good thing; but our salvation doesn’t depend on us knowing all the answers, thank God. What matters is being teachable when Jesus gives us fresh insights – as he did for these disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So as they were walking along, Jesus gave the disciples a crash course on what the Old Testament teaches about the Messiah. Luke says “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them all the things about himself in the scriptures.” (And for the past 2000 years Bible scholars have wished we had a recording of that conversation!)

But we can make an educated guess as to some of the things Jesus might have said.  He might have pointed to the promise made to Eve that one of her offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  He might have pointed out that Noah suffered a flood before he was brought to new life.  He would have mentioned the first Passover, when the people of Israel put the blood of a spotless lamb over their doors to protect them from death… and he would have connected that to the crucifixion of the Lamb of God which also happened on Passover.

He probably quoted Isaiah 53, which says: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” And, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away. […] he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9 edited)

Jesus would have mentioned King David, who delivered Israel from the Philistines. He would have quoted David’s words from Psalm 22:  “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads [and saying] “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”” (Psalm 22:7-8) – which were the exact words thrown at Jesus by the scribes and the priests as he was hanging on the cross. David wrote those words 1000 years before it happened.

For the disciples, who were expecting a Messiah who would become king without having suffered, these words would have opened a whole new understanding of reality and of God’s purposes.

And for disciples who may understand the Suffering Servant, but who need to be reminded of the Glorious King, the Old Testament speaks to this as well. Psalm 89 says in part: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’

And Isaiah says: “Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Is 49:7)

The Old Testament also predicts glory will to come to God’s people when the Holy Spirit comes.  In the prophet Joel, for example, God says: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

This theme of the Messiah bringing glory to God’s people is carried forward into the New Testament. The apostle John (for example) writes in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. […] what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:1-2, edited)

One of our readings for last Sunday – I Peter chapter 1 – is a passage we hardly ever get to hear because there are so many other great scripture lessons that come around Easter-time, but the passage is very relevant to what we’re talking about.  Peter is writing to a church that is suffering persecution, he says:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (I Peter 1:3-4)

Peter goes on to say, “even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold… tested by fire… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:6-7 edited) And the glory Peter is talking about in this passage is glory for us. Faith in Jesus, in the suffering and glorified Messiah, by God’s great mercy, results in praise and glory and honor for us in God’s kingdom.

It’s like Peter is saying that we who are strangers in this world – we who are para-oikos – are being welcomed into God’s house, into God’s oikos. Jesus said “in my Father’s oikos are many mansions, and I go to prepare a place for you.”

So for those of us, and for all people, who sometimes feel like para-oikos, strangers in a strange land: the message of Easter, and the joy of Easter, is that we have an oikos with Jesus… a home where the streets are paved with gold, and the gates are made of gemstones, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

All of this is ours by the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Easter… continues.

Amen.

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Scripture reading:

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”  25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.  30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (Luke 24:13-35)

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/30/17

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