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This week we continue in our Lenten series on Returning to Me With All Your Heart, and this Sunday our focus is on the Lenten discipline of repentance. This is one of those sermons I’ll be preaching to myself today as well as to you! And as we look at today’s scriptures, I’ll be pulling from them a list of six Repentances that we can practice during Lent and beyond.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘repent,’ we tend to think of the old fire and brimstone preachers of years ago who used to practically scare people into heaven. Because of this, the word ‘repent’ has gotten a bad reputation: it sounds, to our ears, like a harsh word from an angry God.

When Jesus preached “the kingdom of heaven is near, repent and believe the good news” – what He meant was “change course and believe the good news.” Change course is closer to the true meaning of the Greek, and I want us to have the true meaning without any of the emotional baggage of the 20th century.

There’s just one drawback to saying “change course and believe the good news”: it makes changing course sound optional. As I was reading our passage from Isaiah this week, it reminded me of an old anthem our choir used to sing (I wonder if any of you have sung this?)

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near… Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and return unto the Lord…”  It’s a beautiful song, full of lovely melodies.

The problem is the song makes repentance sound like a stroll through a European city: something pleasant you might do once in a lifetime if you can afford it. This is not repentance! When Jesus says “change course and believe the good news” – it wasn’t a suggestion. When you’re headed for a cliff, changing course is not optional.

So what do the scriptures tell us about this course change?

The primary message in our reading from Isaiah today is that everything good – in this life and the next – comes from God: and in a far deeper and more profound way than we realize.  And the primary message from Paul in I Corinthians is a warning to not desire anything evil or self-indulgent but rather to resist temptation. Paul also points out that the sacraments and other religious activity will do us no good if we take God’s mercy for granted.

So let’s start with Isaiah.  The prophet begins with a mysterious saying about thirsty people coming to the water and hungry people buying food without money.  Jesus says something similar to this in the gospel of John, when he meets a woman at the well. You may remember the story: Jesus asks her for a drink, and she points out that Jews don’t ask Samaritans for drinks. And Jesus answers ‘if you knew who it was who was talking to you, you would ask him, and he would give you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Isaiah is using the same imagery to point out that our greatest thirst as human beings is not for physical water but for spiritual water, and that satisfying our bodies doesn’t satisfy our spirits. Isaiah asks why we spend so much money and work so hard for things that don’t satisfy? Jesus said to the woman at the well, “anyone who drinks from this well will be thirsty again, but anyone who drinks from the water I give will never thirst.”  God says: listen carefully to me, and eat and drink what is good. Come to me and listen so that you may live.

Repentance #1: We recognize that God has – and God in fact is – what our souls long for.  God is love. God is truth. (Not God has love, or God has truth; God is love and God is truth.) God is just. God is holy. God is beauty. God is kind. God is perfect. It can be a little scary sometimes to think about just how good God is, because everything else in the world pales by comparison.  So repentance #1 is to get in touch with that part of ourselves that longs for God above all else, and to honor that part of ourselves, and stop wasting time and money on things that don’t satisfy.

Isaiah goes on to observe some other ways in which we may overlook God’s word and miss God’s will for our lives. We may become busy, we may become preoccupied, we may worry. We would to better to bring our concerns to God in prayer.  Which brings me to:

Repentance #2: Using Isaiah’s words as a springboard, we take delight in what God provides. For example, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – silly about saying “thank you God for spring” or “thank you God for flowers.”  Through the world around us, and through the people around us, and through the Holy Spirit, God is always sharing with us. God is never silent. Turn away from harsh thoughts, from anger, from bitterness – or, if things really are bad, then bringing the causes of anger and bitterness to God in prayer, and let God deal with them, because God is bigger and more powerful than we are. And when we find ourselves in need of advice, let God be the first one we ask.

Which leads us to Isaiah’s next point. Isaiah quotes God saying “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

We can’t begin to imagine how much greater and how much higher God is than we are; but as a lifelong cat owner, I’ve often thought that our relationship with cats might make a good parallel.  How much of what we think and do, do cats really understand?  Cats are smart: they know when dinnertime is, and they let us know if we’re late.  Put a box of sand on the floor and they know what to do with it. On the other hand, cats have no clue why all the people leave the house in the morning, and they make no connection between our going to work and the availability of cat food.

I’ve also noticed if I give my cats something they don’t want, they will turn their backs on it and scratch at the floor – which is the motion they make when they bury something in the litter box.

I might give them the best gourmet cat food in the world, but if they don’t like it… (scratch). And I wonder sometimes if we react that way to God’s gifts? “This isn’t quite what I had in mind, Lord…” (scratch)

Isaiah says: God’s ways are higher than our ways. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.  Not just a wee bit higher, but higher than the sky is above the earth.  Anybody who thinks they’ve got God figured out is mistaken. On the other hand, people who think God can’t be known are also mistaken, because God has spoken to us, God has given the Word, as much as we’re capable of understanding.

Our words are not sufficient to describe God. Our minds are not big enough to contain God. But God, in the Holy Spirit, can become small enough to squeeze inside us and help us reach beyond our mortality: and this is the water that satisfies, this is the stream that never runs dry.

Repentance #3:  Acknowledge that any belief system, any education or training, any ideology, any form of organized religion, any understanding or skill we have is, at its very finest, child’s play compared with what God knows. Knowing this, we can set aside pride; we can respect tradition but not be wedded to it; we can enjoy the tribe we belong to, but know that in God all tribalism loses its meaning. The apostle Paul says: “now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I have been fully known.” (I Cor 13:12)  Knowledge becomes complete only when Love comes to town.

With that thought let’s turn now to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  If you wanted to sum up Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth you might say “it’s complicated”.  Paul loved the Corinthians, and he spent a year and a half living among them and preaching the good news of Jesus, but after Paul moved on to other cities false teachers came in and divided the church with their teachings. These new teachings taught disrespect for the Gospel as well as promoting various kinds of immorality (sexual and otherwise).

Paul’s talk about baptism and spiritual food and drink in verses two through four gives us a parallel between the experience of Israel being set free from slavery in Egypt, and the Christian experience of being set free from slavery to sin.  Paul is saying that both groups of God’s people have passed through water and both have partaken of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

He then goes on to say these things didn’t save the Israelites when they rebelled against God.  He points out that when the people of Israel made a golden calf and worshipped it, over 3000 of them died the same day. And after another rebellion, thousands more died from snake bites.  The fact that they had passed through the waters of salvation didn’t save them.  As Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matt 3:9)

Repentance #4: If we have been led to believe that doing certain holy things, like being baptized, taking communion, going to church, giving money, anything like that, is going get us into heaven, we need to change our thinking.  There’s only one thing that gets people into God’s kingdom, and that’s the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and his resurrection from the grave, and our faith in Him. Nothing else will get us there.  All these other things are good things: they are gifts from God to help us on our journey, but keeping rules and observing traditions isn’t what faith is about.

Paul says that this story about the ancient Israelites was written as a warning to us: specifically to warn us against thinking we can do what is evil and still reap what is good.  Paul mentions sexual immorality, though there are certainly other sins that would qualify as well. The point is, whatever we are tempted to do, God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. God will provide a way out.

While I’m in this passage, one comment on Paul’s word regarding sexual immorality: I think what Paul says about sexuality has been widely misunderstood, on all sides of all issues.  The root of the Greek word Paul uses here is porneo – the word we get pornography from, though that’s not what the ancient Greeks meant by the word.  Like many words in English, porneo has more than one meaning and more than one variation. The Greek-to-English dictionaries I pulled from gave eight definitions:

  1. To practice prostitution
  2. To practice sexual immorality in general
  3. To live without sexual restraint
  4. To metaphorically practice idolatry
  5. To fall to one’s ruin or destruction
  6. To act unfaithfully
  7. To prostitute one’s body to the lust of another
  8. In scriptures, to give oneself to unlawful intercourse

Out of those eight definitions, three of them don’t have anything to do with sex at all (#4-6). And these three non-sexual definitions add to the shading of Paul’s meaning in this passage. Not that I’m discounting the other five definitions; but the definition of porneo includes within it the sense of a lack of self-worth, or a lack of self-control (or both), or the sense of being the cause of one’s own downfall or one’s own self-destruction; or of putting something in the place of God in our lives that belongs to God alone.

Paul sees this as a form of rebellion: a combination of putting God to the test (which is something even Jesus wouldn’t do) and practicing idolatry – that is, worshipping something other than God.

Repentance #5: If there is anything in our lives that’s more important than God, it’s time to make God #1 again. This Lent, let us strive to love God more than we love anything else. This Repentance comes with a bonus: when we love God more than anything else, all of a sudden everything else becomes much more real, much more beautiful – which is how God designed it to be. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) This is how that happens.

And last, I added one of my own thoughts to this collection:

Repentance #6: I call this ‘repenting of our repentance’. Saying to God: We’re sorry if we haven’t taken repentance seriously enough. We’re sorry if we’ve neglected to bring our shortcomings to You.  We’re sorry when we’ve taken Your mercy for granted. We’re sorry when we’ve made ourselves out to be worse than we are, forgetting that You created great beauty when You created our souls.

So the six Repentances:

  1. Stop wasting time and money on what doesn’t satisfy;
  2. Take delight in what God provides;
  3. Recognize that God’s thoughts are far beyond anything we can possibly imagine;
  4. Set aside any trust in religious activity and trust Jesus alone for salvation;
  5. Make God #1 in our lives, above all else;
  6. Remember to say “I’m sorry” to God, and then remember we are loved.

I love the saying that went around Facebook the other day:

Religion says “I messed up, Dad’s going to kill me.”  Relationship says “I messed up, I need to call my Dad.”

That’s what repentance is all about: working on our relationship with our heavenly Father. This week: give Dad a call. AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/24/19

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 Isaiah 55:1-9  Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. PP I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. PP 6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13   I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,  2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,  3 and all ate the same spiritual food,  4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.  5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.  7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”  8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.  9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.  10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.  11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.  12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.  13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So our take-aways for today:

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s rare to find religious commentary that is level-headed, fair, and downright funny (though it begins on a serious note).

A blog post entitled Evangelical Drama Needs Mainline Experience explains it all in terms of high school drama.

There’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Football Team (“pretty sure football is only for boys, and the only sport for girls is cheerleading”), the Rich Kids (“oblivious to the fact that there are other students at the high school”), the Valedictorian (“bright and well-liked, but constantly at odds with the football team”), the Debate Team, and more.

Click the link above and relate!

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There are days I look at the news and shake my head wondering how on earth the message of Jesus has gotten so twisted.  Jesus taught love and peace and joy and truth… never disrespect for the dead, or abuse of women and children, or voices raised in anger, or judgmental hatred of minorities.  When I look at the Fred Phelpses of the world I can hardly blame non-religious types for thinking of religion as a mental illness.

For those who say the world would be better off without religion, defense of faith isn’t my purpose in writing today.  It’s enough to say that so much of humanity’s historical, cultural, and intellectual capital is rooted in the positive aspects of religion, that to do away with religion is essentially to saw off the tree branch we’re sitting on.

And, as so many people of various faiths have said before me, fundamentalists do not represent the majority of the faithful.

So how does fundamentalism spread?  Here’s one story that I’m sure has been repeated millions of times in one form or another.

Today I received an email from an elderly friend.  She’s a wonderful lady – matriarch of three generations, community volunteer, lifelong churchgoer.  She sent me a link to a web page and video that was troubling her.  Here is the web page it linked to — an article castigating President Obama and his choice of church attendance on Easter, with a “video” of said service.  The video looked familiar so I popped over to YouTube and discovered the so-called “Easter service” was a tiny piece of a much longer sermon filmed over five years ago.  There’s no indication it was filmed on any Easter or that the President was in attendance.

The website that published all this is a subset of One News Now, run by the American Family Association.  According to Wikipedia, the AFA is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing “propagation of known falsehoods” and “demonizing propaganda”.  The AFA is, essentially, our generation’s version of the KKK.

But there’s no way my elderly friend could have known all this.  All she knows is she got an upsetting email with a video containing the n-word and she wants to know what the world is coming to.

And she wonders how people can put this stuff in print if there isn’t some grain of truth in it somewhere.

And that’s how fundamentalism spreads… not in the halls of power, not via FoxNews, not via huge bank accounts, but friend-to-friend and family member to family member, by innuendo, twisted truths, false reporting.  Deliberate misinformation sent out by an organization with its own prosperity in mind, to people who would never think to do such things. People who forward emails to their children and relatives and friends and say, “Have you seen this? Can it be true? If Mom (or Dad or Sis or Bro) thinks there might something in it, maybe there is…”

One News Now, the AFA, Focus on the Family, et al… they make their millions by sending out messages designed to incite anger and play into people’s fears.  The language of their message implies that the nation as we know it will cease to exist if immediate action isn’t taken.  (To be fair I’ve heard equal and opposite jargon from the “other side” but that’s a different story for another day.)  They call people to stand for ‘God and country’ and they define what God said (“Stand firm!”) and what supporting country means (hyper-nationalism, wrapping the cross in the flag, no abortions, no gays, no immigrants, no blacks or women in power, always looking to “get back” to a more “innocent” era).  And of course “taking a stand” really means “Send money! And send us the names and addresses of other people who will send money!”

Blogger and ‘recovering fundamentalist’ blogger Jeri describes the fundamentalist subculture:

Loyalty compels separation and alienation. Paul warned the believers in Corinth about the dangers and flaws of saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.” Yet, this is the very fabric of Fundamentalist culture. […]  We really believed our culture, our leaders, our “standards” put us a few notches above…  Alliances and divisions were (and are) numerous and complex and rock hard.

A lot of Fundamentalist preaching is mayhem and doom, as preachers try to tie people in to the sense of being part of the enlightened and godly few. Fundamentalist preaching attacks music, movies, books, people, political groups, other cultures, etc. Loyalty thrives in a culture that so clearly and frequently culls out most other people as being unfit for God’s approbation, even if they are in Christ. And yet Fundamentalism remains dead silent about its own child molesting preachers, and those who have been caught in deceptions, frauds, and embezzlement. Fundamentalism protects its key men […] it cannot admit to the gross corruption of its leaders. In a culture of loyalty, the leaders must be protected…

How to stop it?  Things that won’t work: Reason. Arguing.  Shouting. Violence.  Trying to understand where they’re coming from.  The passing of laws restricting religious activity.  Ignoring them.  Treating them like idiots. Talking down to them.  Telling them to “get with the times”.

What does work: Defeat the false gospel of power politics with the real gospel of Jesus.  “Gospel” is an ancient word meaning “good news”.  What these organizations spread is “bad news”.  Remind people who are afraid that God loves them and is still in charge. Remind people who are angry that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death on the cross.  Remind them that real Christians “take a stand” on their knees… and have a duty to pray for enemies, perceived or real.  Pray for them.  Remind them of the depths of God’s love.  Remind them that perfect love casts out fear.  And when appropriate, remind them that Jesus’ sharpest criticisms were reserved for the religious leaders of his day… who sound amazingly like these fundamentalist leaders.  Confront the leaders with God’s truth, especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew ch 5 & 6)  Remind the followers – the flock of Christ – who their real Shepherd is.

Sounds crazy in the ears of a secular society, I know.  But this is a spiritual battle.  Humans are not the measure of all things.  There is a reality beyond what our senses can perceive.  And that’s what’s needed here.  Nothing else will answer.

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One of the greatest myths of contemporary Western culture is that “evangelical Christian” by definition implies “conservative”.  More and more people I talk to these days find themselves feeling burned by conservative religion and leaning liberal politically and/or on social issues.  Add to that the fact that any Christian who calls into question doctrines like speaking in tongues (as proof of conversion) or belief in the rapture would automatically be labeled “liberal” by the REAL conservative Christians, and lots more believers find themselves in the liberal camp almost by accident.

On the other hand, evangelical Christians generally aren’t comfortable identifying with traditional liberal Christianity either.  In Why I Am Not a “Liberal Christian” theologian and author Roger E. Olson explains by saying evangelicals find liberal theology “thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying” and continues…

“Many people who call themselves “moderate to progressive” theologically are really just asserting their non-fundamentalism. Like me, they have rejected extreme biblical literalism, hostility to science and philosophy, separatism and legalism, extreme dogmatism.” – R. Olson

True evangelical Christianity is — or should be when it is not being hijacked by conservatives — a broad, intelligent, and compassionate expression of the faith.  Good read, and a timely article.

 

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The Facebook post read: “to see the fruits of complementarianism (the teaching that women are “equal but different”) google ‘Does God Hate Women?’ the results are heartbreaking!”

They are indeed. Stories of abuse, lost faith, lost hope.

And among the brokenness, a gem of an article: Why Does God Hate Women?.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve ever wondered about religion’s gender biases, been hurt by misguided pastors or counselors, been shut out because of your gender, been puzzled over how we got where we are… read this.  Every word is golden.

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Christian Associates of Southwestern PA issued a joint statement this past April on the “Preventive Services Mandate” portion of the national healthcare bill. The joint statement says, in part, that the Mandate “requires faith-based entities that provide health insurance to facilitate access to specific preventive services, even if they consider some of those services incompatible with the practice of their faith.”  It speaks of “a common commitment to the right of religious freedom” we share as Americans regardless of differences of opinion on political matters.

While it is not spelled out in the statement, the major sticking point in the Mandate is the requirement that Catholic and other faith-based charities provide abortion and contraceptive services to employees via their health insurance, which would be a clear violation of religious beliefs and practices for many people of faith.

The joint statement received extremely broad support, as shown by the signatures of leaders of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Kiskiminetas Presbytery, Allegheny-Scranton African Methodist Episcopal District, Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, the Southwestern PA Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Christian Associates, United Churches of Christ, the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, Beaver-Butler Presbytery, Pittsburgh Baptist Association, the Orthodox Church in America, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Disciples of Christ Churches.

The joint statement calls on the federal government to “broaden the religious exemption… so that both the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion… and the moral imperative of healthcare… may not be impaired.”

The full text of the joint statement and accompanying press release may be found here.

The press release having been sent in mid-April, this is not breaking news, but as it was reprinted in the June issue of The Call (the newsletter of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania) I wanted to mention it.  There are times when I have been critical of CASP for not taking strong stands on Biblical issues, so I am delighted to report this time they have not only taken a stand but have been the rallying point for an interdenominational statement that is all too rare among church leaders today.

 

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(The following is reprinted with permission of classmate Drew Schmotzer who is currently serving in Egypt.  It is rare to have the opportunity to read first-hand accounts of current events un-edited and un-filtered by the news media. I thank him for the privilege of sharing his observations.)

Burning Churches in Cairo
7-8 May 2011

St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Imbaba was attacked by Salafi Muslims (a militant fundamentalist sect of Islam). There were three guards guarding the church: one was buying food outside and two were inside the church. When the Salafi came they shot and broke the locks and doors. They were looking for weapons in the church, and immediately looked under the draped altar to find nothing. They then went to the baptistery where they found the guards.

The Salafeen asked where were they hiding the weapons. The guards responded “we haven’t any weapons.” The Salafi then took their knives and guns and said “convert or die. Say there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

One guard refused and they slit his throat. The other somehow was released/escaped. Then the Salafi burned down the church.

The Salafi then went to another church. Christians made a human wall around the church so the Salafi could not attack it. The Bishop said he would welcome the Salafi to look at the church, but only after the police arrived. The Salafi shouted “Islam, Islam, The government is finished,” while the Christians shouted, “by our blood we will defend the cross.”

Shops next to the church were burned down (both Christian and Muslim shops). The local Imam then came to the church with the local priest and spoke from a loud speaker to stop the people. It wasn’t loud enough, so they spoke from the steeple together.

Muslim and Christian neighbors stopped cars passing by to get the small fire extinguishers, and tried to put out the fires.  They even used the dust on the street to put out fires. The Salafi tried to stop them but the people pushed them aside.

Although the building is burnt, and everything inside is destroyed, the church is ok. This is the 5th tragic attack on Christians since 1 January 2011 and the government is not taking any action. The army isn’t doing anything, as they were present but did not do anything. 12 died and 242 were injured and 4 churches were attacked.

Bishop Mouneer [Anis, Anglican Bishop of Egypt] reminded us by saying “unless we are broken, we cannot address the broken world around us.”

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Two days ago, on May 10 2011, the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) changed the wording of its ordination requirements.  The object of this change was to open the door to the ordination of homosexuals — but what was actually done is much further-reaching.  I quote from the website of our local Presbytery:

The most notable feature of this change is the removal of language requiring candidates “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” In its place is language directing that candidates “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life.”

Taking the language of this change as written, not only does it permit LGBT ordinations but also does away with the requirement for fidelity in marriage or chastity of any kind.  Bottom line, it says the PCUSA has nothing to offer to our sex-saturated and pleasure-addicted culture other than its blessing.

The news doesn’t come as a surprise, but it brings sadness nonetheless.  I am not Presbyterian, having left the denomination in my teens; but having been raised in it, and still working in it, the emotional impact is like seeing the old family homestead looted and overrun by foreigners.  This is not the faith I was raised in.  But more important than that, it is a religion that offers no hope for the freedom from sin that Jesus’ Gospel proclaims.

I do see two positive things in the aftermath.  One, cooler heads seem to be ruling in the Presbyterian church than in the Episcopal church.  Congregations wishing to realign with more conservative presbyteries are being allowed to depart in peace and negotiate for their properties.  So far there’s been none of the scorched-earth policy that has been the norm for the Episcopalians, and I pray that continues.   And two, now and then you get great quotes like this one from local Presbyterian theologians:

As those committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture, God’s people dare not let the world set our moral agenda. We are called to be holy, set apart to God’s glory. The Bible is clear that many practices the world tolerates and even celebrates – greed, envy, promiscuity, slander, inhospitality, and the like – have no place in the kingdom of God, nor do they have any place in the church. This is a time to be more attentive to the call to biblical holiness, not less.

Amen.

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Taking a stand for the preservation of animals is a good thing.  Tending to nature and this island home we call Earth is a good thing.  Both are essential to the Christian faith — and have been ever since Genesis 1.  God created the earth and all that is in it and called it “good”, and gave humanity the task of caring for it.  It is a good thing to remember that we often fall short of this responsibility.

It is also a good thing to remember what Jesus did to set things right again.  Reflecting on His self-sacrifice on our behalf, His death on the cross, and the power of His resurrection is appropriate at all times and especially at this time of year as we approach Easter.

Good things.

This however is not a good thing:

“On the day we mark the crucifixion of Christ, let us remember that when Earth is degraded and species go extinct, a part of God’s body experiences a different type of crucifixion, and another way of seeing and experiencing God is diminished.”  – Earth Day 2011 at TEC

When a church that represents itself as Christian pre-empts Good Friday’s memorial of our salvation for a ‘word from Earth Day’… when it promotes the belief that planet Earth is “part of God’s body”, or that one “sees God” in creation… it is no longer teaching the faith as received by the apostles from Jesus Christ.  Such beliefs may be ‘religious’ but they are not Christian. Causing a species to go extinct is a slap in God’s face, but it doesn’t diminish God in any way.  It diminishes us.

We worship the Creator when we care for His Creation.  Let us treasure the gift and love the Giver.

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Leaders of the Anglican Church from Africa, Asia, South America, and the West Indies met this past week in Singapore to discuss the future of the Anglican Church in the Global South and to call for a worldwide “Decade of Mission”.  Also present were representatives from Anglican churches in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA.

According to an article on the website of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), among the many concerns addressed by the Encounter, the summary communique recognized the recently-organized  ACNA and said:

“We are grateful that the recently formed Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) is a faithful expression of Anglicanism. We welcomed them as partners in the Gospel and our hope is that all provinces will be in full communion with the clergy and people of the ACNA and the Communion Partners.”

Archbishop Robert Duncan, attending on behalf of ACNA, responded by saying,

“We are moving forward in mission and relationship with Anglicans all over the world.  Our unity and shared commitment to the work of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is a reason for great joy.”

Click here to read more of the article and the Global South communique.

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Taking a short break from the studies in Matthew to answer a few reader questions…

I have a couple of somewhat related questions from two different readers: (1) how did church ushers get started? and (2) how did home communions get started? The questions are somewhat related because both have to do with servant ministries within the church, and in many churches both can be performed by laypeople.

Church ushering has a long, venerable history that begins with the Doorkeepers (or Gatekeepers) of the Old Testament tabernacle.  In New Testament times the history is not as clear, but it is possible the first Deacons assisted with doorkeeping in addition to waiting tables at church gatherings.

In modern times church ushers are usually not ordained, although they are frequently chosen from among members of the church’s governing bodies.  They have a front-line responsibility in representing the church, welcoming visitors, helping guide people to appropriate seating, handing out bulletins and other printed material, and helping collect the offerings.

Home Communions also have a long history, going back to the earliest Christians.  In the early church it was the duty of Deacons to carry some of the communion bread and wine from the Lord’s Table to those members of the church who were sick or dying, so they could be included in the ‘body of Christ’, the company of the faithful.

In medieval times a great deal of pageantry and superstition grew up around home communions, and for that reason Protestant Reformers sometimes rejected the practice.  Protestants also warned against the practice of “Private Communions” — communion for just one individual or just one family, usually held in the family home — which had become a common practice among the wealthy.  The Reformers felt the practice was against Scripture, which taught communion by definition was meant to be ‘communal’ — a meal shared by the entire church family.   Eventually most Protestant churches came to see a difference between ‘private communion’ and bringing the elements to the sick and shut-ins.  Calvin also reasoned that home communion brought consolation and nourishment to those who, through no fault of their own, were not able to receive the sacrament in church.

Today each church and denomination have different practices and regulations concerning home communion.  Some require the presence of ordained clergy; some permit church elders or deacons to take elements from the Lord’s Table after communion and bring them to the sick; but most churches have some form of home communion available to church members who request it.

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This post is a follow-on to a discussion found here.

Pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib?  The question can be a major litmus test of one’s spirituality in many churches today.  For anyone who has missed the argument, the question has to do with when the Church will be raptured out of the world — before the tribulation, during it, or at the end of it?

I submit that the question is irrelevant.

For starters, I submit that theological litmus tests are spiritual poison, leading to pride and self-righteousness on the one hand and discouragement and humiliation on the other.  I submit that where it comes to getting into God’s Kingdom, it’s not what you know, it’s Who you know. Yes, it is a good thing to read and study God’s word, but entry into the heavenly banquet won’t require passing an exam.

Second, I submit that the question stems from a mis-reading of Scripture.  The word rapture appears nowhere in the Bible, and the apostle Paul makes it clear that believers still living when Christ returns will meet Him when He returns.  (I Thess 4:16-17)  There is no guarantee anywhere in Scripture that Christians will vacate the earth before the end times; if anything Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 seem to indicate that the Church will still be here during the end times.  Jesus notes,  “but the one who endures to the end will be saved”. (Matt. 24:13)

A recent New Testament class presented us with a very different reading of Revelation and the end times than any I have heard in any kind of church, and it’s one that makes a great deal of sense.  Revelation is interpreted as a series of seven sections which move in progressive parallelism.  In other words, Revelation tells the story of the end times seven times from seven different perspectives, each re-telling building on the sections before.  This makes a lot of sense because (a) an apocalypse is a genre of writing that is often presented in repetitions; and (b) there are seven re-tellings – Scripture’s perfect number.

Looking at Revelation in this way, all the time-lines and road-maps that people have cobbled together trying to figure out exactly what is going to happen when in the end times become worthless – which they always were to begin with.  As Jesus says, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matt. 24:36)  He warns over and over in Matt. 24 not to be deceived by people who say otherwise.  “Wherever the corpse is, the vultures will gather,” is Jesus’ wry comment.  And yet the vultures continue to pick the bones of the Bible’s prophecies and grow wealthy publishing their “findings”.

Another interesting thing that happens with the seven-retellings approach is: many other frequent points of disagreement among Christians become settled.  For example, there is no problem defining who the people of God are – they are any and all people who are of the faith of Abraham and Jesus.  There is no problem defining the terms rapture and return of Christ – they’re the same thing.  All the judgments mentioned in Revelation are one and the same; and the two resurrections mentioned refer to spiritual resurrection (salvation) and physical resurrection (Christ’s return) respectively.  Everything fits.   No need to go through all kinds of mental gyrations figuring out which thousand years goes where, and more importantly, no need to view people as being excluded from God’s kingdom based on their eschatological beliefs.

So if we can’t determine some kind of sequence of events from Revelation, what is the book about?  It’s about encouragement.  It’s about hope.  It’s about reminding people who are suffering through difficult times that God is in charge and will set all things right in the end.  It’s about the victory of our Lord.  The aim of the book is not to give us a brain teaser to unravel — it’s to give us a vision of the brightness of our future.  The last chapter says it all.

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This news story is incredibly apropos our current readings in Church, Ministry and Sacraments class.  In it you will read about members of the hierarchy of The Episcopal Church soliciting contributions from lawyers to support lawsuits against individual parishes who are leaving the national church.  Notice that the lawyers’ fund (The St. Ives Fund) is self-described on the website as “Mission Funding”!  (I wonder how many new converts they’ve won…?)

Our class has been reading Lesslie Newbigin’s The Household of God, in which Newbigin teaches that salvation apart from the church is impossible — not because the church dispenses salvation (it doesn’t) but because all who have become one with Christ are one with each other in His Body, the Church.  He says the Protestant concept of the “spiritual” church  as opposed to the “physical” church is judgmental and sounds like something the Pharisees would have come up with.

I like Lesslie Newbigin a lot, and his points are very well taken.  But there still must be some way to distinguish The Church (God’s people, the Body of Christ) from the church (the man-made institution).  Confronted with deliberate evil and strategically planned disobedience to God within the church (the man-made institution) isn’t it essential for the Church (God’s people) to take a stand?

When the leadership of a church (the institution) is deliberately deceiving the Church (the people) by calling a lawyers’ war-chest “missions”, and using the money to sue other Christians (which is forbidden by Scripture)… how is it remotely possible that the church can remain undivided? The very act of deception is in itself a breaking of Christian fellowship.

Near the end of his book Newbigin makes a very good point though (speaking of missions): “our Lord forbids His disciples to stay and argue with those who do not receive them…” (p. 144)  It’s a sad thing not to be received, and in fact to be preyed upon, by one’s own church.  It’s no way to run a church, and certainly no way to do missions.

Time to move on and follow Him.

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“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“ The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘ Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’”

Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him  and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance,  and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
— Matthew 3:1-12 (NKJV)

John’s message is an odd one: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  It’s the kind of message that will make people stop and listen just to hear what he says next.  So what does the message mean, and why would people travel dozens of miles on foot across parched and difficult terrain to hear John preach it?

Repent is a word that has been so mis-used in our time, both by believers and non-believers, that finding a definition is difficult.  The word essentially means to turn or to do a one-eighty. Taken in context, what I hear John saying is essentially “God is coming! Quit wasting your time.  Put away the things you do wrong in your life.  Admit your failures and your rebellion against God, and be clean on the inside just as being baptized makes you clean on the outside.”

John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees are harsh, but not without reason.  The Sadducees were wealthy, sophisticated religious leaders who hob-nobbed with the Greeks to the point of compromising their Jewish faith.  The Pharisees on the other hand were the popular religious leaders of the day, legalistic and proud of how well they kept the Law of Moses to the smallest detail.  What made them popular was that they were pro-Israel and they taught religion in a way the people could understand.  The main bone of contention between the two parties was over the issue of resurrection: the Sadducees believed life after death didn’t exist and the Pharisees believed it did.  (Side note: Jesus took the position of the Pharisees on this issue when He said the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was “the God of the living, not of the dead.”)

To these religious leaders John says: bear fruit worthy of repentance, and don’t say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our father’.  How to translate this ancient text into modern concepts?  “Bear fruit” — Bearing fruit isn’t something a plant tries to do; as long as it is healthy and connected to the source of nutrients it will bear fruit that shows what kind of plant it is.  “I am the vine, you are the branches…” Jesus says.  In other words John is saying let your lives show what you say you believe.

“And don’t say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our father’…”  In Jesus’ day it was generally believed that one got into heaven  by being physically descended from Abraham, the great patriarch chosen by God.  They missed the point that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  (Rom 4:3)  In our day John might have said “and don’t say to yourselves ‘we’re baptized believers’…” because believing in God and being baptized doesn’t save a person’s soul any more than being descended from Abraham does.  There is a world of difference between believing IN God (an intellectual assent) and believing God (a position of trust and obedience). John makes it clear that saving faith results in the bearing of fruit.

John then goes on to talk about fire: those who don’t bear the fruit of faith in their lives will be thrown into fire; the One coming will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”; He will gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire.  This is disturbing stuff.  First, I notice that nobody escapes fire.  People without the fruit of faith in their lives burn; people with the fruit of faith are made clean by fire; but nobody gets out of this life without passing through fire.

At the same time, God’s people have nothing to fear.  I think this is what Isaiah was referring to when he said (Is 43:1-2)

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”

God doesn’t promise to deliver His people from trouble; He promises to be with us and see us safely through it.

Second, it’s becoming clear to me even as I write this that the fire John is talking about is metaphorical and is something that happens in this life.  Our actions happen in this life, our decisions happen in this life, and what we think and do in this life has far-reaching effects beyond just this life.

The apostle Peter talks about the fact that the hardships we face in this life are designed to refine our faith (I Peter 1). And going through life’s trials without God is passing through fire without God’s protection; without faith Isaiah’s promises don’t apply.  It seems there might be more to the cutting down and burning John talks about, but I’m not sure what it means exactly except that there will be an end to evil someday.

If there’s a bottom line to the message, it’s that our focus matters.  Are we focused on the great news that God is coming?  Or are we focused only on ourselves — the call to change our lives and the implications and inconveniences such changes bring?

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