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Nine years ago I wrote a post called “What Is the Great Cloud of Witnesses?” that talked about the saints who have gone before us — both those whose names are known in the Bible or in history, and those whose names are known by very few.

All of them together make up the “great cloud of witnesses” — people whose lives and actions have shown us the goodness and saving power of God, people who I believe are now in God’s kingdom cheering us on.

At the end of the original post I invited readers to write the names of the people in their own cloud of witnesses (suggesting first names only for privacy).  Today, All Saints Day, I wanted to open that invitation again.  Below please share the names of the people you know who are in the Great Cloud of Witnesses in glory with God.

Thanks be to God for their prayers and their love.

 

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

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

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

What a passionate passage!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Well, our summertime series on Genesis is officially done… but the story we began hasn’t ended yet, so let’s keep going with the Old Testament for a few more weeks!

Today’s sermon is called “The End of the Beginning” because we are at the end of the book of Genesis, and the word ‘genesis’ means ‘beginning’ – and also because we are at the beginning of the end of Israel’s time in Egypt.

For a quick recap – so far we have seen the faith of Abraham, who believed God’s promise that he would be the father of a nation. The apostle Paul says in Romans, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) So Abraham sets an example for us as we trust God’s word to be the foundation of our lives.

We saw the same faith in Isaac. We’ve seen Isaac’s children – Esau and Jacob – fighting with each other, and cheating each other, and behaving as if they didn’t really believe God’s promises. In spite of this Jacob is blessed with two wives and 12 children and many herds and flocks. But when his beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth, Jacob sets his heart on the two sons she gave him: Joseph and Benjamin.

And we’ve seen Joseph’s story: how his jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, how he rose to power in the service of Pharaoh, and how he saved thousands of lives during the great famine – including the lives of his own family, who came to Egypt looking for food.

One thing I want to point out about Joseph before we move on to Exodus. Just like Abraham sets us an example of faith, Joseph’s life can be understood as a prophecy of the Messiah. There are parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus that gave ancient Israel – and give us – a picture of what the Messiah will look like.

Here are just a few of the parallels:

  • In Egypt, Joseph was thrown into jail when he 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 thrown into jail when he 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 was the very thing he did NOT do (sleeping with his master’s wife). The formal accusation against Jesus was also the very thing he did NOT do (trying to take over the throne of the Jewish nation. The charge nailed over his 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; Jesus, in between his death and resurrection, descended into hell and ministered to the 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 – his brothers – came to him in their need and were reconciled; those who sin against God – we who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters – come to Jesus in our need and are reconciled.

So we see the Gospel message in the life of Joseph, embedded right here in the Old Testament.

With this in mind, today’s reading begins with some very significant words. It says: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph”.

It goes without saying this Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph personally. Between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus 350 years have passed, so nobody is still alive who knew Joseph personally. But Joseph was an important figure in Egypt’s history: Joseph saved Egypt from a seven-year famine. And in the process Joseph made Pharaoh – and by extension, Egypt – exceedingly rich.

During the famine years, people spent all their money buying food, and that money went to Pharaoh. When they ran out of money, the people sold their land – and the land went to Pharaoh. When they ran out of land, the people sold – essentially themselves, that is, their labor – and the benefits of that labor went to Pharaoh. Some people became temporary servants, others became slaves – but all of them belonged to Pharaoh. So Pharaoh benefited richly from Joseph’s work.

But now 350 years have passed. In the in-between time, Egypt has seen internal unrest, assassinations, a rebellion here and there, a few Pharaohs who didn’t live more than a year or two after they took the throne. And in the process of all this, many of the people who had sold themselves into slavery under Joseph took advantage of the confusion and fled the country.

Meanwhile what had started as a temporary economic necessity under Joseph – that is, a work-for-food program during the famine – had become an institution of slavery that Egyptians felt entitled to: slavery, which was accompanied by unspeakable cruelty and prejudice (as we have seen in our own nation’s history).

350 years have passed since Joseph. To put that into perspective for us: 350 years ago, the city of Brooklyn, New York was chartered. The first human blood transfusion was performed. Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground and discovered gravity. And Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, was born.

When you put it that way, 350 years doesn’t sound all that long. Our reading says this new Pharaoh “didn’t know Joseph”. Today, if you said “this person doesn’t know Sir Isaac Newton” or “this person doesn’t know the Wesleys” you wouldn’t be saying “they never met” – you’d be saying either “this person is not very well educated” or you’d be saying “This person doesn’t care what Newton says” or “doesn’t care what the Wesleys think”.

So if this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph – was it a lack of education? No. Egypt was, and still is, one of the most highly-educated nations in human history. So if this Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph, it’s because he chooses not to know.

And people who ignore history do not lead nations well. And that’s exactly what happened here. Exodus tells us:

[Pharaoh said to his people], “Look, the Israelites are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (Exodus 1:9-10)

Pharaoh is choosing to lead his people by setting them against each other. First he divides them by national heritage. But after 350 years all the people who came to Egypt during the famine now think of themselves as Egyptians! (Our own country hasn’t even existed for 350 years yet, and all of us think of ourselves as Americans, no matter what country our families came from.)

But Pharaoh divides the people by heritage. And then speaking to the native-born Egyptians, he instills fear of the ‘other’ – that is, anyone with foreign roots. He makes the people afraid by saying ““they” are more numerous and more powerful than we are”. Is this true? No! – not yet anyway. But he says it and they believe it.

And then Pharaoh institutes a policy of legalized discrimination “or else “they” will increase”. And he rationalizes it by talking about national security: he says, “otherwise they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land”. (We can almost hear Pharaoh saying “we’re taking back Egypt for the Egyptians!”)

Nowhere is there any indication that the Hebrews were causing any problems or trying to leave Egypt. They were happy enough there, at least until this Pharaoh came to power. But – as we have seen in the lives of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – God is behind the scenes, advancing God’s kingdom. And in a move of great irony, God uses Pharaoh’s own plans to ‘keep the Israelites down’ to inspire the people of Israel to rise up and leave Egypt.

But we’re not there yet. For now, Pharaoh sets up taskmasters over the Israelites and puts them to hard labor, making bricks, and cutting stone, and building cities. But God is with the people in their oppression, and their numbers increase even more. Now the native-born Egyptians really are afraid, because the tactics are backfiring. Oppression only makes the people of Israel stronger.

And then we come to the birth of Moses, who will be the deliverer of Israel Background note: Moses will be 80 years old when he leads Israel out of Egypt. So the hardships described in today’s reading continued for 80 years. This downhill spiral lasted for three generations. So by the time of the Exodus, slavery will be all the younger generations have ever known. And that’s significant, because (1) they will have a hard time trusting a savior. They will have a hard time believing anybody can set them free… and (2) once set free, they won’t know quite what to do with their freedom (which helps explain things like the golden calf).

There’s a parallel to this in our own time. Human beings, all of us, are slaves to sin. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34) and none of us is perfect yet. So all of us have been slaves all our lives, and so has every generation before us. So when the Savior Jesus comes along, we have a hard time trusting, just like the Israelites did. We have a hard time believing that freedom can actually be ours. And so often we find ourselves saying, as it says in scripture, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief”.

And like ancient Israel, when we are set free, we don’t always know quite what to do with our freedom. Most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament deal with this problem. When we are set free by faith in the Lord Jesus, the law is fulfilled, and all things become permissible. But Paul says in I Corinthians:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. […] The body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (I Corinthians 6:12-13 edited)

So whatever we do in our bodies becomes united to Christ. We are free; but we must use that freedom in harmony with the Lord who saved us. This is a hard lesson for us, and it will be a hard lesson for the children of Israel.

But we’re not to the Exodus yet… so back to our story.

So the Israelites are multiplying in Egypt and growing strong under their oppression, which makes sense, because those who survive oppression by definition will be the strong ones. So Pharaoh tells the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male babies. But the midwives feared God, and disobeyed the king’s command.

When Pharaoh questions them about their disobedience, the midwives say “the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women: they are vigorous and they deliver before we can get there!” (Which fits neatly into the Egyptian stereotype that “the Hebrews are stronger than we are”!)

So Pharaoh changes the law: he says every boy baby must be thrown into the Nile.

I imagine at this point the decent people among the Egyptians must have known Pharaoh was wrong. When they saw those babies floating in the river their hearts must have gone out to the Hebrew people. I imagine Moses was probably not the only child pulled out of the river by Egyptians.

But there was one particular baby who caught the eye of Pharaoh’s daughter. She sees him floating in the Nile and decides to adopt him as her own son. I imagine Pharaoh was none too thrilled about being presented with a Hebrew grandbaby, but his daughter loved this child. And, guided by God, the baby’s quick-thinking sister sets it up with Pharaoh’s daughter so that his mother is paid to nurse her own child!

And Pharaoh’s daughter named the baby “Moses” because, she said, “I drew him out of the water.” The word ‘Moses’ in Hebrew means ‘to draw out’ – which is where she got the name. But in a twist of irony – and in a twist of prophecy – the form of the Hebrew word she used actually means he who draws out (not he who is drawn out). This baby will draw out his people from Egypt and out of slavery.

God’s plan continues. God is in charge of history, and that never changes.

This we can trust: God has a plan for creation. God had a plan back then and still does now. History has a goal. The human race has a destination. The destination is not “progress” as the world thinks of it. The destination of history is not a thing or 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.

No matter what the Israelites see around them – and no matter what we see around us – God doesn’t change. So as we go out into the world this week, and in the weeks ahead, fear not! – our times are in God’s hands. Our job is to be alert and aware, and to do whatever good we can, guided by the Spirit. Take Moses’ sister as an example: she watched over her brother, and when Pharaoh’s daughter found him, offered to find a nurse for her brother. Likewise we also need to be watching for opportunities… because in these difficult times, God has something for us to do.

Let’s pray… Lord, the news we see and hear is not good and seems to be getting worse by the day. Calm our fears; help us to trust and hope in you; and help us to know what you would have us do, to give help to your people and to sustain life in a world obsessed with death. Thank you Lord Jesus for being our Joseph, and our Moses. AMEN.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Scripture Reading:
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Fair Oaks Retirement Community, 8/27/17
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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All.Night.Long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

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

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

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

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

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

~

Scriptures

Genesis 32:22-31

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

 

Romans 8:35-39

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

 

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“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.  11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.  12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.  16 God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars.  17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,  18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.  NRS

 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.  4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” – Genesis 1:1-2:4

credit: http://jennbowers.deviantart.com/art/In-the-Beginning-173825924

As you can see in today’s bulletin insert, today the Partnership’s pastoral team is launching a summer series on the Old Testament.

As Christians we are a New Testament people.  Jesus lived in New Testament times, the Christian church begins in the New Testament, and we tend to focus on the New Testament most of the time.  But when Jesus preached, he taught the Old Testament. Jesus was raised Jewish, raised in the synagogue, and Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. So the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament church is built.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18) And when Jesus talks about the Law, he means the Old Testament, particularly the first five books – which will be the foundation of our summer series.

So today, here we are at the very beginning!  Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.

As we approach this passage I think it’s helpful to remember the old journalist’s saying that if you want to get to the bottom of something there are five questions to answer: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?  Genesis chapter 1 answers those questions about life on the planet Earth from God’s point of view.

Before we dig into this passage, a little bit of background for reading and understanding Genesis. Genesis is not meant to be read like a newspaper: journalism as we understand it did not exist back then.  Genesis is not meant to be read like a science textbook: schools hadn’t been invented back then.  And Genesis is not meant to be read like the transcript of a court case: lawyers had not been invented yet.

The first human beings, who are created in this chapter, didn’t even know how to read and write.  So the words of Genesis were compiled generations later. But the lack of science and newspapers and lawyers in the first few dozen generations of the human race did not mean ancient people were beneath us intellectually. There is knowledge and wisdom to be found here – just not quite the way it’s usually expressed in the 21st century.

Genesis tells us the story of creation from God’s point of view, metaphorically, in a way that our human understanding can grasp some meaning and apply it.

Of course I can’t talk about the first chapter of Genesis without also mentioning the debate over creationism vs evolution. People argue that either Genesis is the literal truth, or else they say it’s a total myth. Let me suggest that both of those points of view are flawed.

To those who say Genesis should be rejected – who say God had nothing to do with the earth being here – I would say this: look around you. Look at the flowers and the trees and the mountains. Better yet, look at a baby; and tell me these things happen by accident.

As a musician I can tell you a song can’t exist without a songwriter. Likewise a creation can’t exist without a creator.

To those who say Genesis must be taken literally: the choice of words God uses in Genesis chapter one tells us this is not literal.  For example, God describes the process of creation in terms of days – day one, God did this; day two God did that – but the sun wasn’t created until Day Four, and it’s impossible to measure out a day (as we understand it) without the sun.

Scripture itself says that for God, 1000 years is like a day and a day is like 1000 years. And if you want my opinion, where it comes to evolution, there’s no reason why evolution couldn’t be one of many tools in God’s toolbox.

But that’s just my opinion. Today we’re here to listen to the word of God. So let’s dig into it.

Genesis chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”   That’s WHEN God created, not IF.

In the original Hebrew there’s something unusual about this first verse.  The noun for ‘God’ is plural… but the verb for ‘created’ is singular.  Mixing a plural subject with a singular verb doesn’t happen in the Hebrew language. In fact it doesn’t happen in English either. In English we would say ‘he makes’ or ‘they make’. We wouldn’t say ‘they makes’. But that’s exactly what the Hebrew says here: God (plural) created (singular).

So in the first chapter of the Bible we meet the foundation of the reality that becomes our understanding of the Trinity. And we meet the Holy Spirit in verse two. ‘The wind’ hovering over the waters can be translated ‘spirit’ – it’s the same word. And then in verse 26 we overhear a conversation among God saying: “let us make humankind in our image”.  God does not say “I’m going to make people in my image.”  And God does not say “our images”.  God says “let us make humankind in our image”. This is not a mistake in the translation.  The Trinity is in the very first chapter of the very first book.  (And it just so happens today is Trinity Sunday which makes it really appropriate that we’re looking at Genesis Chapter 1.)

So moving on to verse two: “when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless and void” – in other words, there was nothing here. Nothing at all. It was empty and dark. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.

My favorite translation of verse three is the very first English translation ever made. The translator was John Wycliffe and the year was 1382. (Aside: Back then copying the Bible into any language but Latin was a crime punishable by death. So Wycliffe risked his life to give us this Bible in English because he believed so strongly that people need to hear God’s word in their own language.)

Wycliffe’s translation of Genesis 1:3 reads:

“and God said ‘light be made’ and light was made.”

Isn’t that fantastic?  When God speaks, things happen. Can you imagine coming home at the end of the day and walking into the kitchen and saying ‘dinner be made!’? God says “light be made” and light is made!

God’s will is done.

“And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

Getting back to evolution for a minute, and the theory of the Big Bang: according to recently retired Harvard astrophysicist Professor Owen Gingerich and his colleagues, the Big Bang had to have been made out of something. In other words a bang can’t happen out of nothing. You need to have something there to go ‘bang’. Many scientists now agree that the substance, the material, the Big Bang was made out of, was light. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

But the important thing here is what God does: God separates light from darkness. God calls light ‘good’.  And from this time forward, God will be in the business of separating light from darkness, and good from evil.

Moving on a bit more quickly now… on Day Two, God separates earth from the rest of the solar system by placing an atmosphere around the planet.  On Day Three, God brings the planet’s waters together to make seas and to make dry land. On Day Three God also creates all kinds of plant life including fruit trees… and all these plants have seeds in them that will produce more plants! Life has begun. God created the earth with life in mind.

On Day Four, God creates the Sun and the Moon to give the earth light (which is something the plants are going to need) and also to mark off time: the movements of the sun and moon determine the days, and seasons, and years. The stars are also noticed for the first time but the author doesn’t say anything more about them. Was creation happening on any of the other planets out there? We don’t know, and the Bible doesn’t say, but someday that question will be answered.

On Day Five, God creates life in the ocean: things that swim. It’s interesting that the theory of evolution agrees that animal life on earth has to have begun in the ocean. God also creates birds on the fifth day, and God says to them, “be fruitful and multiply” – and they do.

On Day Six, God creates animal life: cattle, wild animals, snakes, tigers, horses, and cats of course. And then last but certainly not least, God makes human beings “in our image, according to our likeness, male and female.”  The man and the woman were equally created in God’s image; and God blesses them both and gives them both instructions for life. And these instructions still apply today. God says:

  1. “Be fruitful and multiply.” For many people this will mean having children, but not for everybody. For some it may mean teaching or mentoring – passing on knowledge from one generation to another. For some it may mean sustaining life through health care or through growing food or providing shelter or making clothing. For all of us it means taking the gifts and talents God has given us and investing them for the good of other people.
  2. “Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over it.” This verse has been used many times in human history to excuse damage to the environment.  And the Hebrew word here for ‘have dominion’ does imply force. But the interpretation is not correct.  What’s being said here basically is: nature is wild. Tame it. Prune it.  Rule over it with care. Make the earth produce what you need… but where it’s defenseless, protect it. Be responsible for its well-being.
  3. “I have given you every plant yielding seed… and every tree with seed in its fruit… you shall have them for food.” And God says the same thing to the animals.  The eating of animals… by either people or other animals… doesn’t happen until after the Fall, until after Adam and Eve rebel against God.
    Paul writes in Romans 8: “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility… We know that the whole creation has been groaning [as] in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…” (Romans 8:20-23 edited)  Violence between living creatures was never part of God’s original plan, and it’s one of the things that will be healed in God’s coming kingdom.  (By the way, I don’t interpret this to mean we should all stop eating meat… but I do think God’s intention merits our attention.)

And then, at the end of Day Six, when God has said and done all these things, God sits back and says, “this is good!”

And on the seventh day, God rested. The word for ‘rest’ in Hebrew is Shabbat, or Sabbath as we call it today.  It means to cease and desist.  And God blessed the seventh day, and set it apart as holy.

The Sabbath and its meaning, and God’s intention for it, needs a sermon in itself.  And I’m looking forward to writing that sermon someday! But I’m running out of time today so here’s just a sneak preview.

Keeping the Sabbath is not about following a set of rules. Many of us here can remember the days of the ‘blue laws’ when everything was closed on Sundays. And sometimes this caused problems. What happened, for example, if you needed to go to the hospital on a Sunday but your car was out of gas?

There are times when the rules need to bend.  And that’s what Jesus and the Pharisees were always arguing over where it came to the Sabbath.  Jesus said the Sabbath is made for human beings, not vice versa.

The purpose of the Sabbath is to give God’s people the right to have one day out of every seven where we cannot be required to work. One day when we cannot be required to run ourselves ragged going to every sale at the mall, or trimming every hedge in the yard, or getting all the kids to all their practices on Sundays.  The Sabbath gives us the right to say “NO”.  It’s liberating! The Sabbath is freedom. The Sabbath is a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come. And while I don’t believe in blue laws, I do believe our society’s abandonment of the Sabbath is one of the causes of many of the evils of our time: especially when people become unhinged by the pressures of life.  Human beings were not meant to work 24/7/365. We can’t do it and stay healthy. And God knows that, so God gave us the Sabbath.

More on that some other day.  For now, to sum up Genesis 1:

  1. What we read here is that you and I and all of creation are created by a good and loving and creative and powerful, Triune God.
  2. Second, we see that God’s word is active. What God says, happens. And we can take that to the bank.
  3. Third, we see that God cares very deeply for life. And related to that…
  4. Fourth, we see that nature is given to sustain life. Not us only, but all living things. Part of our job here on earth is to care for, and give back to, the earth that sustains us.
  5. Fifth, God looks around at creation and says it’s all good!
  6. And sixth, resting every seventh day is the rhythm of creation – and of eternity.

So this week, think on these things… turn them over in your minds… and apply them as God leads. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/11/17

~

 

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Thanks to Facebook friend Ron Lusk for sharing this article from Wired.com:  “The Crisis of Attention Theft: Ads That Steal Your Time for Nothing In Return”

Pull-quote: “…in overstimulated lives, moments do matter, and indeed sometimes few things matter more than a few chosen minutes of silence. The important question is the aggregate effect of all of these various intrusions on both our health and that precious thing known as autonomy.”

I’m old enough to remember a time when ads were not everywhere, all the time. It’s amazing how quiet my childhood memories are: not silent, but filled with the sounds of nature and/or family and neighbors.  TV and radio commercials were limited to a one-or-two-sentence “sponsored by” acknowledgement (the kind of acknowledgement Public TV used to use — they’ve got full-fledged commercials now).

And the generation before mine grew up with nothing more obnoxious than roadside Burma-Shave ads.

Is it a coincidence that, in a time when we are being force-fed ads, and denied so much as an “off” button, we’re also being told what we must believe about politicians, religion, foreign countries, etc? Is it a coincidence that voices of dissent and change — like those found in the Green Party, the American Solidarity Party, or the Jesuits for that matter — are consistently marginalized or ignored?

If you doubt the power and pervasiveness of ads today, try this experiment: see if you can get through an entire day without seeing the words “Xfinity” or “Verizon”.  I tried every day for a month before I admitted failure.

Did you ever agree to give these corporations this much real estate in your mind? I know I didn’t.

The constant 24/7/365 over-stimulation of every person in the Western world can’t be healthy mentally, psychologically, or spiritually.

Awareness is a start.  Next steps?

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