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Posts Tagged ‘prophecy’

God’s Call

God speaks through the Prophet Hosea: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.  5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.  10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.  11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. — Hosea 11:1-11

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The Apostle Paul writes: So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.  8 But now you must get rid of all such things– anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices  10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! — Colossians 3:1-11

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god-is-calling

Today we’ll be looking at both our Old Testament lesson and our New Testament lesson and the focus will be on the common ground between the two.

The prophet Hosea and the apostle Paul lived about 700 years apart, give or take a few decades. They weren’t born or raised anywhere near each other: so it is remarkable how much their messages amplify and support each other. Hosea focuses mostly on how very much God loves us; and Paul encourages us to love God back. Let there be a two-way relationship between us, and let us be confident that even when we fall short of God’s perfection, God’s love and compassion are always there.

God also reminds us throughout scripture that God’s people were called out of Egypt – out of slavery – and into freedom. Israel’s experience in Egypt is not just history; it is also a parable showing us what it means to be in bondage to sin and separated from God. Without God we find ourselves trying to satisfy people and powers who are not God but would like to take God’s place in our lives. These people and things can become idols, and we may find ourselves trapped: giving our best efforts and the very best of our minds and abilities to something that isn’t God. In every time and every age and every nation, our loyalty is to Jesus. Jesus came to set us free, and he died and rose again to bring us into God’s eternal kingdom.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Let me back up and start with the reading from Hosea. Hosea was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel shortly before the kingdom fell. He lived in a time when the people of Israel had been living in the Promised Land for a few hundred years. They had made themselves at home, and now they’re forgetting God (who brought them there) and are chasing after the Baals – the local false gods. They have forgotten what God did for them in Egypt; and when Hosea talks about a “return to Egypt” in verse 5, it has a double meaning: (1) that the people are taking themselves spiritually back into slavery by disobeying God, and (2) that Israel at that time was negotiating with Egypt to help them fight the Assyrians who were attacking from the north. God is warning them that their alliance with Egypt will fail. In the end, Israel doesn’t listen and the Northern Kingdom falls. But at this point in time the Northern Kingdom is still standing, and God is pleading with the people to return to the one who loves them.

2 kingdoms

In the book of Hosea, chapter 1, God gives Hosea a very unusual to begin his prophetic task: God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her. This is meant to give the people of Israel a living picture of how God feels, being the God of a people who are always chasing after other gods. The fact that this illustration doesn’t even touch the peoples’ hearts tells us how far gone the nation is.

But in chapter 11 God changes approach: God opens his heart to the people and speaks in a way that many theologians have said is “like a mother”. Our God is of course beyond gender and has qualities that could be described as either or both. So as we read these words, we can hear God’s words spoken as either a mother or as a father would speak them.

God says to Israel:

“From the very beginning I called you. I taught you how to walk… I took you in my arms… I led you with human kindness, with bands of love… I lifted you like a child to my cheek… I bent down and fed you… but you refuse me; and as a result you will lose your land, and Assyria will be your king.”

As we hear God speaking from the heart it may remind us of other children we know – children of loving parents who have turned away from their families. We know the pain it causes. It may lead the child into danger, poverty, addiction, sometimes even death. We know that any loving parent would do anything to save their child, would even take the child’s place, if only their son or daughter would come home. This is how God is feeling towards God’s rebellious people.

But Israel won’t hear it. They keep on worshiping Baal and other false gods.

Moses had warned if they did this, God would have to act in ways that would bring great tragedy on the nation. This may not seem very God-like to us today, but as CS Lewis pointed out in the Chronicles of Narnia, speaking about the God-figure Aslan, “Aslan is not a tame lion but he is a good lion.”  Likewise our God is not tame, but good.

In this situation with Israel, God must act, or the covenant with Israel will be broken. God could bring down on Israel all the curses Moses warned about. But God says to Israel in Hosea 11:8:

“How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart draws back, my compassion grows warm and tender…” And finally God says in verse 9: “I will not act in my fierce anger; I will not destroy the people; because I am God and no mortal.”

God, being God, will find a way where from a human standpoint there is no way.

In verse one of this chapter God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  That’s how God will do it: God will fulfill the law of Moses and still spare the people. In the New Testament, the apostle Matthew quotes this verse to identify Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. This is how God will do it – through Jesus!

Our God refuses to get stuck in binary opposites. God does not get caught in either/or reasoning the way we often do. From our human point of view it often seems like every issue that comes along boils down to one of two positions: left-right, red-blue etc etc. God is not limited by this kind of thinking. To give just one example: when the Pharisees said to Jesus, “We just caught this woman in adultery – what should we do? Look the other way, or do what Moses said and stone her?” Jesus avoids the binary and he answers, “whichever one of you is without sin cast the first stone.”

With God there is always a third way. God does not get trapped in human dichotomies. God says, “I am God and no mortal”– and God finds a way.

As an aside, while I was writing this I saw a quotation which I thought was helpful.  There was a seminary professor who wrote, “Too often, contemporary Christian [thought] accepts the false… dichotomy between the “Old Testament God of wrath” and the “New Testament God of love.” Hosea 11 gives us a picture of God that includes both anger and love. God is the same throughout the Bible. God doesn’t change. When we turn away God hurts. God is a God of holiness and a God of mercy.

Which brings us to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The Colossian church got off to a good start – one of their leaders was Philemon, who wrote one of the books of the New Testament. But after awhile false teachings started to slip into the church. The exact nature of these false teachings is lost to history, but we know in a general sense they included some asceticism (that is, harsh self-discipline and refusal of pleasure); and also human wisdom, tradition, and “secret knowledge.” Back then this ‘secret knowledge’ was often called Gnosticism, but today we have similar things: for example the recent QAnon phenomenon, where people were claiming to have “secret knowledge” about how things “really are” and lead people away from God.

Back to Paul’s letter: so far Paul has talked about things like God’s heavenly throne room, where Jesus is seated in victory at God’s right hand. Paul tells the Colossians to stay focused on this vision of the throne room, and to keep on doing justice, and to keep on remembering that God’s people are safe and at peace in God’s kingdom.

throne room

Paul also reminds us to listen to the Holy Spirit so we can see beyond appearances. The Holy Spirit lifts the veil from the false pretenses of the world’s powers and authorities. To give just one small real-world example of false pretenses from our own time: when we go to the store these days we are getting less for the same price: boxes of Kleenex are the same size but have fewer tissues in them. Bags of cat food are the same size bag but have less food in them. Bottles of medicine are the same size bottles but contain fewer pills. These are just some of the lies told by the powers of this world. Real truth and real freedom, come only from God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

As Paul continues his teaching, he says people are created to be in relationship: first with God and then with each other. As the old saying goes, “no one is an island” – we are all interconnected. Therefore, what we do with our bodies and minds and hearts has an effect on others and on the world around us. That’s why God must be #1 in our lives, so that God’s goodness and God’s kingdom and God’s truth can enter our world through us.

A good summary of this passage from Paul might be, in the words of the old hymn, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”. The Greek word for “seek” – zeteo – means to desire, to want very deeply. It’s not “eh, I can take it or leave it”.  It’s more like how Jesus described the widow searching for her lost penny: she puts all her effort into it, and when she finds it, she calls all her friends to rejoice! In the same way we should seek for and find and rejoice in God’s kingdom.

So whatever we say or do, we say or do in Jesus’ name and to Jesus’ glory. In this passage, Paul gives as examples (not as a complete list) a list of things not to do – most of which are of a sexual nature – but I find it interesting that Paul includes “greed” in this list. Idolatry comes in many forms, often brought on by being dissatisfied with what God has given us.

So big picture, Paul is dealing with the same issue that Hosea is. God has called God’s people, and God’s people are turning away.

Paul says “since we have been raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Jesus is, where God is.”  As God’s people, our lives are hidden with Jesus in God. We don’t know yet what we will be when Jesus comes. But we do know when Jesus comes, what we really are will be revealed. So our goal is to live in God’s direction, moving toward Jesus. As Paul says, we need to “put away what is earthly” – get rid of anything in us that might hold us back or that might harm what God has created in us.

One commentator puts it this way: the time of the Roman Empire was a time of “insatiable consumption” – sounds a lot like our world today! And Paul calls this “idolatry”.

We need to take off the old self and put on the new self. Anything of this world that comes between us and God is an idol and needs to be gotten rid of. That might include, but is not limited to: unfaithfulness, greed, anger, slander, abusive language, speaking lies or half-truths – these all are forms of Baal-worship.

God calls us away from serving what is ‘not God’ and into worshiping the one and only true God. False gods – as with Pharaohs – only imprison and enslave us. Paul talks about putting on new clothing for our souls; he talks about “being renewed in the knowledge and in the image of our creator.” In God’s kingdom we are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, black or white, children of different nations: we are all ONE in Jesus. As Paul says, “Christ is all and in all.”

We won’t ever see this perfectly in this life. But in Jesus we make progress… which starts now and continues into eternity. In the meantime we trust in the passionate love of God that Hosea talked about. God loves us so much! God is faithful; God will do what God has promised; and God will never let us go. God will find a way. AMEN.

God Will Make a Way

Preached at the South Hills Partnership of United Methodist Churches, July 2022

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Sunday January 16 – Epiphany 2 – Martin Luther King Remembered

My Delight

          For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, [Hephizbah] and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. [Beulah]  5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. – Isaiah 62:1-5  

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          Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.  7 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.  10 O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart! – Psalm 36:5-10   

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          On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11  

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christmas cards

I don’t know about you, but at our house there are still a lot of Christmas decorations up. We’re really not that far from Christmas yet – just a few weeks out. But our scripture readings skip over Jesus’ childhood and youth, and in today’s Gospel lesson we see Jesus at 30 years old, working his first miracle! I wish we had a little more time to spend with the young Jesus; but instead this morning we’ll take a look back at some of the prophecies Jesus was born to fulfill.

In the process of doing that I’d also like to touch on our remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. which will be on Monday. Most people today remember Martin Luther King Jr. for his marches and speeches, but he was above all a man of God. Martin Luther King Jr., like his father and grandfather before him – who were also pastors – knew God’s word: and he understood, from the Bible, why inequality and injustice of any kind were contrary to the teaching of scripture. Without the Bible and without Jesus there would have been no Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK Preaching

So today we will look at a combination of prophecy in the Old Testament – and prophetic action in America – and my hope is to tie these two together without touching on politics! (Y’all can keep score on me on that one!)

When I became a pastor I gave up membership in any political party because I don’t ever want my political beliefs to come between anyone and God. This church is God’s church, and this church is a place to worship God and to hear God’s word and to meet with God. It is my hope and my purpose that nothing I say or do will ever interfere with that.

That said, I’d like to start with our passage from Isaiah. Isaiah 62 gives us a breathtaking look into God’s heart. If anyone here today has ever wondered if God really loves you, let this passage be your assurance. These words are meant for you – and for anyone who has come to take shelter under the wings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you know and love Jesus these words are for you.

Isaiah writes:

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn…” He also says: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD…”

And in the chapter before this one – Isaiah 61 – we hear more encouraging words. Isaiah writes:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this passage in synagogue one morning, and then put away the scroll, and sat down to teach. And he said, “today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” These words are as much for us as they were for Israel back then.

I’d like to ask you to stick a mental bookmark in the sermon right here because I’m going to come back to these sayings of Jesus and Isaiah.

Turning now to look at the world live in today: in spite of Isaiah’s words, things are still far from perfect. Jesus IS the answer, and God’s word IS true, but the story’s not over yet. We live in an in-between time, the now-and-not-yet. There is still a lot wrong in the world; and injustice of any kind can create barriers between God and God’s people and make it very difficult for people to hear God’s message.

Israel slavery

One of the greatest injustices in human history is slavery. Slavery has been around almost as long as human history itself: the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt; many people were slaves under the Roman Empire; there was slavery on our continent from the 1600s until 1865 – and it continued in all but name under Jim Crow. Slavery that continues today, around the world, under the name ‘human trafficking’ – which often involves the sale of children as sex slaves, and also includes illegal exploitation of workers. My husband the carpenter has told me stories of being underbid on jobs where the competing business is forcing its workers to live in the very houses they’re building – without heat, without electricity, without plumbing.

Slavery is devastating in whatever form it takes.  Slavery produces an emotional trauma that often carries through generations. We see this in the Old Testament: before the nation of Israel went into Egypt – back while they were still in Canaan – Abraham’s relationship with God was open and trusting. Abraham negotiated with God for the salvation of any good people left in Sodom and Gomorrah; and when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham trusted that God would provide an alternative. All this happened before Egypt.

After Egypt – after generations of slavery – with rare exceptions that trust had been broken. It was almost like the entire nation of Israel was suffering from PTSD – which might not be far from the truth. Israel had lived through massive trauma: being physically abused by their taskmasters, being forced to work under inhuman conditions, and finally being forced to kill any male children that were born.

The nation of Israel needed time to heal. But the trip through the desert to the Promised Land was difficult, and the people begin to accuse Moses (and God) of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them with thirst or to starve them to death. God provided water and quail and manna; yet when God told the people he would provide manna every day and not to keep any of the manna overnight because it would go bad, they didn’t believe him. They stored it anyway and it went rotten and stunk up their tents. Time and again the people were not able to trust God, and the sad thing is they wanted to. It took a lot of time, a lot of sharing, and a lot of prayer to rebuild trust between the people and God.

Here in our own nation we had about 200 years of legalized slavery, and after slavery we had many more years of second-class treatment of various groups of people: Native Americans, women (who have only been able to vote for about 100 years), Jewish people, Muslims, the Irish, eastern Europeans, Japanese-Americans during WWII… the list goes on…

All of these groups have suffered after-effects similar to ancient Israel: emotional and psychological trauma resulting in a lack of ability to trust, until they’re sure they’ve been heard and are cared for and are safe.

For people like me, who have never wondered where the next meal was coming from or where a safe place to sleep might be found, I’m not always fully aware of the suffering others have gone through. I confess I am still learning.  This week I attended a Zoom conference called The Afghan Refugee: Trauma Healing Awareness – because honestly I’m not fully aware of what people have lived  through. Even though I’ve heard the news and I know ‘what happened’ over there, I have not heard the stories of the individual people escaping Afghanistan. Even if I did know the stories of a few people, would I know how to help? (Our conference taught us the #1 thing to do for anyone who has suffered trauma is to listen and to ask three questions: “Tell me what happened,” “How do you feel?” and “What was the hardest part for you?”)

Where From

In the past few years I have been making a conscious effort to listen and to ask questions and to understand. Where it comes to African-American friends, I have one observation I want to share, and one story to share. My observation, which has been confirmed by the TV show Finding Your Roots on PBS, is that one of the greatest losses caused by slavery is the loss of personal family history. How many of us here today can say, for example, “my family came from Scotland” or “my family came from Poland”? And we can tell stories about the “old country”.  But it’s rare that our African-American friends know which country their family came from –  or even what their family name was. It’s a loss that can never be recovered.

As to the story: Many of you have met my good friend Denise who is here today. You may have met her at the Mardi Gras, which she absolutely loves (we are so looking forward to this year’s!)  Denise and I have been neighbors and friends for around 15 years. She is a special ed teacher, and we met because we discovered one day that we were both feeding the same stray cat! (Does that surprise you?)

As I have gotten to know Denise I have learned a great deal from her about how difficult life can still be – even in the 21st century – for an African-American in our society. Denise has been harassed and called names by strangers in supermarkets, in Wal-Mart, even driving down the street. And that’s just scratching the surface.

After Denise and I had been friends for a few years I noticed that she didn’t like to go to the doctor. Denise and I both have had a number of medical issues, and we compare notes. More than once I’ve said  “hey, have you seen the doctor yet?” and she would dance around the subject. One day I finally asked her, “what’s up with you and doctors?”

I was completely ignorant of the history of medical care in this country where African-Americans are concerned. I had no idea the inequality that continues to this day. I believe most medical professionals do the very best they can for each patient; but there’s a lot that remains hidden somehow.

HeLa

Instead of answering my question Denise handed me a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. For those of you who, like me, have never heard of Henrietta Lacks: Henrietta was a poor African-American woman, who was born in Virginia and lived in Maryland, who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s. Just before she passed, her surgeons took a sample of her cancer cells and her cervical cells to study, to see if they could figure out how they might have cured her. They discovered, much to their surprise, that Henrietta’s cells were extremely vigorous. They multiplied rapidly: so fast, in fact, that they shared the cells with other researchers… and they shared them, and they shared them… and over 70 years later, the descendants of those cells are still alive today. They have been shared around the world, and have been used to help create vaccines for diseases including polio and COVID.

Henrietta’s family – until relatively recently – had no knowledge of this. They never gave permission for the use of the cells; and they never received any acknowledgement let alone any assistance from the people who made profits from these cells.

The same year I was reading this book, Allegheny County released a study showing that mortality rates for African-American babies in Western PA are often three times higher than for Caucasian babies.

I was absolutely stunned by all this.

Finally I said to Denise: “Let me go with you to your next doctor’s appointment.”  So I did. As we left the doctor’s office, after what I considered an extremely routine appointment, Denise said to me, “that was like night and day. I’ve never had an appointment like that before.”

This is just one of the legacies of racial prejudice we still live with today.

I want to encourage each one of us to think of creative ways of pushing back against this, and bearing witness, and creating safe spaces where people can begin to heal.

Backing up now to the larger picture: In a world where people are literally addicted to sin, where trauma happens in life even under the best of circumstances – where we experience loss, hardship, betrayals, stone walls – all of us suffer deep emotional injuries. The best thing we can do for each other is listen to each other.

And when we’ve been heard – and when the pain has begun to subside – then, to complete the healing, we share the words God has said:

“I will not keep silent. I will not rest – until your vindication shines like the dawn… You will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord. For the Lord delights in you and God will rejoice over you!”

crown of splendor

For every person who has known pain and suffering: Jesus says, “today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”  You are loved. God is always with you. God will not rest until the nations see your glory, and until you have been given a new name: no longer Forsaken, no longer Desolate, but a crown of beauty in the hand of God.

This is the message, and the promise, and the healing, that Jesus was born into our world to bring to each one of us. This is what Christmas is all about. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, January 16, 2022

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