|Walking along Crab Creek; Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA|
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Preached on Sunday, December 10, 2017
Scripture readings: Isaiah 46; Revelation 19:1-16
Here’s a completely inappropriate joke for you: A newly wed couple just got home from their honey-moon, and the bride wanted to make their first home-cooked meal into a truly romantic, sensual experience. So, she thought it would be nice to do some fancy cooking with wine. After her first five glasses, she couldn’t even remember why she was in the kitchen.
Here’s another thing that I don’t know anything about. I imagine that most meals of a couple, before the wedding, are meals of exploration, and courtship, and longing, and promises. The meals of the wedding and the honey-moon are meals of celebration.
After that, meals are made from sharing, and giving, and serving. Perhaps those meals are where their strongest love will find itself.
Now we’ve read about a romantic meal in the Book of Revelation. It’s the wedding supper of the Lamb Jesus and his bride (which includes us with all of God’s people, from all times and places). Only, we don’t ever see the wedding or the supper take place: at least not maybe until very the end of the story, in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two.
In that case, the wedding supper is made from the fruit of the Tree of Life and the water of the River of Life, in the new heavens and the new earth. The Book of Revelation works like this.
I’ll give you a lot stranger way of reading about the wedding feast than the new creation. We could see the ingredients of the wedding supper when we look at the beginning of the battle that we’ve read about. The half dozen ancient Christians whose commentaries I have been consulting, this past week, tell me that the wedding feast must be the body and blood of Jesus.
Over the course of a year, the Church sees the first appearance of the body and blood of Jesus in his birth. The baby Jesus wasn’t bleeding; although he must have bled after his circumcision eight days after his birth.
Anyway, through most of his infancy, he wasn’t bleeding, but he had a real body with a heart pumping his blood, just like you and me. The Baby of Bethlehem is his flesh and blood given for us, saving whatever is young in us, saving all our beginnings. The Baby Jesus is part of the wedding feast.
Jesus is God in the flesh, as a real human being. Jesus took our body upon himself in his infancy, and his childhood, and his life as a young man and workman, and his life as a wandering teacher and compassionate healer, and his life as a crucified and bloody mess, dying for our sins, and dying to defeat sin, and death, and the devil.
This is the foundation of the Book of Revelation. It’s a book that takes what God has done in Christ, and reveals God’s promise of the shape of things to come.
In the picture language of the Book of Revelation, ancient Christians identified the rider of the white horse as Jesus. And those ancient Christians believed something that may seem very strange to modern people: that the white horse was picture language for Jesus’ pure and sinless body crucified for our salvation, and it simply says that the robe he wore was full of his own blood shed for us.
This teaches us something that will never stop being true: that our marriage to Jesus is made and fed from his body and blood, and it will never be any different. Jesus is our food.
We might have many meals where we are exploring, and courting, and longing, and making promises, and celebrating with Jesus. Jesus, for his part, knows us very well and has, in some mysterious way, already chosen us. He feeds us with his own sharing, and giving, and serving; as if we have already been married to him for a long, long time.
For his part, all our meals with Jesus come from his sharing, and giving, and serving. Jesus said it long ago: “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Jesus came with this in mind, so that we could see that God, in the flesh and blood of Jesus, carries out his great mission. The mission of God is what the prophet Isaiah heard him say so long ago. “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:3-4)
Our life with God, our life with Jesus, is like the course of many meals that carry us every day, no matter what. Our life is like all of God’s people being present together (including you and me) sharing one table with Jesus. Our lives are sustained and carried all the way because of all these meals which are the body and blood of Jesus; the body and blood of God.
When you eat every day with someone who feeds you from their own heart, from their own giving, and sharing, and serving, you must be changed. How can you avoid (though some people do avoid it); how can you avoid being changed and becoming a new person?
Life together includes much more than that, but this much is true. And the fact that most of you have grown up (and were helped to grow up), meal after meal, at such a table. And most of you have watched others grow up, and you have helped them to grow up, as you have served them at your family table. And this must change you.
I think that the Tree of Life must be the cross and the fruit of the tree must be the body of Jesus. The River of Life must be the running wounds of the blood on the cross. These are our daily bread, just as much as our normal breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
This must change you. This is what the grace of God in Christ is, and why it is so strong.
The vision of the Tree of Life and the River of Life is something that we have not read together, yet. But they tell us that there is no other way to live. This is how the Lord will sustain us, and carry us forever. This is how we will change and grow forever.
This is the Kingdom of God, now, and more and more, forever. We have this now. We wait for more to come, and it will come. This is a lesson of Advent, which means coming; and waiting for what is coming.
It’s as necessary as food and eating and drinking. It’s as necessary as sharing a table with others, like you and me. It’s urgent, and it is also the most important reality we can know.
We must live in a world where God comes.
God saved humanity by making our personhood, and our flesh and blood, his own. God saves the world by visiting it and walking on it the way we do. God saves history itself, and the history of our lives, by visiting it, and living in it, as we do.
In Jesus, God is our meal together. And our meal is also our leader in battle. You hear the blessing of our invitation to the wedding supper, and the very next thing you see is a battle forming.
Well you don’t hear a description of any of the actual fighting, but you see Jesus and his people together: his people in white robes that are bright, shining white because they are washed in his blood. But Jesus is robed in his own red blood; maybe because it takes his blood to make us shine. So, Jesus goes with us to war, dripping red.
We are in a war, right now. This war has been going on ever since the cross, ever since Jesus died on the cross and defeated sin, and death, and the devil in the resurrection.
Jesus is the Word of God. And the Word of God is also the sword in Jesus’ mouth, and the Word of God is the testimony of Jesus, and the message of the good news, and the gospel of Jesus, and this is the weapon that won the war and will keep on winning this war until Jesus comes again.
The Word, which is Jesus, the Word that is our king, the Word that is the message of the cross, is essential for our life. The Word that is Jesus and the sword in his mouth are the only weapon that can win our war and our struggle with this fallen world that won’t let up on us.
We have so many battles that could ruin us, and embitter us, and make us hollow, and empty, and false, and make us spoilers and vandals of other people’s lives.
We need Jesus fighting in our hearts and minds, and in our bodies. We need the power of his Word, his sword, which is our food and also the meal we share with those who strengthen us and give us growth. We need Jesus fighting for us and feeding us every day.
Jesus has made all of us the same, in this way. In Jesus, every day of our lives can be a battle that we don’t see, but Jesus wins, and we win with him. In Jesus, every day of our lives can be a meal shared with him and with each other that gives us fullness, and strength, and growth, now and forever.
This is the Kingdom of Jesus today. This is the future that we are waiting for. It is a promise that he makes to us, and Jesus is called “Faithful” and “True”. His kingdom will come.
Friday, December 8, 2017
Preached on Sunday, December 3, 2017
Scripture readings: Isaiah 44:6-23; Revelation 14:13-15:4
A seminary student was taking a class on the Book of Revelation. He had a paper to write on the judgement. He was wrestling with all the images of monsters, and dragons, and plagues, and fires.
It was due soon. He spent one whole weekend on it, and Sunday night he phoned home. His dad answered, and asked his son how things were going.
|Driving and walking around Priest Rapids Lake,|
Columbia River, With Friend,
The son confessed, “Dad, I’m having an awful time with the wrath of God.” There was a pause on the other side, and his dad said: “Don’t we all?”
Over the Sundays of Advent, we are going to take a look at the Old Testament Book of Isaiah and the New Testament Book of Revelation. They are both books that we call prophecy. They both have horrific descriptions of wrath and judgement. They both have wonderful descriptions of love and hope.
Prophecy has two main elements. We call the most obvious element “foretelling”. Foretelling is about time and the future. Its message is that God has a plan, and that God’s side will win. This is very important for our faith and hope.
The other element of prophecy is even more important for our life with God. We can call that element “forth-telling”. In forth-telling, God speaks forth his mind about the issues of the world, and his concerns about his people, and how they are to go on living by faith, hope, and love in such a world as this. What about their need to change and grow? What grace, and power, and faith do they need from God?
Some people compare the Bible to a map. It’s true that the Bible is a kind of map of history of the world under the rule of God; past, present, and future. That’s foretelling. That’s the future.
But the Bible is also a map of our pilgrimage in life with God. It’s a map showing how we left home, and how God takes us home again. That’s forth-telling: What do we need to give to God? What do we need to receive from God?
The map of our pilgrimage also shows how this journey will test us in order to change our hearts, and minds, and souls by the way we live with God, and by the way we live with others in this world. It guides us how to shape our lives by faith, and hope, and love. The map shows us the crossroads where we must decide how to live and how to commit ourselves.
Both of the passages we’ve read from Isaiah and Revelation present us with a crucial test of where our hearts are truly focused. Each test requires a commitment, in a world that tries to squeeze us into its mold: a commitment to stand out, and in some ways a commitment to stand apart, in our priorities, and in the whole direction of our lives.
Paul addresses this in Romans. He writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove (or test) what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
When we are faithful, when we meet the test, when we take the good road, when we overcome; then we test and prove and show that God is right. We show that God’s way of love and compassion are right. We show that God’s design for our relationships with him, and with others, and with the world is the design that achieves God’s greatest goals for us. God’s design makes us what he created us, and saved us, to be, through the cross.
This is designed to show how beautiful the goodness and love of God are. This glorifies God.
There is fear in this. But Biblical fear is made of wonder, and out of tender and courageous love. The song of those who overcome says this: “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?” (Revelation 15:4)
Isaiah also has a song that creation will sing about us when we overcome this world: “Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.” (Isaiah 44:23) This applies to all God’s people: to you, and me, and everyone who hears and follows.
It’s a question of what we will value, what we will hold onto, what we will choose, and what we will pass on to others. It’s the question of a choice between faithfulness and idolatry.
Idolatry may lead us to think of statues and paintings that are worshiped as sources of spiritual and divine power: statues and pictures of beings, or such, that have names and stories told about them. Their names and the stories told about what they could control, and about what they could do for you, in order to give you what you wanted.
Idols were not usually considered to be actual gods. Idols are only representations of gods; but you can (so they claim) make the representation into a real connection. The claim is that you can make that connection work for you. Whatever power these images connected with claimed to be the power that were in charge of things you needed for success.
The ocean for a successful voyage, the soil and the rain and the seeds to successfully grow good harvests. These were all so-called gods. Gold had its god. The sun had its god. The cupboards in your house had a god. And so did your doors: the door god guarded who might come in or not. It’s why a groom carries his bride over the threshold.
If you worked these connections properly, then you were in charge. You became responsible for seeing to the success of your family, your community, your tribe and nation. When you served your idols well, you were serving your own interests and benefits. That was what we call the pagan world.
The strange thing is that, even in America today, we have a religion that teaches you to serve your own interests and benefits, and not care so much about others, or about the world around us. The church might not teach this, but the world of business does, and certainly the world of politics does. People of power, people of success set this example, even if they don’t say it in words.
The Bible shows us that God’s own people make God into an idol by making him smaller than he is. In the Old Testament, this often involved making a picture or a statue of God (for instance, in the shape of a studly calf) and saying that this is what God is about.
God’s people, in the Old Testament, usually only turned away from God by making him smaller and so making room for their own interests and benefits. The Temple in Jerusalem was the house of the God of Israel, but often, when the people and the kings were not faithful, they made all kinds of extra rooms, around the main building, that had other gods in them.
Sometimes it was worse than that, but God’s people excused themselves by saying: “We’re still giving God the sacrifices he listed for us in his law.”
They did this, but they didn’t give God their whole heart. They thought that if they offered what the law required that they simply had a bigger crowd of spiritual powers at their back. Just like them, we want our success to come from many different directions, and techniques, and disciplines.
In Revelation, there is a major idol that is called many things: the beast, the multiple beasts, Babylon the Great, the Great Harlot. They’re all a part of the same thing. They all serve the dragon. They all serve the devil. Like every idol, they want worship, and they want to be our god.
They are very tricky. They pretend to be at our service. They promise to serve our interests. They promise that we will receive the benefits.
We see this in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t ask for worship, but he asked for attention, he asked for Eve and Adam to trust him, to have faith in him. He promised them that he could lead them to success. He promised that success would come to them if they moved into God’s territory, in order to be like God. What would make them most like God was knowledge: knowledge of good and evil: and that really meant the knowledge and understanding of everything under the sun.
By being attracted to knowledge, they followed their new idol, and they also made God’s claim upon them smaller in their hearts.
They chose to forget that they were made by God. They belonged to God. God provided them with everything they needed, and with the knowledge of the world around them which they needed if they were going to join God in taking care of the world. God’s design was for them to be God’s partners, and that is why God made them in his image. This was love. But, they didn’t seek the love they needed to be partners. They sought the knowledge they needed for independence.
God made them in his image, so that they had something in common, and they could be in relationship with God himself. They experienced the love of God, and they were discovering how to love God and each other. This was so important because they were learning that God is love.
But they were tempted, by their self-interests and self-benefits, to make God smaller. They made God into the image of knowledge instead of the everlasting fountain of all love.
The place we have read from Revelation is an odd place between the Beast of the number 666, and the Great Harlot, which are both the power of Babylon.
Babylon is the world we know so well. It’s the world that worships the power of self-serving.
In Revelation it’s a system that rules the world. It rules business, and trade, and food, and clothing, and money, and property, and survival. This power has always been at work. It was at work long ago in the tower of Babel. It is at work now. It is the cause of most of the news.
This power has had its ups and downs. It will certainly get worse.
Isaiah gives us the secret of overcoming this tribulation in the world. The Lord says: “You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one…. All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless…. Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:8,9,21,22)
When the Lord talks to the people of Israel about idols, he tells us why he hates idols. He doesn’t hate them because they are beings other than him who have names, and personalities and interests. The Lord hates idols because they are nothing. They are a lie. (Isaiah 44:20)
God’s reasoning is that when you worship what’s false, you make yourself false. If you serve interests that won’t make you what you are created and redeemed to be, then you won’t be anything.
God is life. If you focus somewhere else, you go outside of life, at least you go outside as far as you can. I’ve known people who ruined themselves by devoting themselves to things outside the love of God. I hated that. You do too, and so does God.
When you harvest wheat, you can separate it from everything else and it still has life in itself. A grain of wheat contains a new life ready to grow and thrive. The grains of wheat have a future because, at least, you can plant them for another harvest.
When you harvest grapes in a world without refrigeration, they really aren’t good for anything unless you crush them. Winepresses became symbols of judgment because grapes were only good for stomping on. And then it has no power to come to life again.
Don’t try pressing this too far!
So, Revelation has a wheat harvest and a grape harvest, but they’re really the same harvest. They are like the harvest of the wheat and the weeds that Jesus tells a story about. (Matthew 13:24-30) The wheat has life and the power to overcome. The grapes have no more power or life within them.
The Book of Revelation is very interested in forth-telling, or telling forth, the way to make the journey home. It’s by remembering who God is; not making God smaller than he is; not by scattering the life in you by attaching yourself to things and to power, and influence, and success. These are empty things and they will empty your heart and your soul.
The Beast and Babylon are always around. Even now, in order to overcome, we have to remember who God is, and what that Beast and Babylon are (idols which will only grow bigger, and bigger, and more threatening, and more persuasive).
Sometimes we may suffer because we don’t choose what the world chooses. In some times and places, God’s people have had to give their lives in order to stay free for God and overcome the world.
John tells forth our need, however small or hard it seems. He says: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” (Revelation 14:12)
If the choice is very hard, the voice of God says this: “Write! Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes, says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Revelation 14:13,14)
In the Bible, rest is the ability to put yourself in God’s hands and enjoy everything.
Your deeds following you means that what you do, in faithfulness, lasts forever, and what you do may even become part of your eternal purpose as God created you to be, in love. The service you give will be gifts that keep on giving.
We use the season of Advent to remember what it means to be ready for the coming of God in his Son Jesus. Jesus came long ago in Bethlehem and he truly changed the world by changing those who received him. His birth, his life, his word, his sacrifice on the cross, and his rising from the dead changed people so that they could make the choices they needed to make to be prepared for life with God, life in God’s kingdom.
If you will, it shapes us into the spirit of Christmas. It also shapes us for heaven, and for the coming return of Jesus, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we will fit that new creation. We will fit it and thrive forever, because it will be a new creation made for those who have overcome and found the way to life, through Jesus.
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Preached on Sunday, November 26, 2017
Scripture readings: Matthew 6:19-24; James 1:2-12.
|Walking along Priest Rapids Lake, Columbia River|
Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
I remember one of those summers during my college career. It was the summer of ’73. Summer was just beginning, and I had a farm job starting soon.
I had to get ready. I was rummaging around the garage looking for my farm gear. I found my work gloves, and I found my hat, and I found my lunch box and my water jug. (Those are really important.) And I found my work boots.
Now, my body was still growing in those days; taller not yet wider. And I guess my feet were growing too. Those boots fit me just fine the summer before; but now they were a little bit tight. They were just a half-size too small.
I told myself that they would be all right. And the reason I was working was to save my money, not to spend it (even before I made it) on new boots.
But I learned fast that it just isn’t worth it; to wear boots that don’t fit. It was horrible, and I bought those new boots just as soon as I could. I was amazed then, as I always am, that such a seemingly little thing can make you so miserable. I didn’t realize how important my feet were.
I’ve learned to be always amazed at another thing too…what I a big baby I am about a little bit of pain, a little bit of inconvenience, a little bit of frustration.
I get mad: mad at the car, mad at the computer, mad at the plumbing, mad at my own brain when I have to go into the house two or three times before I get in my car, because my brain won’t remember what I tell it to.
I get whiny. I want to inflict feelings of pity, and guilt, and misery on others; over the slightest things.
Then I get mad at myself: not just at my brain but at my heart. And I say, “Dennis! What’s the matter with you! You’re a Christian! Where is your sense of perspective?”
Most of the things that make me mad or miserable are nothing, or next to nothing. How on earth is that work boot going to ruin my life? What does it matter if it takes a little patience, and time to get into that darn car?
Maybe, sometimes, the thing that makes me mad or miserable isn’t so small, after all. I have had some big troubles, and some huge failures. Still, other people have had worse than I have.
And what about Jesus? He was rejected, and whipped, and beaten, and spat upon, for me, and for you, and for the whole world. Jesus carried a cross, and died on it, for the whole world, and for me, and for you.
Knowing what he’s done; how could I ever be mad? How could I ever be miserable? The truth is that I have more blessings to count than I have troubles: many, many more blessings than troubles.
Actually, the Bible lets us get mad. Paul says: “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:26) By which he basically means: “OK, if you are going to be mad, don’t let it make you crazy or stupid. Let go of it fast. Don’t hold onto it.”
But then, James says: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet with trials of many kinds.” (James 1:2) “Count it all joy.”
Well, that’s what I try to do.
Then I discover another very interesting thing about myself in the light of God’s word. I find that I am what James calls, “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
At least, that is what I think I am. And if that is what I am, then I am in real trouble, and maybe you are too.
But, I think we make ourselves hopeless only when we misunderstand what James is talking about, in the first place. Because, sometimes we read James as if he were saying, “God will not answer any prayer of a person who is conflicted (double-minded) about anything.”
But that’s not what James is saying. He’s saying that what the double-minded person won’t get from God is the wisdom they need in order to see their way through their trials and troubles.
This is not because double-mindedness makes God mad. The problem is that double-mindedness makes us blind; well, it makes us see double. No good parent wants that for their child.
We make ourselves spiritually cross-eyed. God hates it when we do that to ourselves, and he will not cooperate with us to let us go on doing that.
We will not see God’s wisdom about our life and our situation. We will not see God’s wisdom about our trials and our troubles, only because we are spiritual cross-eyed. When we can’t see beyond our anger and misery, when we can’t manage to settle down in a single-minded faith, then we’re in danger of being spiritually blind or deaf: blind and deaf to God.
Sometimes the Christian life has been called “peace with God” Now this peace with God comes from God, alone. Peace with God comes from the infinite and faithful love of God that is revealed in Jesus, on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus is God in the Flesh; God come down to our level, as a true human: a tremendous mystery.
Somehow, on the cross, God himself bought us, owned us, and carried us. God carried, on the cross, all our sins: all that divides us from him, and from others, and from ourselves; all that lashes out against him, all that hurts ourselves and others.
On the cross, God himself carried all our human nature, everything that we call bad and everything that we call good. He carried us completely so that we could become completely a new creation.
On the cross, God, himself, carried all of our potential. God carried our potential for future everlasting joy, and peace, and fulfillment. In Jesus, God carried all of our potential to live life with him now.
But on the cross the Lord also gave up everything else for us. The Lord even lost himself, and he cried, “My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
Our peace comes from God who, on the cross, had nothing left but us, and us alone. God carried us on his shoulders. God carried us, bleeding through his wounds.
Our peace comes from having nothing but God on the cross, nothing else and nothing less. Our peace comes from one single source. Our peace comes from one single place: God, alone.
Otherwise we become what Jesus said that his disciples could not be. We become souls with two masters. (Matthew 6:24)
We have two masters whenever our peace comes from more than one place. Is our peace double-minded? What if we were like Job, in the Old Testament, who lost everything that gave him peace, except God?
When we read about Job, we can find that he was double-minded for a while. He wanted his day in court with God, to demand answers. “Why are you doing this God? Why is this happening to me?”
And the mystery is that God didn’t do anything to Job, and yet God had a reason for it all happening, and once Job could make a single-minded contact with God (or when God finally got through to Job), then Job was satisfied. Job was satisfied without ever having received any answer to his questions: because God only answered Job’s questions with more questions.
The only answer that Job received was God himself. He was satisfied by simple seeing God as God is in himself. Job said, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5) It was enough to have God.
Job didn’t need an answer anymore. If he had, he would have returned to the state of mind of being a man whose peace was double-minded; a peace that came from receiving answers that met with his own personal approval, not from having God alone.
God wants us to have his peace, which came when he carried the cross for us. Our peace comes from the place where God had nothing at all but us alone. God wants us to be his children, who have a life that comes from him alone.
But what if our life, or our meaning in life, or our peace, comes from our work? What if it comes from our physical strength, and ability, and good health? What if it comes from our brain-power? What if it comes from our senses: our sight and hearing? What if it comes from our money or our toys? What will happen to us then?
When being a child of God means having your life come from God, alone, and not from all these other sources, God may have to claim us by cutting off all those other sources. Do we dare to hope otherwise?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German theologian who was imprisoned and executed for his involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler) once preached these words. He said: “There are many Christians who do indeed kneel before the cross of Jesus Christ, and yet reject and struggle against every tribulation in their own lives. They believe they love the cross of Christ, and yet they hate that cross in their own lives. And, so, in truth, they hate the cross of Jesus Christ as well, and in truth despise that cross and try, by any means possible, to escape it.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Treasures of Suffering”, in Meditations on the Cross, p. 41)
When we get mad and miserable, and we have every good reason to do so, we still need to ask, “OK, Lord, please give me wisdom about just this one thing. Where does this anger tell me that my heart is? Where does this misery tell me that my treasure is?”
This is what it means to pray, “God, I don’t want to be double-minded anymore. Until now, I have wanted things both ways. Now I am ready for your way.”
Now, that is the prayer of faith that God will always answer.
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Preached on Sunday, November 19, 2017
Scripture readings: Psalm 119:57-64; Colossians 1:3-14
|Along Priest Rapids Lake, Columbia River|
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
There was a family where, one day, the father decided that each member of the family would give thanks for one item on the table, for their evening meal. The dad gave thanks for the chicken. The mother gave thanks for the cottage cheese. The oldest brother gave thanks for the potatoes. The sister gave thanks for the milk. Only one item in the meal was left. The littlest brother squirmed, and he asked his dad: “Daddy, If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know I’m lying?”
It’s always something. There’s a fly in the ointment, or a bee in the bonnet. Sometimes it’s lot more than that. There might be lots of things that keep us from giving thanks, or being consistently thankful.
For me, it usually boils down to one thing. I was born a worry-wart. I was (and I still am) always thinking about what could possibly go wrong, and I’ve always been able to think of lots and lots of things.
When I was a kid, I almost always won at checkers. It could have been something to be proud of, and I was. But, judging from the comments of my opponents, I would win because I bored them into a state mental numbness. Before I would move, I had to calculate each move to the next dozen possible moves that would come from making that one move. My game would go on, and on, and on.
After that first game, there were kids who refused to play checkers with me ever again. In reality, they must not have had much fun doing it.
Truth is, I didn’t play checkers because it was fun. I played because I could win. I didn’t play with enjoyment. I played with worry. I might not have won so much, if I had simply played for the fun of playing, and then I would have won something far better than winning.
Enjoying the game would have been the greatest success of all. Whether I won or lost, I could have gotten the prize of always enjoying the game and that would be the grace of thanksgiving.
What the Bible calls the Sabbath comes from the fact that sabbath (in Hebrew) means stopping and resting. As part of their sabbath worship, faithful Jews don’t ask God for anything on the Sabbath. For twenty-four hours they don’t ask for anything for anybody.
On the day of stopping and resting, they don’t work, and they don’t ask God to work either. Their only prayers are prayers of thanks, and praise, and blessing.
In the New Testament, this was a huge issue between Jesus and the Pharisees, who condemned Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath. They saw healing as work. Jesus saw healing as giving rest to the sick and the disabled and, best of all, giving them blessing and rejoicing in God.
Our word “bless” comes from the same root as the word “bliss”. The Pharisees made stopping and resting into work through all their rules and disciplines. They stole everyone’s bliss. They made the thanksgiving, and praise, and blessing into a mockery: not at all what God desired.
In Genesis, the seventh day is not what many people think it is. The seventh day is a taste of eternity. The seventh day, in Genesis, was much more of a place than it was a day. The truth is that sabbath is time standing still. There is no sunset or sunrise in the Genesis day of rest. It’s a taste of heaven.
God blessed his special, timeless day and called it holy. Holy, in Hebrew and Greek, carries (in part) the meaning of being special and radically different. If there are any rules or disciplines, it’s the discipline to stop and learn to be happy.
Learn to be thankful. Make your time with God different from all your other time by enjoying what God has done, enjoying what God has given you and made possible now. Stop, and take it in. Everything is bliss.
Learn to be thankful. There’s a strength and power in thanksgiving. It’s refreshing, it’s restful, and it’s hard to learn how to do it, because we want so much, and we worry so much. We’re afraid of losing our game: losing something. Or we’re afraid of not winning something, getting something, fixing something.
In Paul’s Letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Colossae (there’s more than one way to pronounce it), Paul was writing out his prayer of thanksgiving from the inside of a prison. We don’t know, for sure, where the prison was. Scholars only guess: Ephesus, Caesarea, Rome.
The Romans were very civilized, but their prisons were unpleasant places. They were intended to be so. Besides, the Romans had this horrible enjoyment of the suffering of other people.
Paul wasn’t in his cell or dungeon alone. He had friends with him who were his partners in ministry. Now they were his partners in chains. One of these friends was Epaphras, who had learned the gospel from Paul in Ephesus.
Epaphras was the one who had taken the good news of Jesus to his home in Colossae. Now, in chains, Epaphras shared the story, the joy, and the worry of his work with Paul.
It had been loving and joyful work in Colossae. And then, perhaps, a problem came up that raised the need for Epaphras to go and see Paul, and ask him for help. So, it was going to Paul for help that led to the adventure of his being arrested and chained up with Paul.
It had begun as a journey of love. Epaphras seems to have been worried, because, along with all his good news was the bad news that his spiritual family started listening to the wrong people. The wrong people were twisting the good news around to make it into something else. You can find that in the letter.
Paul wrote his letter as a reminder. He wanted the Colossians remember that Epaphras had told them about a Jesus who was in control of everything. Epaphras had told them about a Jesus who was the source of every good motivation and ability to steer them closer and closer to the Father, though his cross and his rising from the dead.
Paul reminded them that they had already died to sin and were safe in Jesus. Paul encouraged them to maintain their rest, and their enjoyment of Jesus, trusting that Jesus was more than everything to them: “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:12-14)
The new creation of their lives had been launched. Jesus was their sabbath: their blessing, their bliss, their holiness, their difference. But they were, in some ways, unsteady. They were forgetting who Jesus is because they were forgetting to be truly thankful for Jesus: thankful for what he has done for us.
And so, how else should Paul begin to help them and set them straight but by giving thanks for them? The prayer tells us that Paul knew that he was living in the kingdom of light and the kingdom of Jesus. He only wanted the church in Colossae to be as sure of this as he was.
Paul knew that they already knew it. Paul was only reminding them. He wrote: “All over the world this gospel (this good news) is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” (Colossians 1:6)
They lived in a world ruled by the grace of God. Paul knew, from Epaphras, that they understood this. He knew that they understood that the power, and strength, and peace of this grace was working in them and through them. They knew this.
Paul’s prayer begins with thanks and it ends with thanks. Paul sees and draws a pattern on the page. The thanks at the beginning of the prayer is Paul’s thanks for them. The thanks toward the end of the prayer is the thanksgiving of the disciples in Colossae for everything and everyone. Paul believes that his prayer of thanks for them will lead to their prayers of thanks for all of God’s gifts, especially the gift of Jesus.
Paul gives thanks because he trusts the abundant grace of God that certifies these disciples to be the gifs of God, no matter how unsteady they seem. Paul gives thanks because he lives in a world ruled by a God who is light and love, and those disciples will give learn to give a truly energizing thanks for the same reason. They will learn that the thankfulness that went up to God for them was part of the power that would lead them to send up their own thankfulness to God, for everyone for whom they were worried and concerned, and for their own lives as the gift of God.
If you can’t give thanks, if you can’t be thankful, you are not living in a world ruled by a God who is light and love. Where will your prayers go, in such a world of your own making?
We don’t live in our own world. We live in God’s world. If you live in a thankless world of your own making, you might think that you’re talking to some kind of God, some kind of Father, some kind of Jesus, but it’s just words. There’s no true faith without thanks. There’s no real prayer without thanksgiving.
Now that can seem pretty scary and threatening, and yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanksgiving is enjoyment. It’s resting in the power and grace of God. Thanksgiving is the knowledge that God is in you, but also that God begins where you end: where you stop.
In Psalm 46, the prayer becomes a place where God suddenly speaks to the person who is praying. God says: “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10) God’s talk, here, about being exalted isn’t bragging and boasting. God is saying that there will come a time when everyone knows that God is with them, and keeps them safe, and makes them fruitful, and makes them glad.
They will know that God’s strength goes infinitely beyond the boundaries of their own strength. Where they must stop, God goes on being God, for their joy and their comfort, and their rest.
Do you want to be fruitful? Do you want to be glad? God is at work all around you. God is at work in you, and God can easily work through you. You are surrounded by the gifts of God, and this will not fail.
Truth isn’t only fact-hood. Truth is faithfulness. “God’s grace in all its truth,” that Paul gives thanks for in the lives of the Colossians, simply means “the gifts of God that will not fail.” Grace means gift. Truth means something that will not fail or let you down. This is the kingdom of light. This is the kingdom of the Son.
Our reading in Psalm 119 tells us that having God as your portion, or possession, means that you “get up in the middle of the night to give thanks” to God. (Psalm 119:62) Usually we wake up in the middle of the night because we are worried, or stressed, or angry, or afraid. When we get older, we start waking up in the middle of the night for other reasons. Imagine that your only reason for waking up in the middle of the night was because you were bursting with thanks.
If you can give thanks, then you can live in peace and rest. You can enjoy the game, and you don’t have to worry about losing or getting. The game of simply playing, the game of simply thanking, is the prize.
The first two successful colonies in the beginning of our nation’s story were Jamestown, and Plymouth of the Pilgrims. Actually, neither of them thrived for very long, but they lasted long enough to set the tone for our people. They lasted long enough to raise the basic question of what it means to be us. What is our truest heritage?
Jamestown was created by people in search of gold and gain. Plymouth was created by persecuted and endangered people who were searching for rest and peace. Those who were searching for rest and peace created our first Thanksgiving.
Which dream, which driving force, represents us; represents you and me? Getting? Or thanking!
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
SERMON Dennis Evans 11-12-2017
“Paul’s Prayer Priorities – Enlightenment”
Scripture readings: Isaiah 42:1-7; Ephesians 1:15-23
How can any human being miss the fact that we all need some kind of light to come on and shine for us? And we all need something to come on that isn’t like the light in the refrigerator that only comes on when we want it.
|Along the Columbia River at Priest Rapids Lake|
Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
Not a day passes when I don’t want some light to show me what’s going on, and how to respond to it, or to show me where to go next. That sort of light could be compared to an outside light: sorting out the world around me. Not even a porch light: but a flashlight, a street light, a search light, or a light house.
There’s that story of the policeman who finds a drunk crawling around on the sidewalk under a street light, and he asks the drunk what he’s doing. The drunk says: “I’m right here in front of my own house, but I dropped my keys so I can’t get in.” Well the cop decides to help him and he spends a few minutes with the drunk helping him search.
Finally, the policeman asks, “Are you sure this is where you dropped your keys?” And the drunk says: “No, I dropped them way over there. But the light is much better here.”
The drunk knew that he needed an outside light, but he didn’t have enough inside light to show him that he needed much more. He needed more light inside his befuddled brain. We also know that he needed more light in his heart, if he truly wanted to find the key that would open the kind of door that would let him come home to a much better home than he could ever imagine.
Paul had found such a light, and such a key, and such a home. So had his friends: all because of Jesus.
First came the light. This is how God works. The first thing God does is to say, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3) But the light came even before that, because “God is light” (1 John 1:5) just as much as “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Jesus, as well, is “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and he calls us to be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Jesus is the light of God that comes into a dark world that has lost the light of its creation. Jesus is the light of God that comes into a dark human world where humans have chosen to live independent of the light, which means to live outside the light, but there is no life outside the light.
The light of God is no ordinary light. It isn’t the light of the sun, or the light of electricity. The Gospel of John says this about Jesus: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:4) Jesus is the light for human beings to live by, and to have that life abundantly.
The light of God is actually life itself. By definition you can’t have most forms of organic life without the sun. Spiritually you can’t have the light of personhood, or the light of love, without the life of Jesus who is the light of the image of God. Jesus is the brilliance of God that makes human beings into the children of God. But the first humans tried to live without this light, or to rule this light for themselves. We can’t rule the light of God. The fact that we tried to be in control of the light was the choice that produced our human darkness in the first place.
In their sin of trying to live by nonsense, these first humans handed down to us a banished life, on the very edge of darkness. It’s the part of us that has damaged the image of God, and his light and life in us. But Jesus, the Son, who is the servant of all, came: “To open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” It’s just as the prophet Isaiah said it would be. (Isaiah 42:7)
Who are the blind, the captives, the sitters in darkness? It’s everyone in the world. It’s us, and everyone else.
Jesus died for us on the cross to give us the light and to show us the light. Suffering on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus bridged the darkness to trade our darkness for his light.
Suffering on the cross and rising from the dead Jesus shows us the light, because (in doing that) he shows us what light is, and what the light does. Because Jesus shows us the light, we can not only live in the light, but also know what the light is for, and what to do with it.
The light from Jesus gives light to us, and the light in us shows others what the light is, and what to do with it. That is why Jesus, “the light of the world”, calls us “the light of the world”. So, Jesus shares his name, and his servanthood, and his calling with us.
So many of the prayers of Paul for his friends were about this very thing. It’s about them (and us) seeing the light, knowing the light, having a relationship with the light, having our lives changed and transformed by the light, having a life guided and motivated by the light, having a life rebuilt in the image of light, and with the mission and calling of being the light, showing the light, giving the light, implanting the light, reproducing the light.
Paul prayed for his friends, including us. Part of Paul’s prayer about the light went like this: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened….” (Ephesians 1:18)
When I walk in the dark with the help of a flashlight, I’m very thankful for it. I understand what the light is for. But I would understand light in a much different way if the light was my life: if I was light.
Paul’s friends, just as we, have met the light, and our lives have been changed by the light, because it is something we can hold onto. Holding onto the light helps us to walk in the darkness.
Paul wanted much more than this for all of us. He wanted the light to take over our hearts.
Paul wanted the light to enable the power and the motivations of God to change us. Paul wanted the light to guide us through the maze and dungeon of the darkness, in ourselves, and for us to be led to the freedom that comes from the life that is also light. Paul wanted the dungeon torn down and replaced, so that light would be what our lives and our hearts and our minds are made of.
There are other faiths or religions that talk about enlightenment. Because of this, many Christians have become suspicious and afraid of the word enlightenment. It is a Bible word: not a common Bible word, but it is there, and it’s important enough for Paul to care deeply about it. Everything in this particular prayer relates to that enlightenment.
Light helps you to see better, and to know better. Paul prayed for the Father to “give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” (Ephesians 1:17) It’s all the same thing. The Holy Spirit plays a part in answering the need of our heart, and the core of our being, to know God better. But the enlightenment means that we need that light to come inside us so that we can become the light.
The Holy Spirit could just tell us things, and give us a lot of accurate information: inspired information, and doctrine, and instructions. But the Holy Spirit also must become the light inside us that makes us light. Information, doctrine, and instructions are not enough, no matter how inspired they are.
The light must come inside and make us into lives that are light.
This is grace. This is what grace is for, if God is going to completely have his way with us. The cross and the resurrection were acts of God, in Jesus, to call us his own; to change our name from sinner to child of God, but even that is not enough.
In Second Corinthians, Paul wrote: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) In the same way, we may say that Jesus became dark on the cross so that you might become light. In the same letter Paul wrote: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 6:17)
We will not understand the prayers of Paul very well unless we remember that these were prayers for others. We know that Paul prayed for himself. We just don’t have many examples of those prayers.
Paul commonly asks for his friends to pray for him, but he never asks them to pray for the gift of things. He doesn’t even ask them to pray for his health; although we think that he tried this without success, if that was what his thorn in the flesh was about. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) The Bible instructs us to pray for people’s health, but our prayer list should include the much greater needs of others.
This prayer surely gives us something to pray for, for ourselves. If Paul prayed it for his friends, then his friends could join Paul in his prayers for them. They were, after all, clearly prayer partners, all of them together. So, let’s pray these prayers for ourselves, never forgetting that every other Christian needs our prayers for their enlightenment, because we are all prayer partners, all of us together. Let’s also remember that those who are not yet being invaded by the light need our prayers as well.
Enlightenment, for us, in the Bible, means seeing reality as God sees it. It means seeing our lives and God’s goals for our lives, as God sees them. It means seeing the whole world and everyone and everything in it as God sees them, and as God wants them to be.
In Paul’s prayer, enlightenment means the beginning and the growth of hope. “in order to know the hope to which God has called you.” The world and everything and everyone in it needs hope and needs this prayer, and so do you. Pray to be made into light, and pray to be made into hope.
Enlightenment means the beginning and the inward growth of power. Now, power, here, is a translation for the Greek word “energeia”. It’s energy. It’s energizing.
We and the world give up. We run out of energy. Or there is a break in the circuit, and the energy isn’t flowing into us. In a way, the same word means “working”.
Sometimes I wish I had power. But I would probably mess everything up with it, if I had my choice.
God’s power isn’t about power, as we think about it; or as politicians, and monarchs, and dictators covet it. It’s the ability and the energy to work.
For us Christians it’s a very special focus of work. It’s the kind of energy or power that only does certain kinds of work. It’s the power that created the universe and our world. It’s also the power that raised Jesus from the dead. God’s power reverses weakness, evil, sin, and death.
So, it’s the kind of work that gives form and substance to something that wasn’t there before. It’s the kind of work that reverses evil, and death, and darkness, and defeat, and weakness, and sickness.
That is the nature of God. It’s the power that we are supposed to see in the world around us when we see God in our world. It’s what the world needs to see through us. It’s the ability we want the world to know and receive for itself. It’s the ability that is needed by everyone we know or hear about: the energy to do something new that wasn’t there before, the energy to bring dead things, weak things, tired things, and even outdated things, to life.
When Paul says that God “appointed Christ to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way,” (Ephesians 1:22-23) it means, at very least, that in Christ, in the Church, the energy that raised Jesus from the dead still works and pushes out in God’s plan to fill the world. It’s the very core and center of everything God is about. Enlightenment shows us this.
Paul’s friends, as well as we, have been tempted to think that we are stuck on the outside of everything looking in. Enlightenment would begin and grow the understanding that God has: that Christ in us is the center of everything that matters. Christ in us is the center of everything this world needs. It’s at the center of what God want to do in the lives of the people around you.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, called “The Message” puts it this way. “At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world, the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” That’s what God (that’s what Jesus) wants to do through us, together.
Enlightenment enables us to see things the way God sees them, and to see our tasks and callings as God sees them. It is this enlightenment that says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
The Lord’s Supper reminds us that the power which raised Jesus from the dead and through which all the gifts and riches of Jesus are ours, is the power that works in us. The crucified Jesus lives in us.
The holy meal says this. Because this Jesus lives in us, we are also promised that the great energy and work that raised him will also raise us (raise us in the end, but also raise us up every day until then). The energy of the resurrection will work through us, for others, and for God.
This enlightenment gives us the knowledge that comes within us through experience. With that intimate knowledge comes light, and sight. With that light comes hope. With that hope comes a power that energizes us for the work of the kingdom to change lives, and to change the whole world.
In this enlightenment, we will truly see, and love, and follow Jesus, and live out his plan for us.