Friday, May 18, 2018

Jesus - The Perfect Parent for all Parents

Preached on Mother's Day, May 13, 2018

Scripture readings: Psalm 3:1-8; John 10:11-18

It is said that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, Lord!” Then there are those who wake up and say, “Good Lord, it’s morning!”
Walking near Crab Creek, north of Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
March, 2018
Psalm Three was written by one of those who could go to bed at night thinking, “O Lord, how many are my foes!” and wake up saying, “I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.” (Psalm 3:5) That, by the way, is surely Bible-Talk for saying: “Good morning, Lord!”
It doesn’t seem possible. It doesn’t even seem normal. According to this Psalm, it is the gift of God to wake up well-rested and well-prepared in the morning, when life in this world seems to have you surrounded, and out-numbered, and out-gunned.
We are listening to God speak to us through this Psalm on Mother’s Day and, in a way, we shouldn’t. This Psalm is a warrior Psalm and we don’t usually think of mother’s as warriors, but they are: and so are fathers.
Mothers are mama-bears or she-tigers. Their children and their husbands know this. This Psalm applies to mothers and to all the rest of any family. The Psalm applies to any warrior, and all the people of God are warriors.
And this makes me want to go off on a tangent, because, in some strange way we were created to be warriors. I wonder why, because, if we were created for perfection in a perfect world, as we were at the beginning, why would God have made us warriors?
When God set Adam the Human in the Garden of Eden, God’s mission for humans was to “dress and keep it”. The plan was that we would start with that garden and spread our mission to the whole planet. The word translated as “dress” is “abad”, and it means to serve, and then in the odd way Hebrew has, it also means to be served. Which has a cool farmer’s way of seeing the land: if you serve the land, it will serve you. “Keeping” (or “shamar”) is the real warrior word here because it means to guard and protect the earth, even at the level of fighting for it if necessary.
This tells me that, even when everything is perfect and everything is right, love is ready to serve, and love is vigilant and ready to jump, and save, and fight. True love has to carry a tiger in its pocket. Good marriages, good families, good churches, good communities and nations should all be like this. And there would be a joy, and a proper pride, and discipline in this; because true love is not soft.
I know we’re born for this. A little boy walked up to his mother and said: “I don’t want to be your little lamb anymore. I want to be your little tiger.” We are all created to be warriors under authority and discipline of God.
Jesus was a warrior, and so he shows us what God’s love is like. The tender love of God hides a tiger. Jesus could be really scary; invading the Temple in Jerusalem with his disciples, making whips out of cords, attacking the merchants, whose businesses were based in the Temple to supply animals for sacrifice and the proper currency and coinage for purchases and offerings, turning over their tables and counters, and driving them out. (John 2:13-16; Mark 11:15-17)
By doing this Jesus stopped the sacrifices that most people wanted to make in the Temple that day. He didn’t want them to worship the usual way, because he was there to be the warrior-love who defeated the sins of the world. Jesus made himself scary to do this.
When Jesus and his disciples did this, you must know that they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Temple security. Jesus succeeded scared away the Temples armed police force, because his love was a tiger in his heart. He was scary because he knew he was doing the right thing for everyone he loved: for the whole world that he loved. Jesus showed a warrior-passion for this.
He was claiming the people of Israel, and all those who came from other lands to worship God as his children. He shouted, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers’.  (Mark 11:17)
Jesus shows us that even men can be mama-bears and she-tigers. Jesus was completely committed to his children. He was passionately committed to us; his children to be.
Jesus held nothing back. And yet he was someone whom little children and their parents would never fear. (Mark 9:36-37; 10:13-16)
Like every Jewish child who went to synagogue every Sabbath and to Synagogue school during the week, Jesus grew up singing this warrior Psalm until he knew it by heart. It shaped him, as all the Psalms did. It shaped Jesus’ own awareness of who he was, and what his mission was, and how he would accomplish it.
It was a song of the warrior King David. It sang about his fight to bring order to his kingdom when it was tearing itself apart. There was corruption, and deception, and hypocrisy, and bitterness tearing the kingdom of Israel, and David’s own family was at the heart of that destruction. David knew this, and he hated it, and it devastated him, because he was at the heart of what was wrong.
David had actually played along with what he hated. He had made his own contribution to it. You can read about this in Second Samuel, chapters fourteen through nineteen.
It was David’s failure as a father that caused the crisis, and this failure surrounded him with enemies lead by his own children. But although David had failed, he still trusted God to help him to do his best and to set things right. David had to lay his own life on the line to heal the land.
Part of the song said “Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’” David himself was aware that he had made too many mistakes and failed too many times to be “delivered” by God.
David knew that he should be beyond help and beyond redemption. The amazing miracle, the contradiction that seems too good to believe, was the truth that, “From the Lord comes deliverance.” (Psalm 3:8) This is what God stands for, for everyone who has no ground to stand on.
When Jesus learned this song, as a boy, he knew where it came from. He knew that horrible and tragic story behind David’s family and their battles against each other. And he had himself called the Son of David.
Jesus knew that David’s own life had laid him low and left him prostrate, belly and face in the dust, unable to stand in his guilt and his blame, in the presence of the greatest king who is God himself.
“From the Lord comes deliverance.” God was David’s shield when David had no defenses left. God was David’s glory when David had nothing to show but his shame. When David felt too weak and unworthy to do more than lie down in the dirt, God lifted up his head. Jesus came to be the kind of king who does this.
You need to know that this lifting up of the head business was part of a king’s mission. This was something that a king did, when he was faced with a subject, or a servant, or a surrendered enemy, who came to him and groveled before him, face down, in the dust. A king (if he decided to do so), in mercy and grace, would put his fingers under the chin of the person sprawled on the ground, and lift up his head. It was the king’s permission for that person to rise, to get up, to stand, and to know he was accepted, and free, and that he or she would receive an answer from the king that was better than anything they could ask for.
David found this grace from God. It gave him hope and, in spite of all his troubles and all his enemies, he could rest and wake up, prepared to meet the day. I had a pastor who recommended praying this prayer as soon as your eyes open in the morning: “Good morning Lord! What are you up to today? Let me be part of it.”
Jesus learned this warrior song as a child, and he grew up to claim the song for himself, as no one else could. Jesus saw that he had come into this world to have more enemies than anyone could count and, still, lift up their heads.
Every sin, and evil, and injustice in this world is Jesus’ enemy. Every action of ours, and every motive of our heart that works at cross purposes to Jesus, is his enemy. We are his enemies, and Jesus faces us without fear.
But what he wants to do most is to be the lifter of our heads. Jesus does all his fighting for this kind of victory.
In this desperate battle, Jesus was ready and willing to lay down his life for the kingdom. Jesus was willing to have no defenses and no shield against us. He was willing to have no glory that we could see. He was willing to have no pride or weapon, except for the nails in his hands and feet, and the thorns on his head. He was willing to have no shield or glory except for his death on the cross for our sin, and for the sin of the world.
Jesus knew that, giving up himself to all of this, he would be able to lift up his own head, and stand up for us as our king. That makes him the one to lift up our head in his presence.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again.” (John 10:11, 17)
Jesus knew that, after carrying our sins on the cross, he could lie down in death and wake up again. He could go into the world of death that seems to swallow up everything that is dear to us, and finally to swallow us up as well. He could sleep that sleep, and wake up and rise again, because the Father sustained him. (Psalm 3:5) Then he could offer us grace, and abundant life, and everlasting life.
This was how Jesus claimed that warrior song as his own. David had written a song that was far better than he had realized. It was a song that only Jesus could fully claim. Jesus claimed this song for himself so that he could give it to us; to shape our faith in him.
When I was child there were times when I would get the chance to see puppies. There is a stage where puppies, just like babies, don’t have any teeth. You can put your finger in their mouth and they will chew your finger. They will chew, and chew, and chew; but they can’t bite you. They can’t hurt you. My dad would say, “Watch out, that puppy will gum you to death!”
Psalm Three tells us of God breaking the teeth of the enemy, as if our enemies could bite us and tear us apart. Our enemies are our life’s hurts and injustices. Our enemies are our own sins, and failures, and foolishness.
These have terrible teeth. The teeth do the worst damage, but God can break the teeth of our enemies. We are hurt, but we are not torn. We are crushed, but we can mend. We have consequences to pay, but this does not kill us. They bring us down, prone in the dust, but we can rise, and stand, and fight again, because the Lord lifts up our heads.
In Jesus, God lifts us up. God breaks the teeth of our enemies because the humility and suffering of Jesus give us mercy, and strength, and healing.
Mothers and fathers have many enemies because they have children. They fear for their children. They pray for their children. They know their children will make mistakes. The parents are aware of their own mistakes, too. Parents pray that God will break the teeth of their own failures and regrets, for their children’s sakes.
Mothers and fathers pray that the world will only gum their children and leave them unhurt. But the world is old, and it has long teeth. So, parents pray that the world’s teeth will be broken and that their children will rise again, and again; and that they will be strong, and brave; and that they will be able to rest and wake up prepared for the next day with Jesus, because Jesus will lift up their heads.
The power of Jesus who lay down in death and rose from the dead is our power to rise. Parents receive that power from Jesus in the fellowship of the cross. Parents may often feel crucified for their children. And the parents who know Jesus pray for their children to have that same power of Jesus in themselves.
Jesus came to make that warrior song come true for all of us, as people who take care of others. Jesus came to lift up our heads, to make us warriors who can rise again.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Things Invisible - The Secret Working of Goodness

Preached on Sunday, May 6, 2018
Scripture readings: 2 Kings 6:8-17; Mark 9:1-13
A pastor flew to the big city for a convention, and he got into one of the cabs at the airport. Right from the start, the pastor knew that he had chosen the wrong cab.
Driving along Crab Creek, Smyrna and Corfu, WA
March 2018
The cab was dirty and foul. The cabby was dirty and foul-mouthed. He drove like a maniac. On the way to the hotel the cabby ran a red light and the cab was broadsided by a truck. The cabby and the pastor were killed instantly, and they found themselves at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter met them there.
Peter greeted the cabby first. Peter knew him by name, and gave him a beautiful silk robe, a golden staff, and a crown. Then he opened those pearly gates and the cabby marched into heaven.
With the pastor, St. Peter had to search for his name in the book. Then he gave him a brown bathrobe, a wooden staff, and a seed cap.
The pastor was upset. “Why are you treating me like this? I’ve served the Lord all my life.  Why did the cabby get all the good things?”
St. Peter gave him this for an answer: “Up here we’re interested in results. When you preached, people slept. When that cabby drove, people prayed!”
The words we have read from the Bible don’t claim to show us heaven, but both of our readings show us something heavenly. They don’t show us the center of heaven, the throne of the Lord, and the joy and worship that never ceases.
They don’t answer the questions of what life would be like in heaven. (God’s word tells us nothing about that, anywhere.) But they show us what heaven is like when it reaches out to us. They show us a bit about how heaven enters our world and touches our lives, perhaps every day.
There is an unseen reality that surrounds us. The servant of Elisha, and the disciples with Jesus on the mountain, were allowed to see with their own eyes something that most of us are only allowed to see by faith.
They were allowed to see what the world is really like, what the world really is, because the earth is the footstool of God (Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:35). In the language of the Biblical world, heaven and earth are two parts of one single thing, which is the creation of God.
This world is really the threshold of heaven (or the threshold of both heaven and hell). The most real things in this world are the invisible things. And this is like the difference between a car, as seen by most drivers, and the same car as seen by the mechanic, or the mechanically inclined.
Most drivers probably see their car as a box of metal and plastic that rides on four wheels, and has places to sit on the inside, and a steering wheel to guide it, and a place to put in the gas. And it has an engine that we don’t usually even look at, unless something is wrong and, even then, we don’t know what we’re looking at.
The mechanic spends most of his time working with the hidden machinery inside the box. What to us is a sound or a silence, to the mechanic is something solid that is part of a system of systems that works together to make the car go.
What we don’t see in this world is the stuff hidden deep within the box. This is the stuff that really makes the world run. Inside the secret places, are the armies of angels and the generations of people who struggled, and believed, and have gone into that invisible half of creation ahead of us. And they are not just there minding their own business. And they are not just living their own lives.
They forget about themselves and they get joyfully involved in God’s business.
Many people today have a great interest in the angels, but they have very little curiosity about what the angels are most interested in. The angels (like those people who have gone ahead, before us) are most interested in worshiping and enjoying God and each other. And they equally enjoy life as they serve God, and serving God leads them back to us, to serve us. In Hebrews, it says: “Are not all angels ministering or serving spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14).
Those who are so interested in angels should realize that angels are not interested in themselves at all. They are too filled with praise and love to be interested in themselves.
There is so much going on, perhaps all around us, all the time. In the world, as the Bible tells it, you might be anywhere, minding your own business, and meet the Lord in a bush, or by the door of your own tent. If you were sleeping out doors and woke up at the right time you might see armies of angels passing by.
Even in the Bible this was very rare, but it was possible because it was the real world as we seldom see it. Jesus said that heaven is God’s throne, and God is everywhere. Jesus is always with us and Jesus shares the throne with his Father. And Jesus says: “I will be with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)
All the generations that have gone before us, and all the armies of angels with their fiery chariots, are as near to us as God is. They are God’s people and God’s army playing their part in the Lord’s plan and purpose. But that is invisible to us most of the time
In the visible world, Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, was a man often in danger, and here he was trapped by the Syrian army. In our visible world, Jesus was a wonder working carpenter; and that’s what everybody saw when they bothered looking at hi..
In our visible world the truth is that things are not always what they seem to be. The unseen reality has always been much different. And yet nobody could see it without special help.
The fact that the Lord is here now, and that the Lord is working now, is usually absolutely invisible to us, but sometimes we are given a gift, and our eyes are opened, and then we can see what we usually aren’t allowed to see. Lord, open our eyes!
We are surrounded by an unseen glory.
Elisha, and his servant, and the disciples of Jesus were surrounded by a glory they did not know how to see.
Jesus was surrounded by a glory he was very familiar with. He was the one shining with glory. The glory came from him. Jesus was the one showing himself to his friends as he truly was.
What he was giving them was sort of a temporarily confidential secret, at least for the near future. What they saw was given to them to help them, because things were not going to get easier for them. It was Jesus’ way of taking care of them before the bad turn up ahead.
It was like a big, deep bear-hug you would give to your child.
As for Elisha, apart from the fact that the chariots of fire were there for his protection, the servant saw them as if God had his arms around Elisha. They were the Lord’s love.
The unseen truth is that everyone you know (or don’t know) is just as likely to be surrounded by chariots of fire as Elisha was. The truth is that, if God had a wallet, he would have your picture in it. God would carry your children’s pictures in his wallet too.
Well, you must realize that God would have everyone’s picture in his wallet. That would make a very big wallet, and that’s probably why God doesn’t have a wallet. He carries everyone’s picture in his heart instead.
We are surrounded by an unseen power.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses said to his people, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (33:27) They couldn’t see it but it was true.
Elisha told his servant the truth, ‘Don’t be afraid, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”’ 
On the mountain, Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells us more plainly what they were talking about. They were talking about Jesus’ departure which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. But the Greek word for departure in that verse is the same Greek word as the title of the Book of Exodus. They were talking about Jesus’ exodus.
When Jesus’ departure happened, it looked exactly like death by torture on a cross. It was a terrible thing to see. Everything about the cross told the story of Jesus’ failure; Jesus’ utter and brutal defeat.
But all of that horror and pain were only the reality of things as the people around the cross saw it. The visible reality, as they perceived it, made some of the people there laugh, or taunt. Or it made them angry. Or it made them despair. Or it simply made them weep. The visible reality, as they perceived it was not true.
The unseen reality was completely different. The unseen reality was Jesus the pioneer, blazing the trail that all of his people would follow. The exodus trail of Jesus is our way to the promised land. The exodus trail of Jesus permanently divides the red sea of death. Jesus’ trail makes the desert of sin into a valley of springs. The narrow path is a park where manna bread falls from the sky.
Of course, when it came time to happen, it wouldn’t look anything like an exodus. It looked horrible. It looked like a crucifixion: one of the worst ways to die.
Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about the cross, and the nails, and the tomb.
The cross was the visible side of an invisible power. The cross is the strategy which Jesus used to capture us and change us: if we would be willing to receive it.
The cross held the invisible power to crack the barriers of this universe, in order to create it new. The cross would make heaven and earth (the home places of angels and humans into new places. The cross would bring heaven and earth together into one place where the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit would dwell with all his creatures.
The cross holds the invisible power to tell us we are loved and there will be no more tragedies, no more sorrows, no more griefs. The cross is the power that fights our enemies: fear, hatred, discouragement, sin.
            The Lord’s gifts to his people are often visible signs of an invisible power and grace. They look like one thing to our eyes of flesh and blood. They are a completely different reality, spiritually.
When we sing and pray and listen to God word read and preached, the grey carpet in this room turns into holy ground. But you’ve also got holy ground at home and, next door, your neighbor’s floors are holy ground: or they can be.
Quiet, with your heads bowed, and with your hands folded or raised, aliens from another planet might not suspect what to make of you when you pray, but the invisible reality is that you are standing around God’s throne singing thanks for God’s answers to your prayers.
The Lord’s Supper looks like bread and juice, the invisible reality is that Jesus is feeding us with himself: with all that he is and with all that he has done for us. It’s a heavenly feast served with unending pitchers of wine.
The water of baptism looks like whatever flows from your faucet or whatever you swim in at the river. The invisible reality is that it is much more like the river of life that flows from the throne of God in the new Jerusalem come down from heaven.
The stories of Elisha and the chariots, and Jesus and the transfiguration sound like miracles, and maybe they are, only they are the rare opportunities that come and allow us to see the real rules of the universe behind the visible, measurable reality that we take for granted. Miracles don’t break the rules of nature. Miracle obey the simple rules of the part of nature we usually don’t see, even though that reality surrounds us all the time and never goes away.
Every human being on this earth is the same kind of miracle. All the human beings who have ever lived, or those who ever will live, have the potential to be more than they appear to be. Even now they may be resisting, or they may be in the process of becoming, like the riders of those fiery chariots. Even more, they may be resisting, or struggling, or in the process of becoming, like our Lord Jesus when his friends could see him shining like tender, loving lightening.
Everyone you know is made to shine, and you are the ones who know the truth. You are the ones who can go to others in your God-given light and be just a little part of a whole choir of light with which the Lord surrounds each and every unknowing, unsuspecting person around you.
You can be God’s gift and serve God’s purpose to make that invisible light and power to come on for them forever. Let’s think and pray to find the ways to work and to live it, and the ways to speak and to share it, that God in his grace can use to make that invisible world visible in this one.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Things Invisible - Don't Go to Hell

Preached on Sunday, April 29, 2018

Scripture readings: Isaiah 57:14-21; Revelation 20:11-15; Matthew 25:31-46

Walking near the Columbia River, Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
March 2018
What is God like?
Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) So, what is God like?
Sometimes we read that God is like a hand.”
David said this to God, “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:8)
Hebrews says this about God, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)
What does it mean that God is like a hand?
Sometimes we read that God is like fire.
When the prophet Isaiah received his calling to become a prophet, he had a vision of God enthroned in glory surrounded by flaming angelic creatures called Seraphim.
The name seraph means burning one. They are all fire, and wings, and eyes.
Isaiah was in agony with the fear of his own sinfulness, so God sent a burning seraph to do something important with fire. “One of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth, and said, ‘See, thIs has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. “(Isaiah 6:6-7)
After the resurrection of Jesus and his departure to heaven, the disciples were waiting for Jesus to send the Holy Spirit, and this is how it happened: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit….” (Acts 2:2-4)
So, the Holy Spirit of God and Jesus is like fire. The Holy Spirit enables us to follow, and serve, and be the witnesses of Jesus. The Holy Spirit enables us, as the followers of Jesus, to demonstrate the love shown by Jesus on the cross to take our sins away. So, this is like fire. Those who follow Jesus are filled with something like fire.
In Hebrews, again, the author wants us to be hopeful and excited in our faith, and so he says: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28) Security in the love of God and his kingdom is like fire.
So, what do we think that God is like, when we are told that God is like fire?
What do we think that God is like when Jesus says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) What do we think when the apostle John writes that: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
We can see the connection between Jesus and love. Then we hear Jesus say: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
If God is like Jesus, what is God like? If God is like fire, and if God is like Jesus, and if punishment is like fire, then what is God like, and what is Jesus like?
I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. I believe that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Bible always says exactly what God wants it to say, exactly the way God wants it said. And the same Holy Spirit inspires the hearts and minds of those who read the Bible to receive exactly what God wants to tell them, so long as they are ready to hear whatever God wants to tell them, exactly the way God wants to tell them.
I don’t believe there are any contradictions in the Bible. I do believe that it is perfectly possible to understand the Bible and to make sense of it. I don’t believe that anything about the history of the words of the Bible and how it may have been written and passed down to us take anything away from its divine authority.
Jesus, the Living Word, is truly human and truly God, and so he is able to give us everything we need as human children of God. In the same way, the Written Word of God, in the Bible, is truly human and truly divine, and, (because of this) it is able to give us exactly what we need.
There have been many people who have spoken and written about the geography of Hell, and the temperature of Hell. There seem to be many Christians who are perfectly happy to believe that there is a Hell and that some people are going there. There are Christians who have a very clear idea of exactly who is going to Hell, and they can hardly wait for that to happen.
I want to say something about the mentality of Hell and, at the same time, I also want to tell you: “Don’t go there!”
It’s clear that Hell has something to do with punishment. But I don’t know if we even understand punishment that well.
I don’t. But perhaps you understand it on the basis of your experience as a parent, or as a spouse, in family and marriage.
In my experience as a kid, I think kids talk with each other and make plenty of comparisons about how they are being raised. The 1950’s were the years of the final flowering of the spanking. My friends and I were amazed when one of us shared that when he did something wrong, his dad would get out a heavy leather belt, and pull down his kid’s pants and underwear, and whip him on his bare bottom.
We knew that some of our own parents had been raised like that. We were genuinely glad that this was a thing of the past.
Let me tell you about the punishment my dad gave me. My dad, when I did something that I knew I shouldn’t do, would get mad. But my dad wouldn’t scream, or yell, or raise his voice. He didn’t use bad words. My dad spanked me. He spanked me so that it stung, and I would cry.
But by the time I was about eight years old, I realized that although his spanking stung a little, it didn’t really hurt at all. I suddenly realized this right in the middle of getting a spanking.
I realized that it didn’t hurt. This almost made me laugh, right in the middle of that spanking. I tried not to laugh, but I think I snorted and gave myself away. That scared me for a second, because I wondered, in that second, if it would make him madder.
I remember, at that very moment, how my dad immediately stopped the spanking. He never spanked me again. After that, when I did something that I knew I shouldn’t do, my dad wouldn’t scream. He wouldn’t yell. He wouldn’t raise his voice. He wouldn’t use bad words. My dad would simply look me in the eyes with anger and with a terrible, terrible disappointment.
His eyes, that were normally brown, would turn green for a minute. And I couldn’t stand that.
I mean, I wished that he would spank me. In those days I would have rather been spanked so that it hurt, at least a little. I would rather have had a spanking, than see that look in those eyes. I think my behavior improved a lot when the only punishment I got was that look in those eyes like an angry, sad, green fire.
With human beings, I don’t think that plain and simple punishment does any good. OK, punishment may stop bad behavior. But punishment will also open up a whole new world of trying to get away with things without getting caught.
With my dad, that look in those eyes left me helpless and I had no motivation to try to get away with things without getting caught. There were more things in that green fire than anger, there was disappointment, there was expectation, and there was love.
Punishment alone, plain and simple, never touches the heart, and never makes you better. Good parents know that punishment, plain and simple, is never their job.
Their job is to give their children everything in their heart. Their job is to bring children to life, and give their children more and more life, and give their children the capacity to receive more life from God, and from the love and faithfulness of others.
The parents’ job is to teach their children to use the lessons of the love they’ve received to become givers of life and love to others, in their own right. Parents want their children to be givers of life, especially to those who need it most: to give that life and love most of all to those who need spanking, because they may have children of their own.
The Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” But this is not about punishment, plain and simple. God is not about punishment and reward.
God is about creating life. God is about giving to his created children the capacity to thrive in a life that is learned from God and gifted by God. God is about creating and raising children of his own.
In the Bible, fire has strong associations with the holiness of God. Fire often appears when holiness is broken and when punishment becomes the order of the day.
We think of holiness as a standard of perfection, and we think of perfection as never making mistakes, and never breaking rules or laws. Holiness is actually an ability to be devoted to a purpose, to have a goal in view and never letting go of it. Holiness means the capacity to focus on your goal and not deviate from it, ever.
God’s goal is not law keeping. God’s goal is life and love. God’s goal is thriving, and joy, and appreciation, and thankfulness, and praise. God’s goal is to say to every one of us, as creatures who have spread the beauty of goodness: “Well done good and faithful servant.”
Holiness is only one characteristic of God that we call an “attribute”. What we might call God’s moral attributes include holiness, justice, and love, and a number of other very fine qualities.
If we say that punishment is part of God’s attribute of holiness, we are right. But God is never just one thing at a time. God’s holiness never exists in the absence of God’s justice and love.
Imagine that you have, in spades, the attribute of intelligence. You would never want that attribute of intelligence to function without the attribute of wisdom, or else you would end up being too smart for your own good.
It’s no good to go around being less than you are. You want to be ready to be everything that you are all the time.
And if you have the attribute of being right all the time, or at least being right more often that other people, do you realize how much harm you can do, and how hard you will make life for others and for yourself. Never let your attribute of being right elbow your attribute of love out of the way. Some people do that. But, you never want to be less than all that you are.
Back to parenthood, and marriage too: you never want to reduce yourself in what you have to give. You never give enough unless you are ready to give everything.
So, when your child goes wrong, becoming The Avenger won’t do any lasting good unless your child can see your hopes, and dreams, and love in your eyes. Even if your husband or wife messes up, never get mad unless your partner can see your hopes, and dreams, and love in your eyes and in your voice.
Justice is an attribute that goes beyond rewarding and punishing. Justice creates a system where goodness is enjoyed, and flourishes, and where badness fails, and breaks the heart of even the guilty.
And love,” Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8) And God is love.
And God is a consuming fire. And Hell is an eternal fire. In the Bible, fire is, first and foremost, an image and expression of God. Fire is the expression of who God is and what God is like.
I always loved fire. When I was a kid I loved to build fires. It became my family job. We had a fireplace, and I built the fires. When we camped, I built the fire. When we barbequed, I built the fire. When there was trash to burn I loved to build the fire.
I grew up with incinerators in the back yard and burn piles on the farms. Fires were never about punishment. Except that it feels like you’re being punished, when you’re the one who has to build and manage that fire in the summertime, in the Sacramento Valley, when the temperature is 100 degrees. Fire is light, and warmth, and food, and heating water for washing. It’s for cleaning up the yard or the field. If fire were punishment, it would only be the saddest use of a beautiful thing.
Even Jesus says, in his parable of the sheep and the goats, that the fire of Hell wasn’t made for us. It was made for the Devil and his angels; not for human beings. (Matthew 25:41) It was made for cleaning up the creation of God.
God hates us trying to turn him into something less than everything he is. That’s why the Ten Commandments forbid us from making any image of God. No image can show all that God is. So, when the first and foremost expression of who God is, and what God is like, makes God look like Hell, we can trust that this can never be true.
Something else is true. All of the attributes of God are always present. Everything that is true of God is always at work, all the time. Where we see the fire of punishment in the Bible, there is much more at work than punishment. There is holiness that holds to the devotion of its purpose to make us the thriving children of God. There is justice, that creates a system where what is good grows stronger, and more and more joyful and thankful. There is love, which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never, never ends.
There was a time, many years ago, when I was betrayed. People who knew more than I did told me later that they should have warned me. It damaged me for a long time. But, soon after that betrayal closed in on me, I preached a sermon about absolute forgiveness. At the end of that service, I was told by one of the ambushers, that my sermon about absolute forgiveness was the most negative messages they had ever heard. That same morning, I went to shake the hand of another one of them and, as I reached out my hand, their face got dark and grim and they pulled their hands behind them and backed away from me. I was not being what they wanted me to be at the time.
Forgiveness and grace can be an enormous punishment and pain for those who refuse it. Love can become darkness and fire for those who want to make themselves less, in their attributes, than God created them to be, when they don’t want to combine the fires of holiness, justice, and love.
In the story of the sheep and the goats, neither the sheep nor the goats were aware of doing anything for Jesus. They had only seen the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger (which means alien, like the Samaritan who was an outsider and an enemy of God’s people), the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. These were among the types of people that the God who looks like Jesus tells us to care for. He cares.
The sheep were people who went where Jesus would go in order to love those whom Jesus would love with all the attributes of God. The sheep were the people who shared the attributes of Jesus. They would refuse to be anything less. In a real sense, they had no idea what they were doing, but they did it anyway.
The goats never went near the people with whom Jesus identified. They were content and they led perfectly happy lives being less than what God created them to be. They were never anywhere near where Jesus would be, and so they never really did anything for Jesus.
The sheep must have often found themselves in places where they were very uncomfortable, and yet they were on the road to heaven. The goats led their comfortable lives and never even started up that road. The life of the goats turned out to be all about themselves. Their souls shrank as their holiness, justice and love shrank. In the end, they were held forever in the arms of what they had refused to be. The unwanted fire of love will never end.
If a child is pouting or having a tantrum, the thing they hate most is to see you moving in toward them to love them, smile into their faces, and tickle them. This is the way to make them really howl. Love can be Hell. If you love someone who wants to be less than they were created to be, or love someone who is happy to be less than they were created to be, and if you try to love them into being something more: know that you will make them miserable.
But don’t stop. You want to be careful about this. Never let anything or anyone make you consent to be less than you were created to be. Never dream of being any less than Jesus. To choose to be les is the mentality of hell. Don’t go there!
In the beginning of the Book of Revelation, when John first sees Jesus, among the many details he notices is something about those eyes. The eyes of Jesus look like fire. For those who know Jesus, a different form of fire tells us who God is. This world, and the best institutions and laws, and all the people in it, punished Jesus for being all that he is. The punishing fire took the form of a cross, and nails, and a crown of thorns, and the wounds of a whip, and a spear in his heart.
There was much more hanging on the hell of that cross than punishment. The fire of God burned there. The fire of holiness, and justice, and love burned there and took the punishment and the curse of our sins. As our hearts give way to that flame, we die and rise with Jesus. The light in Jesus’ eyes becomes his power and fire in us to break our hearts for change and a new life. Let’s live in that fire forever.

Things Invisible - Meeting and Beating the Devil

Preached on Sunday, April 22, 2018

Scripture readings: Genesis 3:1-15; Revelations 12:1-12; John 8:31-59

The first time I remember almost stepping on a snake in the wild was when I was about ten years old. My family was on vacation and we were staying in a campground at Lake Shasta.
Walking near the Columbia River, Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
March 2018
I was just coming out of the restroom, and there was a little gully that I had walked through, from our camp, to get there. I took the same path to get back to our camp.
Something near my feet caught my eye. It made me jump. A rattlesnake lay stretched out in that gully, and I realized that it must have been there when I came that way in the first place. I had almost stepped on that snake twice.
Since then, I’m sure I have almost stepped on a snake at least once every year. I know it was three or four times just last summer. Of course, they weren’t all rattlesnakes. So, by my guesstimate; I may have almost stepped on about 120 snakes in my adult lifetime. That tells me, all in all, that I must be pretty lucky when it comes to snakes.
  There’s one mean serpent, though, that I haven’t been so lucky with. That serpent has been around for a long, long time. It’s about as old as the creation. It’s one of those snakes that never stops growing as long as it lives. It’s been around so long that it’s even grown extra heads. It’s even grown horns.
The Book of Revelation gives us a pretty good snapshot of this serpent. “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.” (Revelation 12:3-4)
If you wonder what the numbers mean (the seven heads, and ten horns, and all that), It means that it’s got plenty. It means that the dragon has more than enough fight in him and more than enough brains in him to do a lot of harm, if he can.
Sometimes, in the Book of Revelation, and a few other places in the Bible, Jesus is a Lamb: The Lamb of God, wounded, bleeding, the perfect sacrifice for all the sins of the world. Sometimes, in the Book of Revelation, Satan (the Devil) is a reptile: snake, serpent, dragon.
This doesn’t mean that the Devil really has become a reptile or that the Devil has horns or anything else that pictures show. In the same way, Jesus isn’t really a lamb. He doesn’t have wool or hooves. But if you had a special dream, or some such thing, with a reptile or a lamb in it, the stories of the Bible could give you a clue about what they are, or what they mean.
Why was Eve talking to a serpent in the Garden of Eden?  The common answer is that Satan took over the body of a living snake in order for Eve to see and talk to something that didn’t scare her. No creature would be scary in those days and in that place, where God’s harmony and peace protected everything and everyone from each other.
Why did the Lord punish the innocent snakes for something the Devil did by forcing them to crawl on their bellies? I think the snakes already crawled on their bellies. It was no punishment for them. But that fowl spirit, Satan, and his team, were humiliated in some way that we cannot imagine. Some power or some dignity, or else the ability to deceive themselves about what their own sins had done to them, was taken from them, and they would never get that back. And Satan would never be able to destroy his own future destroyer.
In all three of the scriptures we have read, we meet some of the same results. First (in God’s prophecy in the garden), we are told of the world as it has become. Next (in the gospel), we meet the same current world as it is resisting the love and peace and freedom of God. In Revelation, we meet the invisible spiritual warfare that goes on in this world, where Jesus has died and risen from the dead, and yet where the Kingdom of God hasn’t been fully installed yet.
In each of these scenes, we meet the snakebite of the world. We meet the Devil and the power of sin as conflict, as deceit, as poison, as the use of ourselves against ourselves. We meet the reason why so many people hate snakes.
Until the final judging and healing come, in a new heaven and earth (heaven and universe), there will be war. That war will be spiritual. The war will also be physical: flesh and blood, and weapons, and killing. In between the war of the spirit and the war of bombs and bullets, we have our own potential for war on the personal level.  This war will be bad attitudes, broken relationships, pride, blame, guilt, resistance, invasion, abuse.
We see and feel this every day. We are all part of it.
It’s poison, it’s sickness, it’s human will, and choices, and habits. It’s lurking there like a snake, so well disguised, so easy to step on, or to step into.
Genesis and Revelation have so much in common. God provides a garden of grace and healing at the beginning of the world and, in the end, when the long war is over, we will all come home to a garden of grace and healing provided by God.
The main difference between the gardens is that the Tree of Life in the first garden will be replaced in the eternal garden by the Tree of Life that is the Cross, and the fruit and the healing leaves will be Jesus, and all the nations (and all of us) will come home to the garden and walk with him, and talk with him, and never need to hide, and never need to ever be afraid again.
All of the conflict and poison of this world, as we see it in the Bible, comes from one sin. It’s been said to be a kind of pride, but it’s also a deep desire for something we don’t have. It comes from a decision to disapprove of what God has made us to be.
We want to redraw God’s design of us in a way that gives us more of an advantage. We want control. We want to be Gods. Eve and Adam wanted to be wise, but this was no trick of the Devil.
The Devil knew that they loved and worshiped what they saw in God, when God walked with them, and when they were tending the garden designed for them. They were created to begin a family of the human sons and daughters of God, but they could be drawn in to a temptation to take it for themselves, without partnership with God. They could just eat the fruit that would give them the knowledge of everything.
They would know the pros and cons of everything. They would know that if you did “A” and “B”, you would get “C”. The value on the other side of the equations wouldn’t be “X”. It wouldn’t be unknown. They wanted to be Gods not by being created in God’s image, but by self-creation and self-design.
The Devil himself had started his devilry with the same motives. That’s what the war in heaven is about. The Devil is in an agony of envy, to become God of a creation of his own making, even if it means creating a dead and poisoned and starving and hating creation.
The poet Milton was wise when he put these words into the Devil’s mouth: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” That is the philosophy and motivation of the Devil and his kingdom.
This is not so far from us. Jesus called a crowd of people who were believers (people who had chosen to follow Jesus and listen to him) . . . Jesus called them “children of the Devil.” (John 8:44)
They were still ready to turn on Jesus if he disappointed them.
It didn’t take much. Jesus poked at them a couple times and the truth came out. They wanted to create a kingdom of themselves in their own image, and Jesus wouldn’t play along. He never does.
We all see this in the end. Following Jesus, “we die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:31) We die to ourselves to be recreated in Christ’s image. That is what the kingdom of God is for.
How do we beat this? How do we beat the Devil himself?
We do this by prayer: prayer without ceasing. We do this by knowing and understanding the Bible: learning from our heart the mind of God through the word of God.
We beat this by internalizing a reality of Jesus that we call “the full armor of God.” We find this armor spelled out in Ephesians 6:10-18.
Something more is hiding in our reading of the Book of Revelation. There is a song of victory. Someone is singing about the victory of God’s people over the Devil, and how they did it: “They overcame him by the Blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:11)
Let’s take the last phrase first: “They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
We give our greatest gifts when we give the fullness of our own lives. Soldiers do this. Husbands and wives in mutual devotion and thankfulness do this. Parents do this for their children. Sometimes we do this for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We do this for Jesus.
When Adam and Eve tried to hide from God, they lost themselves by trying to save themselves. The step they took, in which they ate the forbidden fruit, led to the next step of self-preservation to rob God of the gift that he had given to them: the gift of his creation and his love.
They robbed God of his created family, because they (along with all of us) were to be God’s family in flesh and blood. The fear of losing what we want to claim for ourselves is a kind of fear of death that can never stand up to the Devil.
Our defense against the dark arts is to love others more than we love ourselves. Our defense is ultimately to love God more than ourselves. We are not afraid to die to ourselves. Fear of anything less is defeat.
For the soldiers of Jesus, the second defense against the Devil is “the word of their testimony”. Another way Revelation phrases this is to call it, “the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 12:17) There is a very strange use of the same phrase later on: “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Revelation 19:10)
It’s a phrase that means two or three different things at the same time. It a sword that cuts both ways. The word of their testimony and the testimony of Jesus is what you say to others about Jesus. It’s also what Jesus says to you. It’s also what the scriptures tell you about Jesus. It’s also the over-arching story of what the gospel (the story of the good news of Jesus) tells you.
Our weapon against the dark arts is to know what Jesus has done for you and what he is still doing for you: to know it, and to share it with others, and to talk to Jesus about it in prayer and thanks.
This weapon against the dark arts is what the Word of God tells us, but it must do more than this.
The Word of God must feed you Jesus. The Word of God must be Jesus knocking on the door of your heart. The Word of God must be a picture of a baby in Bethlehem, and a man teaching and healing others in the desert. The Word of God must be a picture of that same man nailed to the cross, dying for you, and rising from the dead in order to raise you up and to give you life.
Here, again, beating the Devil requires you to make your life into something about more than yourself. Your life is for others. Your life is for the Lord.
The third weapon against the Devil is “the blood of the Lamb.” Again, you have the victory if your life is not about you, but truly a gift designed and shaped by the bloody hands of the one who died for you and for the whole world.
Here is what Jesus means when he started poking at the ones who thought they believed him when they didn’t really believe at all. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
The freedom of reigning in Hell instead of serving in heaven is no freedom at all, in the end. Jesus died in order to give birth to us as sons and daughters of the Living God, and to be brothers and sisters to each other, all around the world. Lesser loves bring the venom of conflict and separation. Freedom is love in Jesus, and in his family.