Sunday, January 21, 2018

Paul's Prayers - For Others

Preached on January 14-2018 

Scripture readings: Psalm 133; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

I served a church which had an ushers’ bench, an usher’s pew, right up against the back wall; you know, so that they could march together down the aisle to pick up the offering plates. (Church used to be so dignified, until I grew up.)
Sunset, Desert Aire/Mattawa WA November 2017
Well they had this old story, from the 1940’s and 1950’s, and maybe earlier. It was always the same four guys, every Sunday, and they always sat in the same order in the ushers’ pew. They did this together year after year, decade after decade. In the end, one of them died. It was so sad that the four would never be the same.
It also presented that church with a difficulty, because it meant that they had to find a guy of the exact same height as the one who had passed, so that he could hide the grease spot that the deceased usher had left on the back wall above the pew.
You know that the kids today have no idea what that greasy kid’s stuff was? You just ask them! And I doubt that any of them use Vitalis.
The perfumed olive oil mentioned in Psalm 133 reminded me of this. It was the greasy kid’s stuff of its long day. There’s a Hebrew word used here that means olive oil and (even more interestingly) it means richness, but the primary meaning of this word describes something that’s greasy and gross.
 A Series of Photos on a Foggy Day: Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2018
In the Psalm, Aaron refers to the first high priest, the brother of Moses. Moses set Aaron apart for this work of being the High Priest by pouring perfumed olive oil on his head. But there’s no story about Moses, or anyone else, pouring so much oil on any priest so that it ran down his face, and beard, and neck, and collar, and chest, and legs, and soaked his robes down to his hem and his feet.
That’s greasy and gross for sure. That’s like spreading tubes and tubes of Brylcreem all over someone’s body and clothes. But just think of all the richness and the sweetness that would come from doing that; or having it done to you. Wouldn’t that be great; having it done to you? Can’t you feel it? What a good way to think about this excessively wonderful thing.
Psalm 133 is only three verses long, but it manages to be completely excessive: the oil running down from head to toe; the dew from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion at Jerusalem that would be like the dew from the Olympic Mountains falling on the desert of Mattawa and Desert Aire. And this rainforest dew really refers to the whole climate that makes plants grow: the whole climate becoming like a rainforest.
When I lived on the South Coast of Oregon, the first year I was there, we got nearly one hundred inches of rain. The natives liked to tease me about coming from California, and so they began to ask me if I was sick of the rain.
I answered their question with a question of my own. When they asked if I was sick of the rain, I simply asked them, “Are you?”
What is all the excess in this tiny psalm about? It’s about love: Brothers living together in unity. (Brothers, here, refers to all the people of all the tribes of Israel.) They were always fighting and destroying each other. Compared with that, living side by side, with hearts beating as one, would be excessively different. It would be the exact opposite of real life, and opposites tend to be excessive.
The nation of Israel was called to be the opposite of the whole world: a whole nation totally dedicated to God’s purpose. God’s calling of the tribes of Abraham was for them was to be a blessing to every other nation on earth.
They were called to be a “kingdom of priests” mediating and reconciling the world to God. Which is what a priest is for.
Being priests meant praying for the world. In such a life of prayer, the power of prayer, in the hands of God, would make this stinking world smell sweet for the first time since the beginning.
Soap is only mentioned twice in the whole Bible. That’s because the people of Israel usually washed themselves with olive oil. Some people might call this greasy and gross, but they pictured olive oil as having a richness to it. Prayer for others would be like olive oil that made it possible to wipe away all the dirt and make the world squeaky clean and fresh as new.
  On hot and dry Mount Zion, the priest, washed with oil, would enter the dim and silent world of the Temple. They would enter God’s House, with the sweetness of prayer for others, or with the sprinkled blood of sacrifices that brought a sweet smell of forgiveness, and grace, and healing to God’s people, and to the earth.
We have been washed with the Oil of God. This oil is the love of the Creator Father, the love of the self-sacrificing Son, the love of the Holy Spirit full of God’s growth-giving richness, full of the sweetness of God’s power and love. We have had this oil poured out on us with all the excess of God.
Now, by faith and prayer, we go into Christ, the living temple of God and creation. Entering into Jesus leads us to bring the world, and our neighbors, and each other, with us into the sanctuary, into the holy and safe place of God.
We are to be like Jesus in this world. As he poured out himself for the creation, and for our brothers and sisters, in all times and places; in the same way, we (like him) pour out ourselves for our brothers and sisters, and for every good thing of God. In Christ, we do this with our lives and with our prayers.
Paul says it: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.” That’s the excess of God, once again. Only, now, it’s at work in us and through us, for others.
Paul, in most of his letters, reminds his people (his friends, and brothers and sisters) that they have seen this excess at work in him, for their sake, and just as much for the sake of the whole world that needs God so much. I think Paul must have been excessive about everything.
I often fail to be excessive, except for the fact that I seem to be obsessive. Could those be the same thing: obsessive and excessive? But here we’re talking about being excessive in love.
That leads us to another part of this excess. Paul has been modeling, for his friends, the life of excessive prayer. Paul says this, here: “Night and day we pray excessively that we may see you again and supply what is needed in your faith.” (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
I retranslated two words here. The New International Version says: “We pray for you earnestly.” The King James Version says: “praying exceedingly.” Earnestness is an intensity in prayer. Exceedingly is literally a lot like excessively. These words translate a Greek word that includes all of this excess.
This excess of love and prayer build each other up, and intensify our lives. It tends to mean that we get absent-minded about ourselves because we do obsess, lovingly, about others.
This doesn’t mean exhausting yourself into a state of frazzlement. It doesn’t mean seeing yourself negatively, or as being unworthy. God has made you worthy, through the blood, and the grace, and the power that comes through him, as we meet him and know him in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit.
This excess of love is nurtured by this excess of prayer. This excess overcomes the world. It makes us strong in our weakness. Paul will tell his friends in Thessalonica that they need this. They need Paul, and they need each other, because they are like Paul, and they are like the Christians in the Holy Land, in a terrible and difficult way. They are all being persecuted excessively; almost mercilessly.
It really was merciless. It was meant to put an end to them. When Paul was talking about his desire to supply what was lacking in their faith, their lack wasn’t immaturity. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Jesus, or a lack of knowledge about the good news. Paul wasn’t talking about a lack of faith on their part, but about a strong need within their faith, because of their difficulties.
All of the negative and destructive energy directed against them, threatened to empty them, and make them feel lacking. It was a lack that was actually a need. This need came from the injuries of being hated, and reviled, and abused.
Perhaps some of them were being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their trust and their love of Jesus. There are wounds and scars of faith that need to be healed, or that create a need for gentle, persistent therapy.
Paul had enough experience of his own in what they were going through, so that he had a good idea of what they needed or lacked. They may have been questioning the strength of their own faith, and blaming themselves for what was happening to them.
Paul, in his letters, doesn’t very much pray for himself. He, almost without exception, makes excessive prayers for others. He asks for their prayers, and he promises that he prays for them, because that is what the best prayer is about. Prayer, at its best, prays for others. Prayer in Christ created, in them, a new world. That new world, growing from their prayers for others, was building within them a world much like the new world that will come with Jesus when he returns.
Prayer opens up the lid of a jar full of the sweet tasting preserve of the beginning of the world, as God designed and created it to be. Prayer, when God speaks to us, tells us of a great goodness that belongs to us, but has been lost.
Prayer looks, even more, into the future. Prayer creates a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth that will come with Jesus. You see, prayer creates readiness for that new world by creating that world, ahead of time, in those who hunger and wait for it.
As others were Paul’s greatest joy, prayer makes others our greatest joy. As the faithfulness of others was Paul’s greatest source of encouragement, prayer makes the faithfulness of others our own source of encouragement. When Paul’s love overflowed to others, then the love they gave to others (through Jesus) was Paul’s greatest reward.
I do love to see other people loving each other. That’s why weddings can be so much fun (as long as the kinfolk don’t tell me how to do my job). The couples are usually too much in love to care about what happens in the wedding.
The truth is that, as strong as Paul’s obsessive prayer was (for his friends’ love to overflow to each other and to everyone else), Paul found love flowing back to him, from his friends, and from Jesus. But the success came because, as Paul was excessively praying for his friends’ overflowing love, Paul’s prayer changed him.
Praying for others made him into a sort of cheerleader for their own prayers for loving others. Paul’s prayers for others loving others made him into the sort of person who embarrasses you by telling you over and over again that they love you, or what a good friend they see in you, and how great your humble qualities are.
Even saying thank-you, excessively, could have the power, in the long run, to change everyone you know, especially your brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, together, you become the family of people who show the world how to love.
The Lord’s Supper is a kind of prayer for others. At the Lord’s Table, we gather together to meet, in person, the prayer of Jesus for us, which we hear the prayer of the cross: “Forgive them.” Jesus, in his prayer, is so full of us that he becomes as self-forgetting as a pinch of bread and a sip of wine.
His sacrifice was not a way of despising himself, but a way of loving others. He makes us so loved that we can forget about ourselves in just that powerful, loving way that he loves us, and the whole world around us.
The cross and the resurrection are a kind of infinite prayer that makes us a new creation. Jesus’ prayer makes us ready for the new heaven and the new earth that are coming.
The power within us comes from his praying for others; his praying for us. This way of prayer, as Paul teaches us, changes us excessively, so that our own prayers become the heart of a life devoted to a passionate and excessive love for others, and for God’s world.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Gideon - Becoming People of Valor

Preached a number of times in 1976-77-78 when I was in Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and last Sunday, January 7, 2018 slightly rewritten (about 10% modified).
The back part of my seminary where the dorm was.
 There are four floors. My window is farthest right.
The third floor. You can just barely see it.

This was my "default" sermon when I preached in little churches where the pastor was away or in churches that didn't have pastors: if it wasn't Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter or something special, I wrote it when I was 25..

Scripture readings: Judges 6:1-32; John 14:27

“The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor!”
The words shot through the hot harvest air and startled a man who was anything but mighty.
Now, since the Hebrew word for “mighty one” can also be translated as “hero”, let’s look with all the eyes of hero worship so we can understand that brave hero, Gideon.
We catch him, first, standing hunched over beneath the spreading oak tree, at Ophra. He bends over the stones of the winepress, not sharpening a warrior’s sword, but thrashing out the wheat: the food that he wanted to hide from the marauding, desert tribesmen who were strangling his people.
Getting ready with some fellow students to sing  Messiah.
It was with the Community Choir performing at the "U".
Dust and chaff stick to his clothes, and hair, and sweat. He’s jumpy; worried about being spotted and robbed of the food and the seed his family need to survive.
Was there a hero’s fire in his eyes?
They were only bloodshot. He was exhausted and there was that sweat running into his eyes. It could be the sparkle of fear. If Gideon had ever had childhood dreams of being some kind of superhero, he had grown up out of those dreams long ago. He was using all his powers to cope with each new day of danger. Every day was dangerous.
Then something happened. Gideon was startled by a loud voice from behind. He jumped and turned. He was afraid to see who had found his hiding place: afraid of anyone who would be so cold as to sneak up on him from behind and yell “boo”, and mock him.
He knew he was no hero. The heroes had all been killed.
Me dress for a Halloween party.
The figure sitting behind him on the big rock was a stranger; and a very strange stranger at that. Gideon tried to choke down the shivering sense that this was no ordinary person. In meeting this stranger with the powerful voice, he felt he was meeting something from beyond this world. The face was more than royal, as if he were in the presence of God.
I wonder if Gideon shuddered at the thought that this one calling him “hero” and “brave” was actually calling him to become just that: to do more than he had ever dared.
The word of God, in the Scripture, is the voice of God speaking to you with the Spirit, or the breath, of God in it. So, the voice of God says: “Good morning you brave heroes.” Yes, you!
Have you ever heard a preacher say that God gives a gift to some people so that they can preach, or teach, or sing in the choir, or knit sweaters for mission children, or, at least, give a warm smile to your neighbor? I’ve always wondered a little about the warm, smiley part. Does a smile really matter very much? But, I’m much too serious for my own good.
The truth is that it matters very much. It can be harder to do than most people think: not just the smiley part, but everything that goes with a real and serious smile.
We are taught, as children, not to talk to strangers. We learn to fear the sorrows and the sufferings of others. It’s hard to give ourselves, to overcome these old obstacles; but, if we do, we may become heroes.
Spent summer serving in Carter Lake, 1977.
The only part of Iowa west of the Missouri River.
If you’ve ever felt lost, or alone, or confused, or frustrated; and someone, anyone, stopped to notice, care, help, and encourage you, then you know how important this mission is. If we can do this for others (give them a sign that love and hope are real) we will be doing a hero’s work.
The truth is that God calls us to be heroes. God calls us to give ourselves for others as he has given himself for us, but how often do we find ourselves stopped in our tracks, reluctant to be what God has made us to be? Like Lazarus, the dead friend of Jesus, called from the tomb, we are alive, but we are bound in layer after layer of shrouds, like an Egyptian mummy.
In the transformation that comes from Jesus, we are like patients recovering from a long, bed-fast illness, and we’re afraid of taking our first step. We aren’t prepared for how good a physician our Doctor Jesus really is.
Seminary party. Two teams competing to blow a ping pong ball.
Maybe the change is like being in a body cast for a long time, and Doctor Jesus has to break away the cast, or unwrap it layer by layer. The bands of cloth are our old confinement: obstacles to the giving life to which God calls us.
We may find ourselves wrapped in the same layers of resistance as Gideon was. As Gideon needed God to do for him, we need the Lord to remove our obstacles to the giving life (the hero’s life), one by one.
The first obstacle, or mummy wrap, that kept Gideon from the heroism to which God called him was that he was overwhelmed by an experience of hopelessness and abandonment.
There’s a story of a hiker making his way, all alone, through a wilderness area. At the end of the day, he made camp and slept. Something awakened him in the middle of the night, as moonless, silent darkness surrounded him.
Did "Itinerant preaching once or twice a month.
I think that's Rewey WI ahead.
It's not much of a town.
Have you ever felt an aloneness and quietness so strong that it seemed like a physical presence? The hiker felt this.  In the blank, dark silence, the whole universe was there, watching, listening, and he wanted to cry out: “Friend or foe?”
In the face of sufferings, failures, illness, and grief, some people, in the old days, would call our world a “vale of tears”; a deep shadowy valley, beyond which they looked forward to finding the sun shining on the high country: heaven and its king. Doubts, frustrations, and worry cloud our ability to see that there is hope, that we are not alone. It’s hard to see beyond a veil of tears; changing the shadowy valley to a cloak that wraps us in darkness.
For Gideon, this veil became a shroud, wrapping and confining him. If he were alone in the blank silence of the night, he would relate to the presence hidden there as an enemy, not a friend.
The economy of Israel was in shambles. There was no leadership in the country, no security of life. They were a broken, invaded people. God had abandoned them.
The church at Rewey.
Somehow, the strange presence that Gideon met, that day, was slicing through his veil of tears. “The Lord is with us! We have hope!”
Maybe you’ve felt this for yourselves. In the face of an unmeetable deadline, or a seemingly unsolvable problem, you felt that you could meet it. You could solve it, or survive it, in order to begin again. God was giving you the gift of hope as he gave it to Gideon. God opened the veil and you marched forward through it.
One barrier was removed, a second barrier was uncovered.
“Lord, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest one, and I’m the least in my family?” Now, Gideon was just too small and weak to do what God called him to do, and to be what God called him to be.
How often do we tell ourselves that we would like to do this or that, something worthwhile, that would help others, and then we turn away, saying: “No, I’m not good enough,” or, “It’s too late now,” or “maybe later, I’m not ready yet.” Some opportunity arises (and God is the designer of all opportunities, visible and invisible), but we know it must not be the right one. God must be mistaken.
Gideon objected to the Lord’s opportunity, but he got an objection back from God. God said: “But I will be with you.” Gideon had focused on his own weakness rather than on God’s strength.
We did a prank. Some women students knitted the hat & scarves.
I just did some essential reconnaissance.
All the ads and commercials tell us, with authority, that only the newest, strongest, and best will do; and that we have to leave “Brand-X” behind. When we buy that idea wholesale, we risk re-applying it from products to people.
But, when you look at them, you find that people with “grade-A” goodness, wisdom, talent, and beauty are rare. You may find that most of your friends, relatives, associates, and that you, yourself, are what the advertisers call Brand-X.
God’s standard is completely different. One of the great things about the Bible is that there are no glossy heroes there; only human being like ourselves.
God chooses and calls the least likely people. People who know they are human are more likely to respond. They know they need help. They know they need God.
Internship the fall of '77 thru summer of 78.
Incline Village NV Presbyterian Church.
Scripture tells us that “Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6) The Lord came for the sake of our smallness and weakness. The Lord came so that smallness, and weakness, and unworthiness would no longer be a barrier to following him on our new road.
There was, and is, one more barrier, or mummy layer to remove. This still kept Gideon from responding freely to the new life God opened to him.
All through this interview, Gideon was asking himself: “Is this really happening?”
It wasn’t joyful unbelief. It was another form of fear that questioned whether this was God, himself, or something else. “If I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me.”
My glamorous lodging at Incline Village.
Middle of second floor.
An explosion of fire evaporated Gideon’s offering on the rock, and it seemed to completely erase the visitor: the visitor with the voice and face of God. Gideon thought he was going to die, because he had somehow blown his interview with God. Gideon asked for a sign, but not for anything like this.
Gideon’s secret fear was God himself. Gideon was afraid of God. Perhaps, more than we would like to admit, something about God frightens us, even when we think we believe in him.
The Hebrews wondered about what it meant for a human to meet face to face with the Lord of Hosts; the Lord of the Angel Armies. God was so different: so holy and powerful. God was too good, and too smart, and simply much too much for us. It must be more than a normal human being could stand. Something had to give. Something would break. Gideon expected to die.
A bit of my middle school group hiking up Mt Rose.
The peak was about 10,000 feet.
Can we identify with Gideon’s fear?
A feeling comes, at times, that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and God, and that we can never come close to him and expect a moment’s peace. People expect saints to have either sad or sour faces.
Is this true? Gideon was, at the moment, very near to God, and he was, also, very unhappy.
We may fear God as a judge. In our imagination, God may appear in robes like a judge. His throne is his judge’s bench, and heaven takes on the appearance of a courtroom.
This is not a comfortable picture. If there is any good in it, it’s only because it helps us remember that God cares about us in some great sense. God cares about what we do and the values we have. We, in turn, care about God’s caring. We want to be in harmony with the purpose and the values of a God who knows us to the core and who is very holy and loves us never the less.
Thanksgiving Vacation 1976.
With some seminary friends visiting a graduate.friend.
Youth pastor at Winterhaven. Fl/
Gideon did ask to know if he had found favor in God’s sight, if God’s deepest motives were mercy, and kindness, and generosity. God’s fiery explosion was a booming and blinding yes.
It was not a normal yes. God was so hot with favor for Gideon. And that made Gideon more afraid than ever. God’s love was too much for him.
Have you ever known someone to be afraid of love? It happens.
God met Gideon’s fear without hesitation: “Peace!” “Peace! Don’t be afraid. I want to help, not hurt you.” “Peace!”
Gideon, wrapped up tight in a mummy layer of fear, needed peace as a resource to respond to God. Now peace, or (in Hebrew) “Shalom” is a feeling, and yet something much, much more. We might feel peaceful, quiet, undisturbed. We might also say that we feel rested. But, if we say this on a beautiful morning, after a good night’s sleep, we don’t mean we’re ready for a nap. We mean that we’re fresh and fit for the new day. That’s what peace is like. And, again, it’s much, much more than that.
Easter vacation staying at a friend's parents' house.
Austin TX, 1977. Wonderful house and pool.

Peace is trusting that everything is going to fit together. Nothing that matters can fall apart or collapse. It’s all going to work. Now you’re ready to help make it all work.
That’s peace. Peace is a sense of wholeness and being put together and ready for anything: being ready for whatever God brings your way; being ready to grow. Being ready to give.
Jesus, knowing how, in a few hours, he would be swept into a storm of betrayal, cruelty, injustice, and death on the cross, said this to his friends: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you, let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Jesus freely offers us his peace, his own peace, worked out for us with all the love of his life, all the dedication of his death, all the grace of his sacrifice, and all the indestructibility of his resurrection.
Me playing pastor in a frontier museum town.
Near Phoenix AZ, end of summer '77.
It began to dawn upon the fearful heart of Gideon that the Lord’s first thought for him was full of mercy, peace, love, and hope. This was offered to him, as totally unheroic as he was. The Lord’s peace was stronger than any fear of abandonment or despair at his own smallness and unworthiness. Let come what may, that ultimate gift of peace came down from God.
The barriers were down. Gideon was ready to answer the call of the Lord.
He was called to be a hero; just as we are. Gideon was called to open himself up to his people’s problems, to do something that would set them free from despair, weakness, and fear. He would do it, and become a hero.
But, he would never be perfect in this world. Sometimes he would be just plain silly. Sometimes he would be terrible and much worse than he was before his calling changed him. Gideon remained human. And so do we, when God calls us.
Graduation '1978, shaking hands with Dean.
To be ready for tomorrow, we need the rest that comes from faith: the confidence that comes from going forth, yet being in the hands of God’s peace at the same time. Have you ever tried to get a small child to do anything which that child absolutely refused to do: like going to bed so that they can rise and shine tomorrow?
That’s the kind of job God has with us. He knows what he’s doing, and he loves his children, so we know he won’t give up and turn his back on us in dismay.

As Gideon stood before the Lord, he experienced that persistent love. That enduring love removed one layer, one barrier, after another. Think how you stand face to face with the same persistent, loving God, as we know him in Jesus, as we know him on the cross. That God calls to you: “The Lord is with you, you mighty people of valor!” Do you hear that call?

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Advent Kingdom - Join Bethlehem's Battling Baby

Preached on Sunday, December 24, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 53:1-12; Revelation 12:1-17; Matthew 2:13-23

Riverside Community Church
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
Thanks to Those Lovingly Decorated
Our Church for the Celebration of the Nativity
December 2017
Christmas can look and feel like a battle. The stores are battling to sell their stock. The customers are battling to buy their gifts. It happens. One year I was stuck buying some last-minute Christmas gifts, in the mall, on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t pretty.
There’s the battle to beautify our homes, but I’ve surrendered in that war. There’s the battle of the Tree. I found (late) that I had a broken tree so I found another by surprise and got it put up yesterday, but I’m not going to decorate it. I’m living with it, just as it is, for three days, then I’m flying home for a late Christmas with my family. Wednesday, I fly from Pasco to Seattle, change for a flight from Seattle to Portland, and then change for a flight from Portland to Sacramento. Then, the following Wednesday, I fly back to you. But I love Christmas.
Am I making it look bad? For some people it really is: for soldiers on a foreign front, for the homeless, for those in a home with unpayable bills and empty cupboards, for the grief stricken, for the lonely.
The first Christmas (whatever the date when it really happened) looked bad. There was a hundred-mile hike for a young, pregnant teenager and her husband. (The Bible doesn’t tell us, in so many words, whether she was lucky enough to have a donkey to ride. I think that Christmas artists must just like painting donkeys.
There was the pregnancy itself: how it happened was controversial, and (to some) unbelievable. There are people who always like to think the worst, and they’re not afraid to say what they think. You hear hints of this, later in the Gospel’s, there’s a time when Jesus is called Mary’s son without naming Joseph. In that time and place not naming the father was a kind of slur on Jesus’ parentage. (Mark 6:3)
There was the Roman, so-called emperor. (Some thought dictator: and he had certainly killed enough people to win his way into power, so that he deserved to be called a dictator, no matter how smart he was.) The Roman Caesar ordered a tax-revenue and military-occupation related census that forced the whole journey on Joseph and Mary, and thousands of others just like them.
There was the “puppet” king, named Herod. They called him the Great. Was he so great because he was willing to kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem in order to get rid of some peasant baby with a claim to be the King of the Jews? Herod was perfectly willing to kill anybody in order to hold onto a title that he had already killed for, just like Caesar. It all stank.
We don’t know for sure if the manger was in the stable of an inn, or in the animal quarters of a peasant house, where the one or two other rooms were filled with people. Peasant houses did have animal rooms. Probably, the way that world smelled, the animal room may not have smelled much worse. An article came out last week which had the title: “The Real, Stinky Nativity.”
The interesting connection between our world and that ancient, stinky world, is that those people, now, for whom Christmas is a mess, are the ones who have the most in common with the people of the very first Christmas.
Jesus was born to change the nature of our lives, to fight the battle that would save us from the power of sin and death, the battle that would give us life abundant, and life eternal. The climax of that battle (which began in Bethlehem) was the cross and the grave. Those were places that stank.
Jesus must also have been born to change the smell of this world and the smell of our lives within this world. The birth of Jesus was a heavenly miracle in which God, in all his glory and power, invaded a world that stinks. Our world stinks with war, with slaughter, with the slaughter of innocents and babies, with dictators killing for power, with suspicion and fear, with injustice and poverty, with disease and hunger.
The world is beautiful with the power and ingenuity of God, but it is a fallen world, and it’s fallenness stinks. Jesus was born to bring the beauty of God, the power of God, the righteousness of God, the compassion of God, the servanthood of God, and the love that comes from God,  into the stink of the world.
That was also a battle. That is still a battle.
Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph represent the presence of God giving meaning, and value, and blessing to those who live with the indignities and the struggles that stink. That, too, is a battle.
With the understanding that Joseph gets left out of the picture so often that he stands for so many invisible people who matter, lets look at a strange, strange picture in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. It’s the picture of the woman, and her baby, and a fiery, watery dragon.
It’s not a picture of something that happens during the trouble at the end of things.
The picture began long before that. The story of the picture began when a woman met a reptile in the Garden of Eden. The reptile was called a snake there, but he has many names.
The reptile won that battle in Eden, and his victory seemed to promise to ruin the lives of the woman and her man, and all future human beings who came after them. Then, God promised something better. God promised that a son of the woman would crush the reptile’s head, even though that reptile would injure the son. God’s brand of justice would be done, and that would bring about a new kind of world. Revelation will show us pictures of that new world: that new heaven and earth.
The Book of Revelation tells us that the birth of the son would defeat the dragon. And the son did exactly that.
But, the Book of Revelation, in this picture of the woman, the son, and the dragon, says that this battle will go on for quite a while, and it has. We’re living in this battle still.
Christmas carries the message that we must get involved in this battle. We are enlisted in a war where a baby has invaded the enemy’s territory. This baby has won the essential, turning-point battles that will lead to the end of the war, in which we and the baby will win.
I was thinking about war. I watched the recent movie “Dunkirk” and think it was a great movie. But the Battle of Dunkirk looked like defeat, at first.
Because of their defeat at Dunkirk, some of the British wanted to negotiate a peace settlement with Hitler. Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw it differently, and made it count as a victory, in a way that surprised his own people. In this surprising sense, the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British was a victory that help make the American entry into that war possible. That led to the bloody, costly victory of the Landing at Normandy, which enabled us to turn the German victories at the Battle of the Bulge into allied victories there.
It still wasn’t done. There were still more horrible battles to be fought until der Fuhrer shot himself in his bunker. Our own war with the dragon goes on like that.
The dragon shifts his strategy many times. Revelation shows us this. The dragon is going to raise up two beasts: one, from the sea, will be a beast of political power; the other, from the ground will be a botched imitation of the Lamb and this imitation Lamb will have the power of spiritual deceit and blindness.
No matter how far away the battle seems, the cultures of the world always try to mold, or scare, or trick, or deceive the people of the True Lamb who was slain. The dragon, gently or harshly, tries to loosen our grip on the True Lamb in heaven. If he succeeds, he thinks that the True Lamb might get disgusted and loosen his grip on us.
This struggle began with the Battle of Christmas, and we have been recruited to join this Battle. The Christmas Battle is the invasion begun by The Baby of Bethlehem. We are the invaders of a stinky world and we are called to take our stand against the hardships that make life stink for so many.
We are the invaders of a world disabled by sin.
So, we are the re-enablers of lives, and relationships, and hearts and minds, through the power of forgiveness and love.
What strange weapons these are! And what a strange strategy. It’s like the invasion of Troy by means of the Trojan Horse. But, in our war, the strategy that defeats the dragon is the Trojan Baby. Or you could call God’s strange tactics the mommy-and-baby strategy: the discipline of forgiveness and love.
The mommy is Eve, and Abraham’s wife Sarah, and the Lord’s wife Israel, and the Virgin Mary, and the Bride of Christ, the Church. The mommy is God’s people nurturing and strengthening each other, so that the Church becomes our mother. The mommy-and-baby strategy stretches the whole Church inside out; because it has taught us to care for the strays that wonder beyond us. Our hearts are tender for those outside because the greatest baby we know is the battling baby Jesus. The everlasting Son of God became a baby in order to conquer life itself, and temptation, and pride, and hypocrisy, and sin, and death.
But there are lots of other babies, just like us, in the Battle. The Dragon knows this and goes off, in the end, to fight them and us. These babies are the other offspring of the mommy, that the Book of Revelation tells us about.
Yes, they are us. No other weapon will do but the blood of the lamb and “the testimony of Jesus”. We tell the story of Jesus as he has taught us. We tell the story of Jesus in words and in our lives.
We live what Jesus taught. How can we give the testimony of Jesus without loving our enemies, or without being the Good Samaritan to all of those who have been injured by the stink that gets into the world, and into its people, and into us?
The Bethlehem Baby, and the babies who are us, fight with these strange weapons. Jesus did this and we follow him everywhere.
Isaiah told us what people would think of these strange weapons. People who use the conventional wisdom will never see that this is the strategy that will fight for the world as God designed it to be. It takes a very different kind of wisdom to shift the powers of our minds to see strategy that will change the world. “Surely, he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
That looks like no way to fight evil, or sin, or stink: for Jesus and us to bear it ourselves, to carry it for others. Actually, it is a bit like a mommy’s strategy. The Battle of Bethlehem was fought with mommy/baby strategy.
The baby who was growing up to carry the sin of the world would have a strange bit of identity to direct him in his purpose. When the boy Jesus was old enough to understand things, he knew the story that other babies had died in his place, they died for him. What would he grow up to do for others? We are the babies who follow him, and we know that he has died for us and that others have died for him. All of them have died for us too, so that we could know and follow the baby who was the Savior they had loved.
That is the miracle of Christmas. That is the calling of Christmas to each one of us. That is the power of Christmas, or the Jesus of Christmas, that can change us, and work through us for the washing, the disinfecting, the sweetening, and the healing of the world, and for the coming new heaven and the new earth that will be won by this baby.
People in times long past have understood this better than we do. I’m going to finish by reading a poem written by a Catholic priest, in the 1500’s, who was executed for his faith by the government of Reformation England. The poet’s name is Robert Southwell. His poem was later set to music by the British composer Benjamin Britten in “A Ceremony of Carols”, during World War II: “This Little Babe”. 

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field,
His tiny breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior's steed.

His camp is builded in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His army makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels' trumps the charge now sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to His tents, the place of might.
Within His crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy Guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy!
(Written by Robert Southwell, c. 1561-1595) 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Advent Kingdom - Creation 2.0

Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 52; Revelation 21

We are reading about God making things new.
God tells Isaiah about a new Israel and a new Jerusalem. He says they will finally be safe, in the end, because no one who is uncircumcised or unclean will enter.
Christmas lights: Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
December 2017
The uncircumcised and unclean are really the same thing, so all the nations except Israel are shut out. But, in the end, God tells Isaiah that many nations (which really means all nations) will have something done to them that will change them completely.
 They will be sprinkled by the Servant (the Messiah, the Christ). And, so, they will all be clean. They will become citizens of the kingdom of the Messiah. But the kingdom of the Messiah is Israel.
This means that Israel will be new indeed; new in a way it has never dreamed of. Israel and Jerusalem will be everyone. The unclean will be gone.
The same is true in the Book of Revelation. The gates and foundations are labeled with the names of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of the Church. All of the nations will come to the New Jerusalem to give their praise and glory to God; their praise and glory to the Lamb. The New Jerusalem will be home for everyone. And the gates will always be open. There will be no cover of darkness for evil and enemies to enter and destroy. But the truth is that all evil and all enemies will be gone. They’ve been put out of the new creation forever. They have disappeared into the Lake of Fire.
When we have a solid feel for what Israel and Jerusalem have been, through the centuries, and what they are now, we can only say: “Well! That will be different! That will be something new!”
The same has begun to be true for us. Some glad day, it will be completely true for us; true for everyone who truly wants it. But it has begun to be true now. We have been given the first installments of something totally different, something totally new.
Have you ever been made new before? Have you ever felt that your life had become completely different than it was before?
If we must be spiritually correct, we would say that we became new and different people when we wholeheartedly opened ourselves to God in Christ. One of my most favorite sentences in the Bible was written by Paul, in his letter to the Galatians. It’s his description of being completely new and different. Paul wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
I have another favorite line by Paul. It comes from his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We, as Christians, honestly, don’t always look to others as if we were completely new and different. We can look like we think we’re members of some sort of exclusive club or lodge. Even Christians forget that being a member is not a matter of having your name on a roll, or in a record book. Being a member is not about being on the list of past or present officers.
Being a member of the Church is about being in Christ: a part of Christ. It’s about being a member of his body, as opposed to being dismembered. A member is someone who is an organ, or a ligament, or a muscle, or a finger, or a mustache in the Body of Jesus, the Body of Christ. The head of this body is Jesus, although we might serve as one of his many, many eyes, or tongues, or ears, or mustaches.
What would it be like, as a member of the church, to be a nose in the body of Christ? It would have to be much more than being able to say that the potluck was ready to eat. What would it be like to be a completely new and different nose than you are right now?
Have you ever become a completely new and different person?
There was a guy in my first church who became a new Christian. He was talking a lot about this. I thought it must have happened before I had arrived, because I was a really new arrival. But, when I said this to him, he grinned and tapped his finger on my chest. He gave me the credit. That was such an honor.
Ralph was a lumbermill worker, and he had been most of his life. If I recall correctly, his youngest son was still in high school. Some of Ralph’s older kids had given him and Virginia grandkids. So, he had lived long enough to have formed a very definite pattern of personality and abilities.
Before he was found by Jesus, Ralph had been a harsh, critical, and judgmental man, even within his home and family; or especially there. He had also been functionally illiterate.
Now the obvious miracle was that he could suddenly read, and he soon loved to read. His favorite reading was the Bible, and he absorbed it like a sponge. He also began, at once, the new habit of reading the newspaper every day.
There was once a famous theologian who said that a good Christian was one who held a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That could be true.
Ralph also began reading books like “The Works of Flavius Josephus”. Flavius Josephus was a Jewish army officer at the time that the people of Israel rose up in rebellion against their Roman overlords, in the middle of the sixties, and up to 70 A.D., or so. He wrote a first century history of the Jewish people down to the time right after Jesus: the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In fact, Josephus mentions Jesus in his history, briefly. Josephus is not easy reading.
So, that was brand new. That was different. That was Ralph and Jesus.
But there was something just as good and even better for those who knew Ralph, and even better for his wife and family. Ralph became a loving, gentle man. He became patient, and compassionate, and generous. His wife would talk to me, personally, about the wonderful change in Ralph.
 The change was so impressive and persuasive that Ralph’s eighty-five-year-old father-in-law (Bob) became a disciple of Jesus after a lifetime of scorning religion in general and Christians in particular. Of course, he had never scorned his own wife Nellie, or his daughter Virginia. For years Bob, like Ralph, had tolerated their faith. Now they embrace that faith. So, Bob’s wife, Nellie, and Ralph’s wife, Virginia, were having a good time with this.
But how can someone, who doesn’t know this peculiar brand of newness and differentness, understand, by looking at us (when we don’t look all that new and different) understand what we hope and pray that they will understand?
We long for them to understand what they can become with Jesus. Is there something that anyone can understand about being a new person (a different person) than you were before? What has changed you into a new and different person? What, in life, has changed your life?
In the Book of Revelation, the new universe, the new heaven and earth, the new future life of all believing human beings who will ever live, can be described and pictured in the same, common ways that our current lives are changed.
It isn’t so much a matter of having a new life merely because you have a new house. It isn’t the kind of new life that comes with a new job.
A real-life change might come with the birth of a child. Such a thing changes a woman into a mother, which (I’m told) is a complete difference.
I’ve known men who told me that the first step they took toward Jesus was completely unconscious and completely unintentional. It was simply the fact that they held a child of their own flesh and blood in their arms.
The experience told them that they needed to become something they had never been before. It opened them to change on an almost miraculous level or depth.
This is the change in life described to us when we learn that the new universe and the new way to be human is to truly be born again. In the world to come, we will become, like never before, the direct children of God. “The one who conquers will inherit these things. I will be his God and he will be my son (my daughter)” (Revelation 21:7)
I’m also told that marriage changes your life. I also suspect that, if it doesn’t make you a new person, you will not be about what marriage is for.
The future world, and the future you, will be “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) The Christian hope is that the future world, and the future you, will be like a wedding that won’t stop. There will be enough joy, and giving, and love, and passion for that wedding to go on and on in that timeless world.
A member of one of my churches, whom I’ve known for decades, passed away recently, and I was suddenly reminded of the terrible auto accident she had been in with a friend, years ago. The friend had died. Linda was about seventy years old when she was injured. She was in the hospital for weeks. She was in physical therapy for months.
Linda, and her husband Bob, had been living in the grand, old, brick, family farmhouse that Bob’s father had built. They had been living independently, and graciously, and generously, and hospitably, and deeply spiritually for many years.
Linda’s good friend had died, and Linda almost died. She, herself, when she was in the greatest danger, had an encounter with Jesus beyond this world. Afterwards, in her humility, she said little about that experience, but the whole thing touched her deeply.
For months no one knew what progress she would make, if any, in the end. After months, she was well enough to return home and live, very much, the way she had before, at least for a while.
She was a saint before. That never changed. But she saw her physical presence in this world very differently. And she saw all her relationships much more preciously than ever.
After my dad had heart surgery (a triple by-pass), he wasn’t in the hospital very long, but he changed. This happened shortly after he retired, so he was in his later sixties. Suddenly he would tell us grown up kids (I was in my early forties) that he loved us. He would say (out of the blue), “Son, I love you.” I had never heard him say this before. I’m sure he never, in my life, told me that he loved me until that time. It was so strange. I never got used to it. My dad had become very different and new.
I understand that recoveries like these can make you a new person. Recoveries can make you a truly different person than you were before. I believe this.
The Christian hope, the future world, the future you, will be a recovery like that. John tells us that: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
We have lived in a world that has borne a long illness, with its long history of death, and mourning and crying, and pain. Whether we have heard, and believed, the promise of recovery, or not, we have known no other world than the one in which we have been living, under the influence of this long sickness, and all our lives have shared this sickness in common. We may have begun the gift of recovery in our own lives, but we know no other world.
But now, our lives have seen some of the future change. When the fullness of time has come, the change will be perfect. We and the new world will be well. A medieval nun had a little song that went: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)
Sometimes life changes when someone comes to live with you. When my Polish Grandmother (my Baci, or Babcia) retired, she didn’t come to live with us. She went to live with her son (my mother’s brother, Uncle Eddie, and his family). I know this changed my cousins’ lives.
But Baci would come and spend her summers with us. I was about thirteen or fourteen, when this began.
I changed because I became Polish. My Baci would teach me to talk with her in Polish, and to help her cook Polish food. I learned to make pierogi. I thought that, when I got older, I might do some college work in Poland. Maybe I would get some experience that would qualify me for working with the State Department.
Of course, God had other plans for me that I was already seriously resisting. When Baci, or some of my other older Polish relatives, would come and visit us, they would talk with me and tell me that I thought like a Polak. I had changed.
This was quite a compliment. No one can receive a finer compliment than to be called a Polak. It’s a Polish word that means a Polish person. What could be greater than that?
Change comes, and it makes all the difference in the world, when someone comes to live with you. John tells us that: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” (Revelation 21:3) Surely everyone here knows something about this, even now.
The newness described all through the Book of Revelation is a special kind of newness. There are two words for newness, in the Biblical Greek.
There is an ordinary, standard newness called “neos”, which is like getting a new computer, or a new car.
Then there is a radical newness called “kainos”, which means a whole new order of change, as if change, itself, will change into something else.
New heavens and earth don’t mean that heaven and earth will be replaced. Becoming a new creation doesn’t mean that we will have the secret of eternal youth, or an intelligence boost, or an altered memory.
What you will be, and whatever this world will be, will become something we can’t even imagine now. What we want will change. What we enjoy will change. What we’re able to do will change. What we see, and hear, and take into ourselves will change. What others are for us, and what we are for others, will change.
We, and the whole world, will be so surprisingly new. And yet we will be ourselves. What we are now will be recognizable in what we will be. What we are now will have played its part, in the love of God in Christ. What we are now will have played its part in the person that God has planned us to be, all along.
How will this new change become ours? How will this future hope, this future world (this future heaven and earth), become ours? Two things go together in this, in a way we don’t ordinarily notice.
The language of the Book of Revelation is Greek, but the thinking in it is Hebrew. In Hebrew thought you can put things together that seem different, side by side, and they really are part of the same, single thing. The different things share one meaning in common.
So, John hears about the Lion of Judah and he looks and sees a Lamb that was slain. These are two different things that are the same thing. John hears about the Bride, and he looks and sees the New Jerusalem City. And all that we are told about what’s in the city is that there is a throne, with God and the Lamb sitting on it, and fruit trees, and a river, as if it were a garden: maybe even the garden of Eden, all over again, but safe and complete. These all seem like different things, but they’re the same thing.
John hears about two things that don’t sound like the same thing. He hears that the thirsty will receive the water of life: which means that they will live in the New Jerusalem. He hears that the ones who conquer, or overcome, “will inherit all of this”: which means that they will live in the New Jerusalem.
John is telling us that the one who thirsts and the one who conquers are the same. You conquer by thirsting. You thirst by conquering.
It’s the same thing. You want something so bad, or (better yet) you want something so good, that your desire and your commitment become your deepest need, and your deepest need grows to become your greatest strength.
You want just one thing, and you don’t settle for anything else. You don’t settle for anything less. You become true, as in true-blue, to your need, and to your strength, which is God.
This need and this strength begin with what Isaiah tells us comes from being sprinkled by the Servant, the Messiah, the Christ. John tells us that this need and this strength come from being washed in the blood of the Lamb. This comes from the love and grace of God, in our Savior Jesus Christ.
John tells us to thirst and to conquer. Isaiah tells us to wake up, and get up, and sing out, and to come out, and to chill out (don’t rush, don’t worry). Read more about this in Isaiah chapter fifty-two.
But, a little bit later (in chapter fifty-three), Isaiah says that the servant who is the Messiah, will change us, because he has carried our sorrows and our sins. Carrying us gives him the ability to do something he calls sprinkling us. The sprinkling power, coming from suffering, will be able to make us all into new people. The sprinkling that comes from his suffering is intended to enable all who desire it to enter into the new future creation of God.
The servant Jesus was born in Bethlehem to carry, on himself, our sufferings and our sins, on the cross. Doing this, he has made newness and difference possible.
John tells us that it is the Son of God, the Word of God, the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain for us on the cross, who is responsible for making the great thirst and the great overcoming possible.

If we do hold onto that overcoming thirst, as if our life depended on it, that newness, and that difference will become our abundant life. It will become our everlasting life.