Monday, February 28, 2011

Christ: The King of Healing

Preached February 27, 2011

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 30:12-17; Mark 1:21-34

There is a story about a disaster at sea. A tourist ship was loaded with travelers and their cars, and the crew had failed to properly seal the doors. Out at sea, the doors gave way, and the boat began to sink.

The passengers were completely panicked. Suddenly, one man (who was not a member of the crew) was giving orders in a calm, clear voice. The crowd quieted down because someone appeared to be in charge, and they followed his directions to the lifeboats.

The man made his way to the part of the hold that was nearly submerged and (with one hand grasping the ladder) he used his other hand to pull the people who were trapped there to safety. The man made himself a human bridge to save their lives.

In the end, when the tragedy was over, it was discovered that the man who took upon himself the authority to save the others was among those who drowned. He had given his life in using the authority he took upon himself to save others. (N.T. Wright; “Mark for Everyone”; p.11)

Jesus possessed an authority that no one who heard him or watched him had ever heard or seen before. Mark tells us: “The people were amazed at is teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mark 1:22)

When Jesus cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue, we hear the same thing: “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

The people who met Jesus found themselves in the presence of an authority beyond any they had met before. The word “authority” in the New Testament Greek means authority. It sort of means the power and the right to do a thing. So Jesus had the authority, the power, and the right to teach and speak for God; to command and cast out evil spirits; and to heal the sick; and even to raise the dead, as he would do later on.

Now, where do this authority, this power, and this right come from? The hero on the sinking ship spoke and acted with authority in a way that most of us probably couldn’t. He probably knew about ships and ships’ safety. Even though he wasn’t a member of the crew, he had probably been a member of some crew, on some ship, and he knew the drill. In such an emergency he was the one to follow, the one to listen to. He had authority.

Someone can be an authority on military history, or on ice age floods. Someone can be an expert on Middle East diplomacy. Someone can be an authority on agricultural chemistry, or plant genetics. This is authority based on acquired knowledge, and even on acquired, practical experience. The same could be said of you if you are a parent, or a spouse; or or a farmer, or rancher, or homemaker, or teacher, or nurse, or artist, or singer, or mechanic, or maker of things.

Authority (acquired knowledge, and understanding, and experience) can become so much a part of you that you feel as though you were born with it, or born for it. It is in your blood to be what you are, or to be what you will be.

But this is not really so. Being an authority, sometimes, is like catching a sickness, or having it catch you and never letting you go; until you can’t imagine having been anything else, and it will leave the mark of its identity on you forever.

But this is human authority. Jesus had an authority that was beyond human authority. It left those who met him stunned. Here was this man who was the carpenter of Nazareth, who was capable of things that no one else was capable of doing. He healed the sick with a touch of his hands, and he liberated people who were caught in the clutches of evil spirits with a word.

And Jesus spoke and taught with the very same kind of authority with which he healed the sick and cast out demons. We have never heard anyone speak like that. Jesus was not merely a spellbinding super-teacher/master-teacher.

The people in the villages and synagogues of Galilee looked at Jesus and they saw a man: saw the carpenter. The spirits who were trying to dominate people in ways we cannot understand were able to see what human eyes could not see. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24)

Without knowing what they saw, the people around Jesus saw the one whom the Gospel of John describes in its opening paragraphs. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory; glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:1-5, 14)

In the Bible, the world authority refers to a power or a right that does not come from what you know, or from what you have learned, but from who you are, and what you are. The authority of Jesus came from who and what he was, and is.

Jesus had authority to heal the sick, because he was the authority behind our health. He was the authority behind our creation. He was the one who gave us all life. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

Jesus had the authority to free people caught in the clutches of evil spirits, because Jesus was the creator of all spirits, even the creator of the spirits who fell. Jesus had authority over the spirits of darkness because he is the light that the darkness cannot overcome. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Jesus is the light that will come and destroy, forever, the power of the kingdom of darkness.

Jesus taught with authority because he is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Jesus is the self expression of God: God speaking himself just as he is, in himself. Jesus is the self-expression of God made flesh and blood; made human, just as we are.

The kingdom of God is the rule of God, and in Jesus we see God reclaiming his own. He claims the sick and heals them. He claims the possessed and sets them free. He would even claim those who were dead and bring them back to life. (Mark 5:35:43)

In the beginning Christ had been in the Garden of Eden (with the Father and the Holy Spirit, because all of the fullness of God was at work in our creation). He was there to breathe the breath of life into Adam; so that Adam and Eve, and all of their children down to this day, could be living souls. (Genesis 2:7) The authority of Jesus comes from who he is. It comes from who Jesus has always been.

The kingdom of God is the rule of God coming to reclaim his creation and to restore his creation. Now the people who heard and watched Jesus had some ideas about the kingdom of God. But Jesus did not share those ideas.

They could not understand the kingdom of God unless it meant the Kingdom of Israel rising up and throwing out the Romans. They would have understood the prophet Jeremiah meaning the healing of their nation of its weakness when the Lord spoke through Jeremiah and said: “But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds.” (Jeremiah 30:17)

They would have understood the healing as political. Jesus completely confused them because he refused even to talk about that.

For Jesus, the incurable wound was the sin and dysfunction and weakness and blindness of the human race and our own human nature. The incurable wound was the impassible barrier that exists in our hearts between us and God, between us and the people and the world around us; the barrier that even keep us away from peace with ourselves.

Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God who comes to heal that wound and tear down that barrier through his sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Like the man of authority on the sinking ship Jesus came to be the man, the human we could never be, and form, for us, a bridge from death to life. N.T. Wright says: “Jesus came to be the human bridge across which people could climb to safety.” (N.T. Wright; “Mark for Everyone”; p. 12) It is in this way that Christ is the king of healing.

It needs to be remembered that the people who received healing from Jesus would, one day, grow sick again and die. The people he freed from evil spirits would have to go on through life and still be obliged to resist the devil. The people Jesus raised from the dead would die again. And all of those people would (as all of us will) finally come into the presence of Jesus in eternity and be made well and free by him there.

There is the matter of need, and how we experience our need. The people who met Jesus wanted the Romans thrown out and a king of their own sitting upon the throne in Jerusalem.

Jesus wanted something much more. Jesus wanted repentance for his people and repentance for the world. Jesus wanted the conversion and the transformation of life, so that human life could be born again and born from above: life abundant and life everlasting. That was the freedom of his kingdom. This was the healing that Christ came to give.

Right now the world of the Middle East appears to be changing. The people of those nations are yearning for change, and they are demonstrating in the streets in order to get rid of the tyrants and dictators who have ruled them for so long; and they show no signs of giving up.

I heard a journalist interview a man, on the street in a Middle Eastern city, who was with the demonstrators. The journalist asked the man if he wanted democracy. The man answered: “We don’t need democracy. We need food.” Where will such people’s experience of need take them?

Jesus came into this staggeringly needy world with authority. He came to give this world what it needs most. And what this world needs is not what it says, or thinks, it needs.

In his death on the cross, and in his rising from the dead, Jesus gave us and this world of ours what we all need most; not necessarily what we think we need. But, in order to get through to this world, he also spoke to the felt needs of this world. He taught, and he healed, and he liberated.

People saw this and they were drawn to Jesus because he showed them, with authority, that he loved them and cared for them. And Mark often tells us that they were amazed by Jesus; but seldom does Mark tell us that they believed in Jesus.

Even the disciples had trouble believing. But they lived in the presence of his authority every day. They looked on, and they listened, and they asked questions, and they heard answers that they did not really understand, and they went where Jesus sent them; they followed where Jesus took them.

They saw the confusion in the crowd, the excitement in the crowd, the rejection of Jesus in the crowd. As the story moves on, the rejection becomes more certain, and more deadly. And they saw all this through the lens of their growing love for Jesus and for his authority.

They struggled with their own desire to see Jesus sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, and riding at the head of an army to defeat the Romans. But one thing they did see (and Jesus made them a part of this) was the desire to meet people where they were because he loved them and cared about their desires and their needs.

Jesus would delegate the disciples as deputy healers, and exorcists, and preachers to go into the towns ahead of him. Perhaps people would see the love of the kingdom of God through them, and have a change of heart, and be ready for Jesus.

Another change that happened to them was that they became a “they” with Jesus. When they went somewhere, it was them and Jesus together.

They became a unit (them and Jesus). The matter of what they had to teach; and their prayers for the sick; and their prayers to free people from the evil spiritual powers ruling them; that was all a matter of them and Jesus.

They became a team with Jesus, and their mission was to reclaim and restore the world around them for the kingdom of God. They were focused on people at their place of need, even when those people did not know what they needed most.
We are disciples of Jesus too. We are a team whose mission it is to reclaim the world and restore the world for the kingdom of God; even though that world, and the people Jesus sends us to (even in our families and among our neighbors) may not know what they need most. But Jesus deputizes us to meet them in their place of need as they feel it themselves, not just as we see it.

We see Jesus as our crucified Lord and Savior. We see Jesus as the Lord and Savior of all people. Not even the disciples saw Jesus that way, until after the cross and resurrection took place. Without knowing it, the first disciples, in everything they said and did, were preparing their world, and their neighbors, and their families for what Jesus was going to do, and what Jesus was going to turn out to be: all without knowing it.

They worked hard to meet their people in their place of need, because of their love of Jesus. His calling them had made him the authority of their lives. And his authority made them aspire to be healers who followed the king of healing.

When we know Jesus (when we know who he really is) we become like the man who made himself a human bridge for others. We have authority too, because of what we know. We can’t make others believe. We can’t do everything that others want. We don’t even see every thing we pray for come to pass. But we can do the work that Jesus has delegated to us of meeting people in their place of need, even if it means simply being with them where they are.

Then we can trust Jesus to do the work that only he can do, to show himself to them as the one who died and rose from the dead for them. When we know Jesus, then we know what it really means for Jesus to be the Christ, the king of healing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"The King of Those Who Are Called"

Preached on Sunday, February 20, 2011
Scripture Readings:
Genesis 12:1-9; Mark 1:14-20

I want us to think about some of the phrases of the words that the Lord spoke to Abram (or Abraham). They should be very familiar to you; not because you have learned them by heart; and not because you have read the story of the Lord and Abraham so many times. The words should be familiar to you because it is normal for the Lord to say things like this to his people. “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you…and I will bless you….and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

Jesus said the same kind of thing to the first disciples. “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)

What I mean by saying that these words should be familiar to you is that our spiritual lives, as children of God, begin with some sort of meeting with God. Somehow, God calls out to you; maybe not with words, maybe not with thoughts, maybe not with feelings, but with something too deep to describe; because it is much too clear and too precise for words.

Somehow God meets you. Can you tell the story of how God met you in Jesus? Somehow, in that meeting, the Lord called you into existence as a new creation, and you followed him; or you began the story which led to your coming and following him. The story of our life as disciples, as Christians, as followers of Jesus begins with a meeting in which the Lord calls us to follow.

In the case of Abraham, this meeting in the twelfth chapter of Genesis is the first we know about, for Abraham. As his story is told, you can read about the other meetings followed. The Lord wove a pattern and a history of meetings, and callings, and promises into Abraham’s life that made Abraham a person of God; a wanderer who followed the Lord to the land the Lord showed him.

The disciples also had a pattern and a history of meeting and hearing the Lord that was already being woven into their lives. The Gospel of John, in his first chapter, tells us that at least several of the disciples had been followers of, or hangers out with, John the Baptizer, at the Jordan River. They were already there, at the time when Jesus came to be baptized.

John the Baptizer pointed Jesus out to two of them and he told them, “Look, the Lamb of God.” (John 1:35) They took off from John, and started walking behind Jesus without being asked. Jesus asked them, “What do you want?” (As you probably would if you noticed someone walking right behind you) and they asked, “Where are you staying?” and he said, “Come and see!” and they did. (John 1:35-51)

By the second chapter of Mark, these followers of Jesus are being called “disciples.” (Mark 2:16) Disciple means learner. Learning includes moments of special and sudden insight, but most learning is repetitious, and this is obviously true of the learners (the disciples) of Jesus.

The word “disciple” is not just a word for the special twelve who were called later to be apostles. (Mark 3:13-19) And not even the twelve apostles ever stopped being called disciples. It wasn’t that kind of promotion.

In the gospels and the Book of Acts the word “disciples” is used at least 230 times and it means everyone who followed Jesus. It meant all the people who belonged to the churches that formed across the Roman Empire after the resurrection of Jesus.

The word Christian is used only three times in the New Testament. The standard identity of a follower of Jesus, in relationship to Jesus, is “disciple”: learner. This never stops. Jesus never stops calling us and teaching us. That is only a small part of what we call his grace.

We learn something about Jesus as the King of those who are called from the last verses of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has died on the cross and risen from the dead. Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, has hung himself, and the eleven of the twelve who are left go to meet Jesus in Galilee, at some time during the period before Jesus was taken into heaven.

Matthew says: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:16-19)

Notice that the apostles have not stopped being disciples. Notice that they still doubt, even though Jesus has risen from the dead. Notice that Jesus doesn’t stop calling them and teaching them
You might wonder how a doubter could make another person into a learner. The answer is that if Jesus has all authority and power, then he can work through doubters. And it teaches us that being a doubter doesn’t keep us from still being a learner who continues to be called and taught by Jesus, himself. Even a doubter can think faithfully and lovingly about Jesus; and learn and grow in faith, and love, and understanding.

None of us can expect to be any better than those disciples were. And none of us can expect any other Christian to be better than those first disciples were. No matter what we may be called to do, nothing promotes us above the status of learner.

Those final verses in Matthew also teach us that Jesus, with all his power and authority, is unfailingly faithful to his learners. This makes him the king of those who are called.

One of the wonders of the Lord’s calling, his special way of coming to us, is that there is no apparent reason for it. Oh he loves us; of course he loves us! But Jesus loves everyone.

The first disciples of Jesus, and especially the special twelve, had nothing special about them. They had no qualifications. They had no special training or education. They obviously had no special strengths of character. They were shallow, competitive, unimaginative. The strongest lesson that Jesus taught them, over and over, was that they had no faith. And it was true, but that did not disqualify them from being Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus delights in our gifts, and our strengths, and our talents, and Jesus nurtures and uses our gifts. And Jesus brings out gifts we never knew we had. But he does not love us for these. Jesus loves us for our lovely, lowly selves. His love and faithfulness cannot be earned. They are ours by his free gift. And so we can never own our calling. We can never own our relationship with Jesus. Jesus is the king of our calling.

It needs to be seen that the Lord’s call, his special way of meeting with us, is highly disruptive. Abraham had to pick up everything, and take his whole family and possessions and go somewhere. He did not even know where he was going, until he got there. The first disciples left their nets, and their boats, and followed him without knowing where it would all lead.

The truth is that the disciples lived in a complex family network. Their brothers and their cousins would take up the slack, and help their families too; no matter how much they may have grumbled about it.

In the Book of Acts, “disciples” is a word that describes the members of the churches of that day. These people lived very much like their neighbors who were not disciples, except that their neighbors probably noticed something increasingly different about them. Most (but not all of them) went on with their livelihoods as before.

But it is true that the call of Jesus disrupted everything. No matter how important something was, nothing was important in the exact same way it had been before. None of their priorities were in the same order, as before.
At first glance it looks as if the people who were called by Jesus no longer had the priority of work. But they all kept working at something. Abraham kept working as a rancher of some kind. He was that in his home town; only, now, he took his ranch on the road. The disciples probably never worked so hard as when they began to follow Jesus. They were as tired at the end of a day following Jesus as they had been hauling nets all day, but in a different way.

As far as work goes, work is holy. God is a worker. God creates the universe (the heavens and the earth) and keeps them going. When the Everlasting Son of the Everlasting Father came down to earth, he grew up as a boy and an apprentice in his father’s carpenter shop. Jesus was known as the carpenter for many years. And I bet he was a good one, too. (Mark 6:3)

And the Apostle Paul was a rabbi with a trade. He was a tent maker and continued to support his mission by his trade when it was necessary. (Acts 18:3; 1 Corinthians 4:12)

The call of Jesus is disruptive because it does change everything. It changes the meaning of your work. It changes the meaning of your family.

The Lord’s call to you is like the westward sun on a stormy day, as it lowers between the clouds and the horizon. Its rays turn everything they touch into gold. The Lord’s calling makes everything holy. This does not make anything easier, though it does make a lot of things much clearer. And for that very reason the calling of the Lord can never stop, or else we would forget the holiness of everything.

We need to say one more thing about this pattern and history of God’s calling and meeting with you. It takes a shape that you cannot foresee.

One thing the first disciples could not foresee was that the King who met them by the Sea of Galilee was, in time, going to meet them on the cross. Jesus was going to meet them as God’s way of dealing with their rebellion and their sins. And Jesus was going to meet them as the one with power to rise from the dead. Jesus was going to meet them as the conqueror of sin and death, when he rose from the grave.

The defeat of sin and death are at the heart of the kingdom of God that Jesus was announcing to them. The victory over sin and death are at the heart of the kingdom that Jesus was calling them to be a part of.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he told them to learn who he was until they knew him as their savior and their lord. This is a calling that can never stop, because we can’t stop learning what this means, and this is how Jesus is the king of those who are called.
When the Lord told Abraham to go to the land the Lord would show him, and when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he shows that we are in for a journey with the Lord. Imagine going on a journey as a child of God being like going on a trip with your parents. Parents, on a road trip, don’t your kids learn a lot from you about how to talk to strangers, how to handle a public restroom, how to improvise with what you’ve got, how to be lost, how to handle an emergency like a flat tire or a boiling-over radiator, how to see new sights, how to be observant and alert, how to be free? This is learning at its best, learning as an adventure.

This is how Jesus rules us, as the king of those who are called. In a classroom teachers are on the alert for every teachable moment, and so are parents with their children. Every moment wit Jesus may be a teachable moment.

There are routines and emergencies and everything is new every day. Every day is a dialogue. Every hour is a conversation with the Lord Jesus and his Father.

Following Jesus means learning what he wants us to do, but most of all it means learning, to the core of our being, just who Jesus is. When Jesus called the twelve, part of their calling was simply to “be with him”. (Mark 3:14) The call to be with him is at the center of everything we are, and everything we do, as we follow him. The call to be with him is at the center of how we manage to continue every day as, as his learners, because the power and the life that come from the good news of Jesus is something we can never outgrow.

Monday, February 14, 2011

King of the Tempted

Preached Sunday, February 13, 2011
Scripture readings:
Genesis 3:1-10; Mark 1:12-13

I was watching the Nickelodeon Channel (You know it’s a kids’ channel?) and I started thinking about all those commercials for kids: all that stuff; those toys; those sugary snacks and cereals. And then I had a picture in my mind of children saying to their parents, “I want that. I want that.”

Do you parents remember back to the time when you were kids like that? Think how sick and tired your parents must have gotten of hearing you say that; over, and over, and over again. “I want that. I want that.”

Then I remembered the times when said, “I want that.” And I got what I asked for; and played with it once or twice, and then forgot all about it, or left some toy to be ruined in the rain. I don’t think I was a particularly evil child, but I do remember that most of my passion was in getting what I wanted, and not in loving what I wanted when I got it, or being thankful for what I wanted when I got it, or taking care of it.

Think about being a child again. Did you ever get taken to a really good candy store, and do you remember what that was like? Can you imagine being asked what you wanted? And can you imagine yourself saying, “I want everything?”

I think it might be cute to hear a child say, “I want everything!” but not it that were my child, or not if I thought that child really meant it. If I heard someone else’s child say that (and mean it) I would be afraid of what those parents were in for, and I would be afraid for that child’s sake.

That is part of what temptation is about. And it isn’t just about children. We never grow out of it. We only learn to be strategic about what we want.

I am not uncontrollably tempted by “Legos” anymore. (Actually, when I was a child, I don’t think legos had been invented. You got tinker toys when you were a little kid and erector sets when you got a little older, and I got both. If you don’t know what those are, you’ll just have to ask your parents. But I wanted the miniature garage that actually had a lift for the toy cars. And I wanted the miniature fire station (at the point in time when I wanted to be a fireman). I knew other kids who had them and I wanted them too.

As we get older, our wants, our desires, change. If we grow up and still want toys, the toys get a lot bigger and a lot more expensive.
As we get older we have other wants and desires, besides toys, that have much bigger consequences for our lives, and our relationships, and the lives of others. And this is the stuff of temptation.

Temptation is not the powerful attraction of whatever it is that other people tell you shouldn’t have, or shouldn’t do. Temptation is not about something naughty, as if you were nothing but a child, or even if you are a child.

Temptation is the presence of a choice that puts you to the test. In this test that we call temptation, you face some choice that will determine who you are, and who you will become. You become identified with what you will say “yes” to, and what you will say “no” to. It will define you. It will actually make you.

Setting the Book of Genesis beside the Gospels we have two tales of temptation. In Genesis, in Eden, the first members of our human race said “no” to God. They said “no” to the desires of God. They said “yes” to their own priorities when they ate the forbidden fruit.

In the Gospels we have Jesus, the Son of God who came down from heaven to be the first member of a new human race, who said “yes” to God and “yes” to his identification with us. Those were his priorities.

Both stories make us think about our answers to the question of, “What do you want?”

The first members of the human race, into which we are all born, determined by their choice what kind of human nature they would hand down to us. They handed down to us a nature that says, “I want everything.” In Eden, Adam and Eve had everything but one thing. Only one thing was forbidden to them: the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They were not content until they had everything.

It may seem cute for an innocent child to say, “I want everything,” but you can’t have happiness and have everything in this world. You can’t want everything and be any good to anybody, not even to yourself. You have to say “yes” to certain things and “no” to others.

There is an example of this that I saw in some thoughts of a young father on Facebook. He was thinking about the difference that having a family made in his choices about what was fun. He had come to the conclusion that you have to say “yes” to some things and “no” to others. Here’s what he said: “There comes a point in your life when "FUN" means board games, children’s movies, going out for family dinners, bedtime stories. And sleeping in means you’re up at 7:00 AM. Becoming a parent doesn't change you. It's realizing that the little people you made deserve the best of your free time!

The same underlying principle applies to all of life. It applies to your spouse, your neighbors, your community, and the world you live in. It may not always be about fun, but it is always about goodness. And it is all about the kind of goodness that will bring no regrets at the end. It is about the kind of goodness that belongs to everlasting joy.

Being tempted is not the dangerous attraction of what is bad. It is about the dangerous attraction of what seems to be good. You never want anything because you think it is bad. You want something because it seems like it is good to you at the time. Or you want something because it seems better than any of the alternatives.

For instance, knowledge is a good thing. Isn’t it? But all knowledge is not good for everyone all the time.

The sort of knowledge that God is concerned about, the knowledge the Bible is concerned about, is not merely the knowledge of facts. It’s not just head knowledge or information. Knowledge is the direct, intimate experience of something.

For example: after our first ancestors were banished from the Garden of Eden the Bible tells us that Adam “knew his wife Eve”. (The New International Version paraphrases this as “Adam lay with his wife”, but more literal translations use the word for “knowledge”. “He knew his wife.”) Saying that Adam knew Eve is a Biblical way of saying that Adam had an intimate, direct, personal experience of Eve, physically, as his wife.

Adam and Eve already had the direct and intimate experience and knowledge of good by simply being part of God’s creation; because God, himself saw that it was good. “It was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) And Eden was a place where God walked with them (Genesis 3:8), and God is always good, all the time.

By stealing the forbidden fruit, they added something new to their knowledge so that it went beyond the knowledge of what was good. By their very action of taking the forbidden fruit, our human race added (to their knowledge of good) the direct and intimate experience of evil.

How did they experience evil? In their desire to be like God, they achieved a new status in the garden in which the presence of God was a threat to their plans. God became a competitor. I knew a girl in college who wouldn’t think of being a Christian because it would require her to change the way she wanted to live. Jesus was not a friend. Jesus was a competitor, because she was the god of her life.

Adam and Eve wanted to have an intimate and direct experience of everything so that they would have options of their own, independent from God. They wanted the potential to be in control of themselves, instead of being under God’s direction.

Adam (in order to save his own skin and maintain his status) blamed Eve for his eating the forbidden fruit. He acted, in practice, in a way that he would probably never confess. He showed that his security, and his convenience, and his freedom were more important to him than Eve’s safety. His happiness was more important than the issue of her trust and vulnerability.

Isn’t this how we all act? Isn’t this part of the choices we make every day? We have a choice, through where we say “yes” and where we say “no”, to honor the trust, and worth, and love of others.

Is this being attracted to what is bad? Isn’t your security, isn’t your convenience, isn’t your comfort, isn’t your freedom, a good thing? Yes it is; but not at the price of injustice, and betrayal, and carelessness, and pure selfishness.

This is the price of being your own god, which is a choice that is so embedded in our nature that we need to become a new creation in Christ. And yet it is also so much a part of our human nature (that we have inherited from our first ancestors) to avoid our creator. We avoid the only true God, our only true source of life, the only one who can truly help us.

We have inherited, in our very nature, the failure of the test we call temptation. This failure is embedded in our spiritual DNA. Because of this, God became directly, intimately, and personally involved in our evil (as he always knew he would) by dealing with it himself, by facing it himself, for us.

God snuck into our world, in Jesus, to take the test over for us, to carry the guilt of our sins on the cross, and to embed something new (something from him) in our nature. God’s confrontation of our failure in the face of evil forms God’s knowledge, God’s intimate and direct experience, of good and evil.

In the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of the Gospels there are two gardens and two deserts. Adam and Eve tried to become the gods of their garden. They tried to become people who could say no to God (if necessary) and claim that garden for their own.

So they were banished from the garden where everything they wanted was within their reach. They were sent out to experience life in the desert. The land outside Eden may not have been a real desert, but (after Eden) anything else would look like a desert.

It is like the time I lived on the Oregon coast. It was so green there, all the time, that anytime I went somewhere else I couldn’t see the green that was there.

Out of Eden they would live by the sweat of their brow. It would be a hungry, thirsty life. The desert would be a land of toil, and drudgery, and hard labor, and anxiety. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Adam and Eve took their temptations from the garden to the desert. Jesus left the garden of the Jordan River to find their temptations, and ours, and deal with them himself. The Old Testament (in the Revised Standard Version) called the valley and the banks of the Jordan, “the jungle of the Jordan.” (Jeremiah 12:5) It was lush and thick and green. Jesus left the jungle paradise and took our test over again in the desert of our temptations. He left the paradise of heaven to do this.

Jesus became empty, hungry, thirsty, lonely, and needy. He fasted forty days in the desert. He became weak.

We hate being weak. We are descended from our first ancestors, who wanted everything; who wanted to be like God; who wanted to be strong in their own strength.

Eden was a place where God wanted to tell the human race, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.” And the human race said “no” to God there; because, being God’s children, even when we had everything that was good for us, was not good enough for us.

Jesus went into the desert direct from hearing the words, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.” Matthew and Luke tell us that Satan tempted Jesus with the words, “If you are the Son of God,” do this, do that. (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) But Jesus would not do this or do that to prove he was the Son of God, because it was enough for him to simply be the Son of God, just as he was, there in the desert.

If someone had asked Jesus in the desert, “Jesus, why are you here? Why are you doing this? What do you want?” He could have said, “I want to create new sons and daughters of God by what I do here.”

What Jesus did in the desert to make us sons and daughters of God was the first installment of what he would do for us on the cross. The Gospel of John tells us: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

By not wanting to lose anything, the first humans lost everything.

Jesus is the everlasting Son of the Everlasting Father. He had everything, but he gave up everything for us, even though we wanted everything but him. By losing everything for us he wins us. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

Jesus knows what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. In the Letter to the Hebrews it says: “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 1:18) By saying “no” to himself he was able to say “yes” to us; and by saying no to himself he got what he really wanted. He got us.

Jesus was tempted for us in order to win us and build his kingdom among us. He did, through his temptation, what we could never do through ours. He made it possible for our old life to end and a new one to begin.

Through God in Christ we become a new creation. By faith in his dying for us, we die to ourselves. By relying on him, we say a big “no” to ourselves. And, so, Jesus can be our king, when we are tempted.

In temptation everything hangs on this; knowing what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. Parents say “no” to their children in order to say “yes” to them in a bigger way. Parents say “no” to their children in order to give them a happiness that the child cannot foresee. Saying “no” is their strange way of saying “I love you.”

Sometimes we have to say “no” to others for their own good, and for their happiness in the future. And, sometimes, we have to say “no” to ourselves, in order to find a happiness that we cannot foresee. By saying “no” to ourselves, we actually say “I love you” to those who are watching us; who are hoping and praying for us. By saying “no” to ourselves we may be acting in a greater love for ourselves than we can understand. By saying “no” to ourselves, we may even be giving ourselves the love of God, as God himself loves us.

The Lord’s Supper is a feast for the tempted. We receive him like a meal in our desert. When we live in a desert of temptations, we know Jesus walked in the same desert road with us. We come to be fed by the one who was tested just as we are. Just as the angels attended him, a heavenly world that we cannot see surrounds us and holds us in the Lord’s care. Even in our desert of temptation Jesus is our king.

Monday, February 7, 2011

King of the Beginnings

Preached Sunday, February 6, 2011
Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:1-11

Imagine living in a small Greek-speaking village, thousands of years ago, and your land was invaded. The enemy was only a few days journey away, and your country’s army passed through your village on its way to battle.

They would commandeer, they would draft, all the men of your village who were of fighting age, including the teenagers. After all, all of them had played with spears and bows and arrows as children, and trained and hunted with them when they got older. They would fight in the flanks, on either side of the main army.

Families would watch their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, go off to battle, danger, and death; whether in defeat or in victory. Think of the fear of that day.

Days passed, but the fear didn’t pass.

Then you spotted a young man far off, running toward your village. You recognized him as he drew near. He belonged to your village. His face was in agony from miles of running. He reached you so breathless he couldn’t speak; although every one was shouting for news. Gasping he said one word: Victory!

That is the gospel. Well that is the beginning of the gospel. The young man would describe the details of the gospel when he had caught his breathe, and more after you had given him something to drink, and sat him down. You would live the consequences of that gospel for the rest of your life.

The word Gospel means good news; but (more than that) it means great news: exceptional news, good news of great joy which shall be for all people. During the centuries when the Greek language moved into the ancient Middle East, the meaning of this word moved with it into the villages of Galilee and Judea where everyone would know a little Greek. Gospel described this special kind of news. It was great news.

Gospel was not a bit of writing. It was not a biography, or a story, or a book of any kind. Gospel didn’t mean a book until a number of books had been written about the gospel.

The Gospel according to Mark was, according to tradition, the first to be written and Mark starts this way: The beginning of the gospel. He didn’t mean the beginning of his book, because this kind of book had never been written before. It was the beginning of the gospel because it was the beginning of all the good news that followed from Jesus. It was the beginning of the good news about Jesus that comes down to us today. It was the beginning of the good news about Jesus that will change things forever.

It was the beginning of the good news about Jesus: about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)

This particular beginning is important for a number of reasons.

Beginnings are really “God-things”. Beginnings are sort of God’s business. They are the kind of thing God really likes to do. If we like to think of ourselves as being God’s people, do we reflect this by being beginning-oriented, ourselves?

We live in a fear-dominated world, and fear has so much to do with endings. Are we at the end of American success? Are we at the end of our liberties? Is the human race going to put an end to its self by creating an environmental catastrophe? Is the technological world going to come to an end because of a solar surge? Is the earth going to be hit by a giant asteroid that will bring all life on earth, as we know it, to an end?

It’s true that things end, but God’s business is in beginnings. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) In the Book of Revelation John wrote: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (Revelation 21:1)

In the stories of creation, in the Garden of Eden, the serpent Satan tried to put an end to things. He did this by making us the enders of things. We ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an effort to be like God (in essence in an effort be little gods of our own) which is where all of this world’s evils come from. We ended our peace with God, our peace with each other, and our peace with God’s creation. (Genesis 3:1-19)

We broke fellowship with God. We put ourselves outside of his life and his light. We put an end to human life as God created it to be, and we created a world where human nature is deeply independent from God.

But God did not let us be completely successful in putting and end to human life as he created it. We lost the life of peace with God, and God began a new way of life for us. This new life is not based on unbroken peace. The new human life which God has begun is based on the promise of recreated peace. God promised our first ancestors that one of their own offspring would crush the head of the serpent Satan. (Genesis 3:14-15) God promised to recreate peace and wholeness.

Since our first father and mother became aware of their nakedness (which is a way of saying that they were aware of their failure and their sins), God made them clothing from the skins of animals. (Genesis 3:21) Within this story, God’s people have understood that there was the shedding of blood and the giving of life in order to cover their nakedness, their failure, their sins. This represented the promise that God himself would cover their sins. These were signs of God’s promise to recreate our peace with God, by his own effort, by his own labor on our behalf.

God took our end in his hands and created a new beginning for us. God is in the business of creating beginnings.

The Gospel of Mark was the first written version (that we have) of that new beginning: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Remember that the word gospel is very much a word that fits the news of a crucial battle that has been won. So Mark tells us that the gospel has begun because of a battle fought on a cross. In this battle God prevented the end of the human race as he created it to be. And God has given it a new beginning in the peace that has been won through the cross and the resurrection.

Mark quotes from the prophets to describe how the new beginning first became public. John, (as Mark tells it) is, “a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark is the messenger and Jesus is the Lord.

Mark (along with Matthew, Luke, and John) is careful to keep two things close together in our minds about who Jesus is.

Jesus is truly human. Jesus was descended from David and so he was a member of the old royal family that was wrapped up in the promises of God. But David’s family was a human family and descended from Adam and Eve, just as we all are, and so Jesus was qualified to crush the serpent Satan’s head and win our freedom. (Mark 10:47-52; 11:9-10) Jesus got tempted, as we all are. (Mark 1:12-13) Jesus had a mother and brothers. (Mark 3:31-35)

And Jesus is truly God. Jesus has the power, and right, and authority to forgive sins. (Mark 2:1-11) Jesus has power over the creation, and can control the wind and the waves, as he did when a storm came up on Galilee while he and his disciples were crossing the lake in a boat. (Mark 4:35-41)

The word Christ means Messiah, the anointed one, who is descended from David and yet is also the king of the kingdom of God. And who must the real king of the kingdom of God be? (Mark 12:35-37)

Beginnings are really God’s work, or they are the work we do through the grace of God working in us. Mark is telling us that anyone who belongs to Jesus has received this new beginning and is a part of its work.

Paul said something very much related to this. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Jesus, the Son, shares the work of creation with his Father, and we are his workmanship. Jesus is the King of Beginnings, and he has begun to rule in us. The truth is that he has been starting this work of beginnings, now, for thousands of years. But this is a kind of work he is very interested in. So here we come, after all these years, with the gospel (the great news) beginning something through us.

You and I belong to the kingdom of beginnings. We live a life that is caught between two very different worlds. We belong to a new world that has a different set of rules than many people in the world are ruled by. Some people are ruled by the rules of ending. We are ruled by the rules of beginning. It’s true there are things that are ending (or seem to be ending) all the time, but the ends are really beginnings of something new. They are part of the next development in the good news.

The king of beginnings gives us the authority to begin things. We can begin to love. We can begin to forgive. We can begin to serve. We can begin to heal. We can begin to work on things that other people are trying to end. We can begin to learn what we have not learned before. We can begin to practice what we don’t seem to be good at. We can begin humility. We can begin quietness. We can begin everlasting life. The prophet Jeremiah said this long ago. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23)

The kingdom of this world makes us old, but the kingdom of God makes us young. When I was getting ready for college, I applied for scholarships. It was summer when I got the results of one of my applications. My Baci (my Polish grandma) was staying the summer with us. We were standing in the kitchen when I opened the envelope and read that I had gotten one of my scholarships.

My mind was on money a lot, and this was not a very big scholarship. And I was young and blasé. Being blasé was as near as I could get to coolness.

But my Baci wasn’t cool. Her voice went up an octave and she said, “Oh Denny, that’s so wonderful.” And she grabbed me in her arms and twirled around with me as if she was dancing.

My Baci knew how to enjoy good news completely. I didn’t.

But we have been given the keys to the kingdom of beginnings by the king himself. So many people lack these keys. Or they lack the joy and the thankfulness they need to use them well. Let’s take to heart the fact that we have great news of what our Lord Jesus has done. Let us use the new life he has given us in the kingdom of beginnings.