Monday, March 28, 2011

Christ: The King of Storms

Preached March 27, 2011

Scripture readings:
Exodus 14:10-22; Mark 4:35-41

For some reason I am able to remember a number of experiences I had as a baby. For instance, I clearly remember chewing on the railing of my crib, and what the wood tasted like. I remember crying because I have sticky food on my hands. And that wasn’t because of the hot-wings I ate a couple weeks ago.

What I want to share with you is the memory of my Uncle Eddie throwing me up in the air in my Baci’s apartment. In my memory, he is laughing and I am crying, and I see the reason in my memory: because I see the ceiling coming awfully close to me and it scares me. That’s it. That’s the memory.

What I know now (what I did not know at the time) is that I was in no danger of hitting the ceiling. My Uncle Eddie meant me all the good in the world. He was giving me an adventure, and he was an athletic eighteen or nineteen-year-old at the time. He was accustomed to throwing things up in the air, and catching them, and almost never dropping them. But I didn’t know that.

The adventure of Moses and the people of Israel at the Red Sea, and the adventure of Jesus and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, are both adventures of the same kind. They are both adventures that God’s people took at the invitation of the Lord of the wind and the waves.

In both adventures, the Lord of the wind and the waves showed his people their fears and their doubts. By doing this he showed them how really distant they were from him, in their hearts; how separated and alienated they were from God. A part of our understanding of sin is to know that the thing we call sin is a state of being, a state of mind, that creates thoughts, and feelings, and words, and actions that form barriers between ourselves and God, barriers between ourselves and the humans around us and the natural world around us, and barriers that separate us from ourselves.

With the people of Israel, and with the disciples of Jesus, we see the same barriers and separations. We see fear and doubt. We see anger. We see a cruel and sneaky cleverness at work as well.

The people of Israel said, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” (Exodus 14:11-12)

There is the same meanness of spirit in the words the disciples said to Jesus. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

By this time the disciples surely knew that Jesus cared about them. The fact that they raised a question about what they knew to be true is very like what the devil did in the Garden of Eden.

In tempting Adam and Eve, the devil pretended that what even he knew to be true was untrue, in order to raise doubts about the words and intentions of God. (Genesis 3:1-5) The disciples had the powerful excuse of fear in the face of a clear and present danger. But it was still a satanic question for them to ask Jesus. “Don’t you care for us?”

We ask such questions, ourselves. We ask such unjust and dishonest questions to the members of our families, and to our neighbors, and to our fellow Christians; and we ask such questions to God (the Lord of the wind and the waves). They are satanic questions; but they are also very human questions, very much a part of who we are.

The Christian thinker Oswald Chambers, early in the twentieth century, held that “the root of sin lies in ‘an incurable suspicion of God’: the suspicion that God is not good.” (Found in “Signature Sins”, by Michael Mangis; p. 19)

The adventures of God’s people by the Red Sea, and on the Sea of Galilee, aroused exactly those suspicions. Our adventures arouse the same suspicions in us. We must see this. And, when we see this, we will clearly see exactly what we are. We will see our very selves, our very hearts.

An indispensible part of faith depends on our knowing who we are. The other part of faith comes from knowing who the Lord is. In this case, he is the Lord of the wind and the waves.

The disciples were afraid of the storm, but they were terrified of Jesus when he stopped the storm. They were suddenly more afraid of Jesus than of the storm. “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41)

This was not a question that had not been asked before. There was no new answer to such a question. There had always been only one who could command the wind and the waves, and that is God, the maker of the wind and the waves.

The Gospel of John tells us who Jesus is, in its opening lines. “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.” (John 1:1-3)

Jesus is the word of God. Jesus is the voice of God expressing himself and expressing his purpose. In the first chapter of Genesis, telling us about the creation, Jesus is the voice (the word) of God, saying, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” (Genesis 1:9) Jesus was in the word that said to Moses, “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water.” (Exodus 14:16) The word spoke and it happened just as the word said.

And so, Jesus, “got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” (Mark 4:39) The word spoke; and it happened just as the word said.

It was an ancient answer to an ancient question. It was a question that people in storms on the seas, and on the lakes, and on the shores have often asked. The answer is God, the maker of heaven and earth. He is the Lord of the wind and the waves.

The disciples were terrified at the thought that the Lord of the wind and the waves was with them in their fishing boat. He had been with them all along, and they were ashamed of how they had acted in his presence. All the while they had thought he was only their teacher, even though he was also a healer. “Who is this?”

The east wind on the Red Sea that drove a path for God’s people through the water was a storm that saved them from their fears. It saved them from their slavery.

The wind that drove the storm on the Sea of Galilee was a part of a path the Lord was making in order to save us from our slavery and our fears. It is typical of the Lord to make a path through such storms.

The Lord of the wind and the waves was planning to face the greatest storm in the world and speak the words that would bring us peace and lead us to safety. The perfect storm that Jesus planned to face was the storm of our temptations, and the power of sin, and the tragedy of death.

On the cross he held out his hands over the greatest storm in the world, and John tells us that Jesus said, “It is finished,” and then he died. (John 19:30) That was the calming and the parting of the sea of temptation, and sin, and death. Jesus made a path through that sea in order to remove the barriers in our life that divide us from God, and the barriers between us and the people around us and the world around us, and the barriers that separate us from ourselves.

The death and resurrection of Jesus rebuked the storm and gave us a new life, a life from God.

The truth is there are still storms. In the gospels, nothing is clearer than that following Jesus often leads his disciples into storms. Following Jesus leads us into caring for the needs of others. Following Jesus leads us to stand for the truth and the right. These things take us out of our shelters and into the storms. Following Jesus can get us into trouble. And, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation (you will have trouble); but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

In our world today, there are Christians who face the storm of persecution and injustice. They do this because they follow Jesus.

But Christians also face real storms as well. There were and are Christians in Japan who suffered with everyone else: who died, or were injured, or lost homes and loved ones, in the great earthquake and the tsunami that followed. We face the same storms everyone else does. We are not immune.

Here in wheat country our worst storms are droughts. Our small communities face the storm of the loss of our institutions and our way of life. We face the storm of community quarrels and misunderstandings.

We have smaller storms that hurt us more. We have the storms of division in our families. We have the storms of accidents and sickness. We have the storms of financial struggles. We have storms in our feelings, and thoughts, and our patterns of life.

For the disciples in the boat with Jesus, in the middle of that storm, I wonder if the worst part of it was the fact that Jesus seemed ready to sleep through the storm. It is my nature to worry, and it is also my nature to concentrate on my fears more than is good for me. So I am quick to notice when the Lord seems to be not saying anything to guide me, or seems to be not doing anything to help me. I notice that really fast.

When I was in Waitsburg I remember being in the church yard. It was a church work day, and I got distracted, and thought of something else that needed to be done.

It didn’t have anything to do with the work of that day. It was some kind of elder business. I remember talking to one of the elders about it and going over the process of what needed to be done, in way too much detail. He interrupted me and said, “Dennis, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” That is what the Lord says.

Ultimately, the sleeping of Jesus was a credit to his own integrity in who he was and is. Jesus, unlike me, does not worry. He knows what to do and he will take care of it.

It is important to know that the Lord does not usually make our storms happen. They just happen. The Lord created a world where storms happen. The wind can be a nuisance but the wind is good. It circulates the air of the planet. It makes the weather possible. A planet without wind would become a dead planet.

It is the same with earthquakes. They are very dangerous, like the ocean. And they are as necessary for life as the ocean. If our planet stopped having earthquakes it would be because the core of the earth had become solid and unmoving, and the earth would become a dead planet, and all life on earth, as we know it, would come to an end.

Some of the disciples were fishermen. They were often in their boats on the lake. Galilee is notorious for treacherous winds. Geographically speaking, it is a natural funnel for winds. It was inevitable that Jesus would be in a boat with his disciples in a wind storm. It was a part of life.

Storms often require something from us. There are things for us to do in a storm, but those things need to be done in faith. Anything we do in a storm will probably get done better if we do it in faith than if we don’t do it in faith. Faith is a great guarantee of quality control.

Back to the beginning of the creation: again it tells us a lot about God as the Lord of the wind and the waves. Genesis tells us this. “Darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) The Holy Spirit is often pictured as a great wind. It seems to picture the beginning of the creation as a storm. It tells us that the Holy Spirit is also the Lord of the wind and the waves.

In the work of creation, in the work of saving the people of God from slavery in Egypt, in the work of saving the disciples from the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and in the work of saving us from the storm of temptation, sin, and death the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit work together. All the fullness of God works; either to give us peace from the storm, or to make a path for us through the storm.

There is always the presence of the living God in every storm; to be with his people, to be with anyone who cries out to him for help, to bring them his peace, to bring them close to him.

The Lord may end a storm out of love for us. The Lord may also make a path through the storm, just as his cross, and his death, and his resurrection make a path that he walks with us. His cross, and his death, and his resurrection are his work to deal with the storms we all walk through; the storms we cannot avoid.

There are storms that we go through with the Lord for our salvation. There are storms we go through with the Lord that make us grow. In all of the stories of storms, God’s people are never alone. The Lord of the wind and the waves goes with them. He goes with us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Christ: King of the Hopeful Planters

Preached March 20, 2011
Scripture readings:
Isaiah 6:9-13; Mark 4:1-20

When I went to seminary, I started in the spring semester, which meant that I went, from California, to Dubuque, Iowa in the month of January. That was a big leap for me. I brought plenty of warm clothing, but there were things about the snow I did not understand, even though I had played in the snow in the mountains.

One of my first Sundays there, we had a heavy snowfall, and I was invited by one of my professors to go, with him and his wife, for worship at a church they liked, out in the country.

It was a church in the cornfields, and the roads and the parking area were covered with snow. I was all dressed up, and got out of their car, and I almost fell on my rear, because my dress shoes had leather soles: they had no traction. The professor and his wife each grabbed one of my arms and started escorting me across the parking lot to the church. It felt like they were practically carrying me.

I told them I was OK. I tried to get free from them, but they wouldn’t let me. I was embarrassed. I felt stupid. I wanted them to let me go. I probably made a fuss. But they were both very polite. In fact they were always nice to me, and they often had me over to their house after that. They were good Christians.

I seem to have a lot of stories like that.

Have you ever tried to help someone who resisted you? Have you ever given advice to someone who wouldn’t listen? Have you ever tried to forgive, to their face, someone who refused to see that they had done anything wrong? Isaiah did that. Jesus did that.

Isaiah, when we meet him in chapter six of his book, is full of the wonder of God. You can read about this, in the first half of the chapter. In fact you ought to do that after you get home. But, trust me: here Isaiah is fresh full of the glory of God. He is fresh from the forgiving grace of God; fresh from the powerful cleansing of God in his life. Isaiah is ready for absolutely anything.

The Lord said, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And the Lord doesn’t say what he wants that someone to go and do. But Isaiah is excited enough to volunteer without thinking. He raises his hands and shouts, “Here I am; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

And the very next thing Isaiah knows, he is given the most horrible, the most thankless job possible. He is given the life-long career of telling his people what they don’t want to hear; the life-work of helping people who don’t want his help.

Have you ever known a person who was so passionately and relentlessly helpful that you dreaded the very sight of them? Isaiah was given the life-work of being that person. And he was required to tell his people that this was the very thing he was called to do.

The Lord said, “Go and tell this people, ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’” (6:9) The Lord told Isaiah to make his people sick of him. “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes, otherwise they might see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (6:10)

They thought there was nothing wrong with them! They didn’t need to be healed! They didn’t need to change!

The Lord sent Isaiah to tell them otherwise. There was indeed something wrong. They needed to be healed. They needed to change. They needed this completely.

Isaiah asked the Lord, “For how long, O Lord?” “How long must I do this?” The Lord’s answer means to do this beyond hope. Do this past the point of impossibility. The Lord used the image of a great forest which had been completely over-logged until there was nothing left but mile after mile of stumps. And the Lord said; even then, don’t lose hope. He said: “The holy seed will be the stump in the land.”(Isaiah 6:13) When everything seems lost, there is something there that can grow. God has promised that something there will grow.

Isaiah had to be a living contradiction to the world around him. And the greatest contradiction was that he lived by faith and hope in spite of being surrounded by a world that had no interest in faith or hope.

As a lonely member of God’s people he stuck to those other members of God’s people who were traveling through life in the opposite direction of faith and hope, and he gave them what God had given him even when they had no use for him. Isaiah spoke, and worked, and acted against all odds, out of a great faith and hope that came from God.

The image of a forest reminds me of one of the developments in the environment of the Holy Land. The Land of Israel once had forested areas; at least the kind of forest you can have in a Mediterranean climate.

These forests disappeared more than a thousand years ago because of exploitation for the manufacture of charcoal, and bad land use, and over-farming, and over-grazing, and the destruction of war. But the people of Israel have replanted forests in places where they were gone for two thousand years.

That kind of vision and work shows the power of faith and hope. They reconstructed a reality that was long gone.

They replaced it with something that is probably not what once was there. But (in the place of the emptiness and desolation) they created something that is good in its own way, something remarkable.

The parable of the sower, or of the good seed, or of the four soils, is a picture story of faith and hope. Planting seed is always an action of faith and hope. Well, it’s true that planting seed can be an act of desperation, too. But we won’t go there!

The story of the seed and the sower, in Mark chapter four, is about faith and hope, because it is about good seed; and the principle that seed, and rain, and soil will make at least some kind of harvest; and the farmer in the story farms all over his farm with gusto.

Most farmers of that day were subsistence farmers. Such farmers as the ones who listened to Jesus farmed on a narrow margin of survival. Their families farmed their farms for food, and clothes, and shelter, and not much more. And, yet, they sowed plenty of seed where it might not grow.

In some ways, I think this is the story of a farmer so full of faith and hope that he was sloppy. He cast his seed on the road. He was sowing by hand; where was his self-control?

My first experience with wheat farming was when I did an interim pastorate (as an official pastor-between-pastors) at Waitsburg, and Bruce Abbey had me ride with him in his combine on his land in the Skyrocket Hills. At lunchtime, his wife Barb came out with their kids, and we all ate in the shadow under the wheat truck. While the grownups talked, the kids played in the wheat in the truck, as if it was a giant sand box. When we were ready to get going again, the kids had to get out of the back of the truck, and Bruce reminded them to empty the wheat in their shoes back into the truck; because wheat is precious.

Wheat is precious, yet (at the same time) farmers seed in the low places where they will probably have to reseed because it will wash out; or because the run-off will make a pond and drown the seed. They seed on both sides of the hills even though the wheat will grow better on one side of the hill than on the other. They seed across the patch that has a little too much alkali.

They will do this with their good wheat because it’s no good seeding without faith and hope. If you don’t plant the good seed you won’t have anything to harvest.

I think this is what is going on in Jesus’ story.

Now, when the disciples asked Jesus why he taught his message through the use of stories, it gets very strange. Jesus said he was doing an Isaiah-thing. He was bringing a message that contradicted the world; that (essentially) ran counter to what his listeners could accept; let alone understand.

They weren’t looking for faith and hope. They thought they had that already. There was nothing wrong with them. They were the good guys who were looking for a king to help them get rid of the bad guys. All the stories Jesus told were nice stories, but had nothing to do with what they wanted most.

So, when Jesus told his stories, they could meet the truth square in the eye and not see it. They could listen to the truth all day long and never hear it.

The story of the sower and the good seed actually predicted that this would happen. Not all the seed, not all the soils, would be fruitful. But some of it would, and that would be more than good enough. That would more than make up for the rest: thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold; everything from a good Franklin county/Adams county harvest, to a good Palouse harvest, all on one farm.

The most interesting thing about this story is that the disciples listened to it, and pictured it in their minds, and they couldn’t understand it at all. They couldn’t hear or see the truth that Jesus was trying to tell.

This was especially alarming because Jesus told these stories for the very purpose of mystifying the people who were not really with him. Jesus acted shocked. “If you don’t understand this story, how will you understand any of my stories?”

If the disciples who actually walked, and ate, and slept with Jesus didn’t get it, how can we expect to do any better? Can you ask for clearer evidence that no disciple can claim to be any better or any different than anyone else? Except for one fact only!

Except for this one thing! The twelve disciples, and the other disciples, went to Jesus, so that he could help them figure things out. And they did this together; not one by one. They came together to Jesus with their questions. And by doing this they became the good soil.

Think about the unfruitful soils. The road was a road. It wasn’t meant for growing anything. It was packed hard and smooth from the traffic of feet, and hooves, and cartwheels. There was simply no place for a seed to sink in.

The stony soil was a thin layer of soil over a layer of rock; or it was the soil that filled the thin spaces in a bed of gravel. The soil was shallow. There are places like that around here. I have some of that in my back yard.

The weedy soil was a place with way too much competition for the wheat to grow, and thrive, and bear grain. I am tempted, as a gardener, to over-plant. My problem is not weeds. Mostly I work hard to keep up with the weeds. But I plant too many good plants too close together. They don’t like that at all. They know when they are too close to other plants. Everything else can be right, but they won’t bear if I do that to them.

And my life is like that. I don’t have many weeds in my life, but I have too many worthwhile commitments to do a good job with some of them. I might as well have weeds. And I’m not the only one. Most of us are way over-planted.

We become good soil when we come together to Jesus. Jesus digs. He loves to dig. He works us up, and unpacks us, so there is room for the good seed, there is room for the good news, and there is room for Jesus…to sink in and not get picked off or blown away. He softens what the world has hardened.

Sometimes our wound-up thoughts run around and around circles, and make something like a road. Our worries and frustrations pack our souls down, and make us too tight and hard for Jesus to get in. But when you come to Jesus he digs, and digs, and tills, and softens your world-impacted and self-impacted hardness.

When we, whose lives are shallow soil, come to Jesus, he gives us depth. When you say, “Jesus, I have a question,” and when you say, “Jesus, I don’t understand, and I want to understand,” that is like dynamite that blasts the rock under the shallow soil to powder. The trouble and persecution that Jesus warns about will either burn the life out of you. Or else they make you come to Jesus, who is very, very deep.

When I was a kid, I was bullied, and harassed, and laughed at a lot. At night, in bed, I would think about how horrible my day had been. And it always seemed to me that the Lord was there. The Lord did not answer my questions, but he was just there, being deep. I had the sense of a great deepness there, that I could trust. I don’t know how else to put it.

When you are weedy soil, and you come to Jesus, you have just contradicted your weeds. Jesus said that the weeds stand for “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things.” Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” calls these the “worries about all the things you have to do and all the things you want to get.”

I am very easily distracted. It has always been hard for me to focus. I have always had trouble with a daydreaming and a wandering mind. Sometimes I have trouble driving and listening to the radio at the same time. I do it, but I have to turn the radio off when I get to Spokane or the Tri-Cities.

If I start to work on one thing, I think of another thing I ought to do, and I stop the first thing in order to work on the second. And then I think I use my distractions to keep myself from getting the important things done, or thinking the important things through. And I use my distractions to avoid God.

But coming to Jesus for the answer to those weeds, those worries, those distractions, is like looking the purest and most breathtaking simplicity in the world square in the face.

One summer day, when I was a teenager, the phone rang and my mom called me to the phone, and it was a friend of my dad, who was a contractor. For some reason that I can’t remember, he needed to know how to figure out the exact volume of a cylinder, and so he called me.

He knew that, when you are in high school, you know all that stuff. He was struggling over it when, all the while, the formula (if you know it) is very simple.

Coming to Jesus is like coming to the formula that makes sense of things. It is this habit that simplifies your life. Actually coming to Jesus doesn’t make things simple, but it does boil things down to the basics.

Consistently following Jesus and coming to him teaches you the things that matter most. That is the simplicity of Jesus. To avoid this simplicity is why we distract ourselves, but the simplicity of Jesus will put our distractions in their place.

This is a process. This is a learning experience. The first disciples were not very good at it either, but they came to Jesus anyway, and that is exactly what we need to do. Coming to Jesus will make a distracted life into fruitful soil. You will see.

The fact is that the stories of Jesus are designed to make you think. Remember that Isaiah is the model here for the parables. No matter how long it may take, no matter how hopeless it may seem, there is hope.

Jesus designed his approach to us as his own act of faith and hope. Up to this point in time, in the gospel story, he hasn’t said one word about the cross. He hasn’t said one word about his real purpose for coming to earth and becoming human.

He didn’t have to. Everything doesn’t have to be clear at once. Since Jesus wants to contradict us, and take us the opposite direction of where we want to go, it may be best if he is not too clear all at once. Jesus has to make us think about what is hard in us, and what is shallow in us, and what is weedy and cluttered in us, and come to him for the answers.

Then he calls us, like he called the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and his own disciples. We are given a word from God. We are given a message to speak, and to live out, that contradicts what everyone else seems to care about.

He gives us the life-work of planting seeds in unpromising soil. He calls us to do this with faith and hope.

Jesus is the message, the word that sprouts and gives us life. He died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to contradict all the expectations and logic of this world. And the cross and the tomb seemed like the wrong direction for him to go.

At first, for the disciples, it spelled the end of all their hopes. How could there be anything for them after that? How could there be anything for them to do, once Jesus died?

Jesus was like the stump of a tree cut down, yet that stump was a holy seed in the land. Jesus was really alive and planting his life in the world, and in us. Jesus became the king of the hopeful planters; so that we could be hopeful planters like him.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Christ: King of Forgiveness

Preached Sunday, March 13, 2011
Scripture Readings:

Exodus 33:18-23; 34:4-10 (note: “love to thousands” means “a thousand generations”, and “love” is “hesed” or “steadfast, covenant love”)

Mark 2:1-12

There is a game that God plays with us. It is sort of like the illegal business practice called “bait and switch”; where a store advertizes an irresistible price for a certain model of a certain product (say of an espresso machine). You go to the store and find that they don’t have any machines of that model, but they do have a slightly better and more expensive model, and so (since you have taken the trouble of going to that store in order to come home with a new espresso machine) you buy the model you did not plan to buy for a price you did not intend to pay.

Sometimes we feel attracted to God because we are motivated by the desire for a particular product. Even if we are a regular customer, we might be in the market for a particular product, and so we come closer to God, shopping for that product. Maybe the product is peace. Or it’s support. Or it’s friendship. Maybe it’s freedom. Or it’s answers. Or it’s fulfillment. That product is the bait, and God performs a switch.

This is what happened in both the stories we have read from the scriptures today. This is what happened to Moses and to the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus.

Here is the switch that God performs with Moses. You have to admit that the Lord did some pretty impressive special effects when he used Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. There were the plagues: turning the River Nile to blood; the frogs and the gnats and the flies; the vast darkness that overshadowed the Egyptians while the sun shined on the Israelites. There was the parting of the Red Sea with the Israelites passing safely through the parted sea, and the Egyptians, coming behind, being swept away and drowned. They were led by the presence of God that took the form of a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night: pretty impressive. You could say that all this showed the glory of the Lord.

This kind of action is most of what Moses knew about God, up to that time. And Moses was impressed by this, and attracted to it. He wanted to know more. It would be exciting if he knew more about that glory he was dealing with.

So Moses said to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass before you.” (Exodus 33:18-19) There is a subtle switch here: switching goodness for glory. At least goodness was probably a different model of glory than what Moses was looking for. Moses did not get what he asked.

The Lord knew what he was asking for and told him that he couldn’t give it to him. It would kill Moses to get what he wanted. There are things we want that seem good, but they are not good for us. Parents know this about their kids’ desires. God knows this about our desires.

Moses didn’t need God’s glory, no matter how deeply he wanted to see it. What Moses and his people needed most was God’s goodness even though they were not in the market for that goodness.

Most of the people actually found God’s glory highly inconvenient because they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt, where life was predictable (at least), and they were probably fed and housed as well as any free peasant in Egypt. All they saw in the glory of God was a threat; something to fear (and they had reason to fear).

Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, had a stronger appreciation of glory, and God’s glory had taken him under its wings. It made being God’s person exciting.

So glory was the bait, and goodness was the switch. Moses and his people needed God’s goodness, even though they were really in the market for other products. And then we notice that God seems to put a different kind of goodness on the counter than the goodness most of us think of.

It was the goodness of compassion and forgiveness. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger…” What!!! Did you hear that? “Slow to anger?” The Old Testament God!

There has been almost nothing but violence in the Book of Exodus so far: violence and terror. (Well, there has been sin as well. Israel had made and worshiped the golden calf, even while the smoke and fire of the presence of God thundered on the top of Mount Sinai right above their heads; while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments from God.)

Have you ever had to get along with a person on a perpetual short fuse? That’s what they thought God was like, and it is hard for us to see anything different when we read their story.

The Lord showed Moses his heart on the mountain top. Have you ever been badly wrong about someone? Yes! I have trusted people I should not have trusted, but I have also looked down on people who turned out to be a lot better than me. Moses knew to the depth of his heart how wrong he and his people had been about God.

Have you ever loved someone who didn’t know how much you loved them? Have your efforts to effectively love someone ever been misunderstood or misinterpreted? God is almost always in this boat: almost always. This is hard to see in Exodus, and in most of the Old Testament, but (even there) God says that he is much misunderstood.

The words are “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (34:6)” This means that there is always more love than anger; and, if the love and anger of God ran a race, love would win every time.

According to God (if we are to speak of any punishment of our sins) only continues for three or four generations. We all know families that have cycles of bad patterns (patterns of abuse, or neglect, or dysfunction) that last for generations, until there is a generation that comes along and learns to break the cycle. But, above that pattern, God maintains “steadfast love for thousands (for a thousand generations).”

Thousand is an ancient poetic term for countless and endless: steadfast love for endless, infinite generations. Someday I will ask myself this question. Did I ever feel like God was punishing me? Then I will realize that, if any such thing ever conceivably happened, it must have been ten billion light years ago. I can’t remember it any more. If it ever happened, it will have been swallowed up by the steadfast love of God.

This is the power of the infinite depth of the love that God says he feels. Do you understand the depths of the feelings of the person sitting next to you? Do you think they understand yours? Can any of us understand the depths of God’s feeling? We will think almost anything about God except about the infinity of his love.

God told Moses, “You will see my back.” (33:23) We can scarcely imagine what it might mean to say that neither Moses, nor we, have ever seen anything more than the backside of God’s love; because we are not strong enough, or good enough, to take the full-frontal image of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God.

What Moses saw and heard that day made him fall on his face and ask for the steadfast love of God, in the form of forgiveness, for him and his people. Moses saw, in what God showed him of his heart, that God was full of the steadfast love that had, in itself, the nature to forgive. Moses saw that their whole identity as God’s people had to be rooted in the forgiveness and grace of God. “Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” (Exodus 34:9)

God did so. God made them his inheritance; his covenant people. This covenant (which means promise) is rooted in the forgiveness and grace of God that we all need. So the glory of God was the bait, and the graciousness of forgiveness was the switch. They received the promise of “the God compassionate and gracious.”

There was a similar kind of bait and switch that Jesus played with the paralyzed man and his family and friends. They came to Jesus because he was a wonder worker. He was a healer. That was the bait and forgiveness was the switch. Well, the paralytic got both. That was quite a bargain!

Jesus unfolded his own story gradually. He was constantly tweaking what he wanted people to know about him. There were times when Jesus healed people and then ordered them not to tell anyone what he had done for them. (Mark 1:40-45)

So far, neither Jesus, nor Mark, has said a single word about the cross or the resurrection, but we know that those are coming. The cross and the resurrection are the great miracles that Jesus came to perform in order to defeat the power of sin and death.

That is the great purpose of Jesus. That is his authority as Christ the King; to defeat sin and death. He is building a kingdom that will be free from the power of sin and death. It is a realm where life will be truly abundant and everlasting.

Up to this point, neither Jesus, nor Mark, has said a word about the forgiveness of sins. But now Jesus said it. His kingdom rules by forgiving sins. It is by the forgiveness of sins that we enter his rule and his kingdom. Forgiveness is how we live as people who belong to the king.

“The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mark 2:10) Son of Man is a title for the messiah, the king, in the picture given to us by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14)

Mark tells us that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God. And Mark tells us that Jesus is the Son of Man: which means that Jesus is human (in this case the ultimate human). Jesus is God and human.

The Old Testament gave conditions under which a priest could declare a person to be forgiven by the Lord. It could only be given on the basis of repentance, restitution, and sacrifice. (Leviticus 4; 5; 16; 17:11 – see “The NIV Application Commentary” on Mark, by David Garland; p. 94) None of these reasons are mentioned in the forgiveness of Jesus. This man was forgiven because he had come to Jesus, carried by faithful friends, and Jesus had (and always has) the authority to forgive sins.

Now we need to understand that forgiveness (real forgiveness) is not a matter of words. Forgiveness is costly. The people who say, “I will forgive, but I will never forget,” are giving us an example of the costliness of forgiveness. This is why we don’t do it. Actually, when these people “bury the hatchet” they only bury the head or blade. They keep the handle for future use.

Sin is a kind of betrayal. It is a betrayal of God, who made us. It is a betrayal of others who may love us or be affected by us in any way. It is even a betrayal of ourselves, since we were not created for sin, but for love and goodness. It is hard to heal betrayal. Betrayal leaves wounds, and wounds leave scar tissue, and scar tissue is never quite the same as uninjured flesh and bone. It is never so flexible and tender again.

Jesus commands us to forgive. And we are instructed not to pray for our own forgiveness unless we forgive others. (Matthew 6:12) It almost always reopens our wounds in order to forgive those who wounded us.

Our forgiveness of others or ourselves is always imperfect. But we have an authority to forgive sins that is backed up by Jesus’ perfect authority.

Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, and authority, in the Biblical way of thinking, means that this forgiveness is really not just something Jesus says, and it is not even limited to what Jesus does. Authority, in the Bible, refers to substance. It is basically something you have, because it is you. It is your substance. It is what you are made of. It is what you are.

Jesus died to set us free from sins because Jesus is, in himself, the root of all forgiveness. Jesus, by his very nature, is the ransom paid for sin. In the Book of Revelation Jesus is said to be, “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8) Jesus did, in time, what he was, in his nature, beyond time.

The religious leaders were right when they said, “Who can forgive sin but God alone.” (Mark 2:7) The Lord had shown his heart to Moses, and it was the heart of a forgiver. Forgiveness is not a thing God says in words. It is a thing that God himself must do. Forgiveness is what God is.

It is not forgiveness without discipline, but forgiveness is what God is, because God is love. God’s love outruns his anger every time.

We are like Moses who came to God to experience his glory; or like the paralytic who came to Jesus for badly needed wonders. Neither of them came to the Lord for mercy or forgiveness. We want and ask for other things than what it is in the heart of God to give us.

When I go wrong I want to go to Jesus for self-assertion and self-justification. I want Jesus to recognize why I am right. I don’t want forgiveness, unless Jesus plays with me some game of bait and switch. He has to show me how such a substitution is what I truly need.

Like the friends of the paralytic, we carry people into the presence of Jesus for many reasons, but seldom for forgiveness.

The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Forgiveness. The host of this table is Jesus who is the King of Forgiveness. It was humans just like us who wounded Jesus (just as we wound ourselves and others). And, if we had been there, we would have played our own part in crucifying him; or in abandoning him to his cross. Our sins left Jesus scarred with wounds that even his resurrection has not erased. (Luke 24:39; John 20:20)

Because our sins are there upon him, he has the substance and the authority, and he can forgive us. At this table he invites us to receive his forgiveness and be filled by it.

Food gives us life. Here is the food that gives us freedom and life in its fullness. Since we are filled with the life that comes from his forgiveness, we can forgive others and carry them in prayer and love to Jesus Christ our king.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Christ: King of the Road

Preached on Sunday, March 6, 2011
Scripture readings: Numbers 9:15-23; Mark 1:35-39

Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else.” (Mark 1:38) When Jesus meant business, he kept on the move; and life for the disciples was a continual journey. The gospels, including the gospel of Mark, tell us this. When Jesus and his disciples stayed in a place, it wasn’t for long.

This was true of Jesus himself. He was born in Bethlehem on a trip his parents took for the Roman census. The only story from his childhood comes when he was twelve years old and on a trip with his parents to Jerusalem, to worship at the Temple for the Passover Holy Days.

The only times in his life when we don’t know about Jesus traveling are the years we don’t know anything about Jesus at all. I think this is because Jesus only moved when he had something important to do, and everything important that he ever did called upon him to be on the move to somewhere.

The disciples found out how true this was for themselves, even after Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. Jesus came back and gave his disciples these instructions: “Go into all the world, and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)

The disciples tried not to do it. They tried to stay together in Jerusalem. But the Lord kept bringing things up elsewhere that demanded their attention, and Jerusalem itself got destroyed by the Romans, and they had to go somewhere else. So, most of them ended up doing what Jesus told them to do; going “into all the world to preach the good news to all creation.” Only the disciple John stayed in more or less one place; after Jerusalem was destroyed, he spent most of the rest of his life in Ephesus, a Greek city in what is now western Turkey.

If you are going to look to the Bible to learn about following Jesus (and I hope you do), the only stories you will find, to help you, are stories that happened on the road, or stories that Jesus told on the road.

There are certain stories we tell about the people and experiences that shape us and make us who we are. As we get older, these stories get more and more predictable, because we have told them hundreds of times.

Even in the Old Testament, the stories that created the identity of God’s people were the stories of their travels with God. God did his greatest work with them when they were on the move together.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had God going along with them on their travels, wandering along the fringes of the Promised Land, always looking in from the outside. The Israelites and Moses wandered with the Lord in the desert of Sinai for forty years before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land and make it their home.

It was all wandering, almost for the mere sake of wandering; travel for the sake of travel. Moses and his people followed the presence of God that took the shape of what looked like a huge column of cloud by day, and a column of fire by night. The Bible says: “Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out.” (Numbers 9:21-23)

The Lord was in charge of their journey. The Lord set the pace. They followed him. They stopped when he stopped, and moved when he moved, and turned when he turned. Sometimes they stayed, and they stayed, and they stayed, even though they had somewhere else to go. Sometimes they were led very quickly in the opposite direction from where they were going.

The Lord was in charge of their journey. And his people were, in many ways, shaped more by their journey than by their arrival. When God’s people stayed at home they went badly wrong. After generations in their Promised Land they seemed to be spoiled by it; and the prophets would retell the old stories of their wanderings in times long past, in order to show them the way things ought to be with them as people of God. The old stories of the road had the message to help them return to their right mind.

Isaiah said something about looking back to the old journeys to get things right. He wrote: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” That is how God works. That is how God shapes his people, through the stories of the journey.

The people of Israel followed the cloud exactly, but they did hardly anything else right. That also is part of the journey with God.

The disciples of Jesus were very much the same. They were shallow, and competitive, and cowardly. They were always arguing over which one of them was the best disciple. They were always demonstrating their lack of faith.

Sometimes their journey with Jesus brought out the best in them. It often brought out the worst. Maybe travel does that to all of us; and that is why we need to have stories of our journey with Jesus as part of our life story. These stories help define who we are and who God is.

The destination of the people of Israel was the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The destination of the disciples of Jesus was the cross where Jesus died; and the empty tomb where Jesus rose from the dead; and the earth, from which they saw Jesus leave for heaven with the promise to return. That was their Promised Land and ours. Our lives are shaped by traveling to the territory of the death of Jesus on the cross; and the tomb where Jesus conquered death; and to the hope of heaven, where Jesus ascended and waits for us; and to the earth that waits for Jesus to return.

Our life is a journey with God, in Christ. The people of Israel didn’t ask for their journey and they didn’t have the heart, or the stomach, for it. They often wanted to go back to Egypt.

The disciples didn’t really want to go on a journey either. They liked being in Capernaum, where a number of them had their homes already. They wanted Jesus to stay put. They wanted him to preach, and teach, and heal people, and set people free from the devil in a place where they could stay at home.

It would be so much easier. Let the people come to them. They wanted Jesus to come to them and stay for good.

Jesus didn’t want to come to them and stay. He wanted to take them with him for keeps; and so we have all of these stories of what it means to follow Jesus on the road; and most of those stories are about the first followers of Jesus who wanted him to stay put. This teaches us a lot of what we need to know.

For some people, the whole story of their Christian life is how they got saved. They can tell you what got them to that place in their life. They can tell you the exact place and the date; and that’s that.

I made my second commitment of my life to Christ (the one that really got me going) when I was eighteen years old, on October 3, 1970, at a Jesus Christ Festival of Light, in Chico California. I know the date because I wrote it down. Mario Murillo was the speaker. There was a group that sang: “To all who receive him, who believe in his name; he gives them the power to be children of God. He gives it to you. Share his body and drink his blood. He is the bread of life; that giveth life.”

That night was essential, but that night was nothing in comparison with what had to follow; which has been a long, long journey. That night wouldn’t have done me any good if I hadn’t kept dealing with the question: how am I going to follow Jesus next? What do I need to do in order to be his person where he wants me to be? The issue is the journey.

We expect our journeys to be easy because we live in America in the twenty-first century. All we need to do is plan an itinerary, or decide not to travel by itinerary. All we need to do is make reservations, and pack (I hate packing). We get in the car, or on a bus, or on a train. We get on a plane. We get on a cruise ship. And we go where we plan to go. What could possibly go wrong?

When I was little, I don’t think we ever went on a road trip where we didn’t have a flat tire or a boiling over radiator, but they make tires and cars better now than they used to. We would almost always go camping and, somehow, we would manage to find somewhere to camp where it would snow at the end of June. Or, if our plans included driving too far to camp for the night, we would end up driving around and around in the dark, looking for a motel that cost less than ten dollars a night for a family of five. Times do change.

Journeys are not supposed to be easy. They are supposed to be risky. They might take everything you got to get through them. But they are supposed to be worth all of that. Our ancestors took journeys like that to come to the New World, or maybe to cross the continent; maybe to come here.

Everything important is a road of some kind. Even if you don’t move a mile from where you were born, everything important is a road.

If you are a kid, you are on the growing up road. Have fun with it, but know that you can’t be a baby all your life. And, hopefully, when you grow up you will still have fun along the next road.

You have to take to the next road. There is the school road and the work road. There is the way of life road. Eventually most people get on the marriage road. Hopefully they get on that road before they get on the parent road. All of this helps them on the maturity road.

On the maturity road you learn that wisdom has nothing to do with being timid, and wisdom has everything to do with how you respond to surprises and interruptions. Jesus was constantly surprising the disciples, and interrupting their expectations. As they say, life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.

Everyone’s road has stretches of jungles, and mountains, and swamps, and canyons, and deserts, and rivers to cross. Some of these are our stubborn attachments, our determination to have things our way; as if you were a pioneer trying to carry a concert grand piano across the prairie in your covered wagon. Some things you can’t take with you on all roads.

Some of the hard parts of the road are your personal patterns of weakness and sins. You find you can’t blame everything wrong in your life on your upbringing or on other people.

Some of the hardest parts of the maturity road are the challenges of living in partnership with people who have different patterns of weakness and sins from yours; because your patterns are always more understandable and more forgivable than theirs: right? And, then, they have to live with your patterns.

I would propose to you that the road of the disciples’ travels with Jesus was a road of weakness on their part and grace on Jesus’ part. Only such a road as our weakness and God’s grace can prepare us for life with others, and only such a road can prepare us for heaven, which is the ultimate mountain of our weakness and God’s grace.

There is a peculiar strength that only a disciple of Jesus can experience. Only by knowing our weakness, and his grace, can we grow wise, and brave, and strong, and loving.

When we truly know ourselves, just as we are, and truly know God, just as he is, then we have the maturity of the children of God. Without our life together with each other, and with Jesus, we will not have the sufficient experience of weakness and grace to live a fulfilling life and carry us to heaven.

The disciples thought they had arrived, there in Capernaum. But Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else.” This would take them on the road of their weakness and his grace. We think we have arrived, and then we are forced to grow, and growth is a road.

The very thing we don’t want to face looms up before us; and that is the next road. Can we do it with Jesus? Can we do it in such a way that our life looks like Jesus, and bears witness to Jesus? Can we do it as Christians?

The world-at-large in which we live, and our little corner of the world, are forcing us along roads that are fearful, and unwelcome, and hard. There are changes taking place in rural America that we are facing first-hand. Some people are facing these changes with Jesus, and some are not.

Such roads call for different measures at different times: guts, honest assertiveness, charity, and courtesy. Such roads call for forgiveness, and dignity, and humility, and prudence; tightening our belt and doing without; making necessity into the mother of invention; working for the kingdom of God with patience and self- control; living by faith, hope, and love.

Jesus prepared for a new road by praying. Jesus got up when it was still dark. Maybe he did this because it was urgent for him to find time alone with his Father, when all the people who were pulling him this way and that would leave him alone to think. Maybe Jesus got up when it was still dark because he was anxious and he could not sleep at all.
Either way, Jesus shows us the grace he can give us because he knows our life from the inside. Jesus knows us because he became one of us. Jesus decided, though he was (by very nature) God, to become a genuine human being like us, and to live, like us, by prayer. He would find his way along his road by prayer, so that we would know that we can do the same thing in his good company.

Jesus said, “That is why I have come.” (Mark 1:38) He came to preach and proclaim the good news. This doesn’t mean that Jesus came just in order to talk. In our own life of faith we can’t just do it by talk. We must proclaim Jesus by much more than our talk, or else nobody will care what we say. And Jesus came with a message that was much more than talk.

We have a summary of what he proclaimed earlier in this chapter of Mark: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) The kingdom was near (and is still near) because Jesus was and is near.

Jesus is the Christ, the King; and his kingdom is his ruling and reigning as king. Jesus was doing his kingly work in simply being there among his people: living for them, dying for them, rising for them, ruling in heaven as the victorious human (as well as God) who takes our place. This was Jesus’ journey and his journey makes him a fellow-traveler with us, and this is how he is our king. Jesus, through his life, and death, and resurrection, is king of our road.

There is servanthood in that. There is intervention in that. There is redemptive living in that. God is reaching from himself to us. God is reaching to our world, in Jesus Christ.

That is the road of the gospel; the road of the good news. Jesus was taking his disciples on that road, and that is what all the stories of following Jesus are about. Jesus is the message, and his grace in our weakness takes us with him on his mission to the world, and to the places we are right now.

We have a message that has to go along with the life that Jesus gives us on the cross. Our life provides evidence for the message. The message is the test that measures our life. The message and the way of life both test and prove each other.

The road with Jesus is a road that places love at the center of everything; a relentless grace on God’s part; a fearless repentance on our part; a patient faith. Our long road is Jesus himself, who is “the way and the truth and the life”. (John 14:6) Jesus is the king of the journey. Christ is king of the road.