Monday, October 24, 2011

God's Power: Declaring Us "Not Guilty'

Preached on Sunday October 23, 2011

Scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 18:9-14; Romans 3:19-31

I have friends who are great listeners. There are times when, more than anything else, I need someone to listen. So I try to be a listener too.

Only there are the times I get caught red-handed and ashamed, because someone was talking to me and it was my job to listen. They stopped to hear some sign or some encouragement from me, and I had no idea what they just said. I was too busy thinking of what I wanted to say next to listen to them.

This is one of the ways we know we live in a fallen world; a world that is separated from the love, the harmony, the peace, the goodness, and the faithfulness that comes from God. We belong to a human race that makes far too much noise.

We find it easier to talk than to listen. Even when we are not talking out loud, our minds and hearts are full of jabbering and noise.

It isn’t just the kids who walk around with earphones blasting away with their own play list. Human beings have done this all along. We walk around with our own soundtrack. We listen to the music of our pride, our anger, our complaints, our desire to make an impression on others. We listen to our drive to justify ourselves, or prove ourselves, or defend ourselves.

This is why Paul says such a strange thing about our need to be quiet and listen to God. He says that the most important purpose of God’s laws (which are God’s principles and ways for us to live as his creatures) is to make us quiet and listen. He says: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” (3:19)

We have the same problem when God wants to speak to us through his creation. We hear, but we are very selective about what we hear.

Paul says that we humans suppress God’s truth and drown it out through the ways we have developed of thinking and living, even when we claim to be filled with wonder by the world around us. He says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) We have let ourselves be moved by God’s creation but not changed by it.

The world and everyone in it is in a lot of trouble because our hearts, our minds, and our lives are so full of the noise of our selves. In the Book of Job it says, “For God speaks in one way and in two though man does not perceive it.” (Job 33:14) In the Psalms, the Lord says, “Be still (be quiet), and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

We are a rebel race. We try to maintain our authority over our own lives. We try to drown out God, using our inner noise as a weapon, even when we claim to have given our lives to God.

Some people say there is too much harm done in the world by people claiming to listen to God instead of listening to reason. But we have spent our lives learning how to disguise our own desires and make them sound like other voices; whether God, or reason. James, in his letter, recognizes the danger of substituting our own desires for other voices. ‘Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.’ (James 1:13-15) Yes, religious people have done great harm in this world by claiming to follow the voice of God when, all along, they were only acting from their desire to play God.

This is like the temptation in the Garden of Eden. The voice of the serpent (the voice of the Devil) said that eating the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would make us as wise as God. It would give us control over our lives.

We wouldn’t have to only listen to God. We would have a voice of our own, and we wouldn’t have to live by simple faith.

In our present time, more than ever before, everyone is claiming for themselves the right to follow their own inner voices. It is all another round of the same chorus taught to us by Adam and Eve. The voice within them agreed with the voice of the serpent. They followed their own inner voices, and we have had hell to pay for it ever since.

We live in a confusion of voices and our own voice is loudest of all. In the confusion of voices, we don’t know the meaning of anything. We don’t know what anything is, or what it is for. We don’t know what men and women are for, or what family is for. We don’t know what nations or communities are for. We don’t know what laws and governments are for, or what freedom and liberty are for. We don’t even know what religion and faith are for.

And we are afraid to find out. We are afraid of not having our own way.

During the fourteen hundreds, in the wealthy Republic of Florence (which was an independent city-state in northern Italy, in those days), there was a monk and preacher named Savonarola.

Savonarola saw the rule of law being broken down by a clique of families who wanted to use the power of the government for their own personal gain. He tried to re-establish the old republic, but he lost the struggle and got burned at the stake.

The Christian writer G. K. Chesterton wrote this about Savonarola and what he tried to accomplish: “Democracy, of which Savonarola was so fiery an exponent, is the hardest of gospels; there is nothing that so terrifies men as the decree that they are all kings. Christianity, in Savonarola’s mind, identical with democracy, is the hardest of gospels; there is nothing that so strikes men with fear as the saying that they are all the sons of God.” (“Savonarola” in “Varied Types” p. 151)

The word “gospel” means “good news”. It is a kind of message; a kind of voice that tells us we are, or can be, sons and daughters of God. It is the good news of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, taking the form of a voice and telling us how we can be changed and filled with “the righteousness of God”.

This righteousness is a kind of rightness in all our relationships. It means a right relationship with God; the peace and love of God restored in us. It spills over into right relationships with others; so that we know how to be a husband, a wife, a single person, a parent, a child, a member of the kingdom of God, a citizen, an agent for God’s purpose in the world. The righteousness of God enables us to live the life we were created for. It enables us to live the life that Jesus came to give us through his own life, and his death on the cross, and his resurrection.

There is a voice in this world that is the voice of God speaking among the many voices that we use to drown out our fears, and the sounds of our own sins, and the sounds of our own cooperation with the ways of this world. Among all our fond and confusing voices, faith appears to sort them out and let us hear God’s voice rising above them all, so that we can listen to God and respond.

Faith enables us to hear the message of how far we have fallen from a lost glory. The glory is that life of right relationships. It was a glory we had in Eden, and the message says that we have all sinned and fallen short of it. We are all just as involved in falling from that glory as the first humans were so long ago in Eden.

The word “sin” (in the Greek language) is an archery word that describes missing the mark. But this kind of missing the mark goes beyond anything that can be corrected by discipline and skill. This kind of missing is a part of us. It would be like shooting a crooked arrow from a warped bow: only you are not just the archer; you are the crooked arrow, and you are the warped bow. They are extensions of your self.

It would be like having dyslexia in your spiritual vision. Here you see what is before you, but it is jumbled, and you don’t know how to put it together because it will always be jumbled in a way you do not expect.

What if our self-centered soul (because of our spiritual rebellion) has made us all severely near-sighted? Teddy Roosevelt was deeply nearsighted; even from early childhood. His family was always into sports and hunting, and he would go hunting for ducks and geese with his cousins. He could never understand how they could simply point their guns in the air and fire, and ducks and geese would come down. He would fire into the air, and nothing came down. He couldn’t understand this until he realized that they could see the ducks and geese, and he couldn’t. Of course he would miss the mark.

John Calvin spoke of the spectacles of faith, the eye glasses of faith. He meant that faith enables us to see what we cannot see otherwise.

I got my first glasses when I was about ten and, when I put them on, I cried, not for the joy of seeing, but for the sorrow of seeing how blind I was. I couldn’t see how blind I was till I got my glasses. Just so we cannot see how fallen short we are until we put on the spectacles of faith.

I never boast about my glasses, just as I never boast about my faith. My glasses are a gift, even though I have bought them my self. Glasses are just a remedy for my level of blindness.

So Paul says that faith never allows us to boast. (3:27-28) Faith is a gift, no matter how experienced we become in living by faith. I am always interested in comparing my spectacles with those of other people, but I would never dream of criticizing other people’s glasses or boasting about my own. We need God’s gifts to see God’s truth, and to see the good news.

There is a very brief statement that Paul made about what Jesus has done for us. It is like a text message; a huge thought spelled out in just a few letters. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” (3:23-25)

Paul is usually very wordy, and we complain when he is. Here Paul is very condensed and brief, and I wish he would explain what he says here. Reading these few verses is like sucking on a bullion cube instead of making it into broth.

The phrase “sacrifice of atonement” is sometimes translated by other single words because it is just one word in the Greek (and it would be just one word in Hebrew), too. But this one word is shorthand for the whole process of God working in our life.

It was the name of a piece of furniture in the tabernacle and in the Temple in Jerusalem that King Solomon built. The blood of sacrifices was sprinkled on this piece of furniture, to represent the forgiveness of the worshiper who offered that sacrifice for the forgiveness of his or her sins.

This piece of furniture was the Ark of the Covenant that contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. It held the treasures from the exodus, when God led his people out of slavery in Egypt and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

The Ark of the Covenant was built to look like a golden throne. No human was allowed to sit there, because it was God’s throne. God’s invisible presence was thought to hover there in a concentrated way. When a sacrifice was made for forgiveness the blood was brought to the throne of God to represent that sin was costly, and that the cost came home to God.

It represented that sin was deadly. The death of the sacrifice represented the death of the person who had sinned. The sinner offered his death to God, by substitution.

The sacrifice also represented that the sinner needed life from somewhere else, in order to go on living by the love and the freedom of God. But the death given for sin, and the life given for new life, represented something that those who offered the sacrifice could never really give for themselves. The fact that such a sacrifice could be made in the Temple, and brought into the presence of God, meant that God himself had to provide a way to die to sin and live a new life. Only God could devise and provide such a new life for his people.

In the end, when Jesus came, he claimed to be the sacrifice and the ransom for sin. Jesus is God come to earth as a human, in order to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

It turned out that God himself provided the sacrifice. God was and is the sacrifice: God himself is the gift of the righteousness of God.

The word translated as “sacrifice of atonement” refers to the throne of God but really it is the name of the special title of that throne where the blood was sprinkled. The title is “mercy seat”. The mercy seat was the place where the mercy of God was found. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase translation “The Message” translates it this way: “God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, though his faithfulness, by means of his blood.” (3:25)

God, in Christ, is the place of mercy. Mercy has not been gotten by our faithfulness to God but by means of God’s faithfulness to us in Christ. We have all been died for, and the blood of God, from the cross, has marked us as the children of God, the people of God. This is an act of God in the fullest and best sense of the word.

Paul said that we have received “redemption”. Redemption means the freeing of a slave. Sin is a kind of self-seeking that is, by its very nature. It deforms every relationship. Sin cuts us off from God who is our very source of life, and without God we are not fully alive.

Without a right relationship with God, which spills over to all our other relations, we no longer know how to live. We have lost our selves in our ambition to rule our selves. We are slaves.

But, through the atoning sacrifice of God in Christ, we are in the place of mercy. We are made one with God and we are set free to live the life we were created for.

Paul said that we are “justified”. We have two words in English where the Greek language has only one. The words “just”, and “justice”, and “right”, and “righteous” are represented by one root word in Greek.

“Justify” is a verb form of the same word. It means the action of making right, or making righteous, or making just. In New Testament Greek the word “justify” also means to give someone the status of being just, or right, or righteous. It is a verb of legal status. It is like the verdict of a judge who declares a defendant innocent.

In this case, however, we have God, our ultimate judge, declaring us (the guilty) to be innocent. This is a miscarriage of justice. In fact, in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, we read that this miscarriage of justice is specifically condemned. The proverb says: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the Lord detests them both.” (Proverbs 17:15)

The truth is that we live in an in-between time. In Christ, God has given us a new life and a new nature. It is our status. It is our new identity. But the substance of our new identity hasn’t, in terms of how we think and live every day, hasn’t come home to us. We don’t see it very clearly as yet.

Something has happened. We can be aware, sometimes, of an enormous change in our lives; and others may see it too. But there are other times when we fail miserably to be what God has made us, and declared us to be, in Christ.

At such times we are like old Abraham who was given God’s promise. He and his wife Sarah would become the parents of a nation with a purpose that would be a blessing to the whole world. (Genesis 12:1-3) But the years passed and nothing seemed to happen. Over and over the Lord renewed his promise and, year after year, nothing happened. It was as if the promises of God were only a joke.

The fact is that, for Abraham, God was real even when the promises seemed unreal. Abraham held onto the promise because he trusted the God who spoke the promise. Abraham chose the voice of God above all the other voices that discouraged him.

That was the faith of Abraham. It is like that with our faith in the good news of God in Christ. It is the news that God, our judge, has acquitted the guilty through the cross of Jesus. God declares us innocent, even though we wear the evidence of our guilt.

The righteousness that comes by faith is nothing to boast of. But the God who declares the guilty innocent is a God worth boasting of. And that is the sort of news that can be shared with anyone.

Dick Cochran was a mentor of mine for a number of years. When I was first ordained, Dick was the senior pastor of a very fine church in a neighboring town. I met with him every week share what was going on in my life and my ministry.

He had a story he often told of a time when he was playing tennis with his teenage son. Dick has always been extremely competitive and taught his kids to be the same.

Well, in this story, Dick hit the ball over the net to his son and it bounced very near the line. His son missed it and said it was out. Dick said it was in. And Dick said, “If I said it was in, it was in. I’m your father and I’m your pastor. If you can’t trust me, whom can you trust?” And his son answered, “That’s what I’m afraid of!”

That was classic Dick Cochran, standing up for him self. But in Jesus, God stands up for you and says, “Innocent! Free! Redeemed! Atoned! You are the receiver of my mercy!”

This is what it means to be justified by grace. It means that a voice has spoken up in your favor and this voice has been designed for faith. It means a message for you to trust by faith. “Innocent! Child of God!”

Many voices will tell you otherwise. Many voices will try to wear you down, or discourage you, or distract you. Those voices will tell you to live as something different than a child of God. Even your own voice will try to do this. You have to choose to hear the voice of the one who loves you more than you love your self. This is faith.

It is true because God says so. If you can’t trust God, whom can you trust? Whom will you, trust? You must listen. Through faith you can go forth and live by the promise of God.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Polar Bear Gnats

Polar bear gnats; that’s what I call them:
Tiny and wearing their white fluffy coats;
Funny harbingers of the wicked cold.
See how my fall garden is full of them.
Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai! Winter is coming!

Monday, October 17, 2011

God's Power: A Mercy-Centered Wrath

Preached Sunday October 16, 2011

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 7:3-15; Mark 11:12-25; Romans 1:16-23; 1:28-2:11

Did you know that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of human beings?” (Romans 1:18) This is what the Bible says, and I believe that it is so. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about the wrath of God, and I think it would take a sermon about as long as the Bible to explain it.

The wrath of God makes us think of a fire-breathing God; a God who smites people. Whatever else the Bible may say, elsewhere, about the wrath of God, Paul says nothing about fire or smiting here.

According to Paul, what is the form that the wrath of God takes when human beings push God, and the reality of God, away? Paul says that God gives them over, or that God gives them up. (1:24, 26, 28) God lets them go. What if, of all the horrifying pictures we have of the wrath of God, this image of God letting the world go, and letting us go, is the most horrifying picture of all?

We hear Paul describe this process. Paul says, “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” (1:22) He says, “Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind.” (1:28) In other words, to those who did not want to see reality in the same terms that God sees reality, God gave them up to the reality that would exist if he did not exist. God let them get a taste of the world and of their own minds as they would be without the boundaries created by God and his love.

Paul says, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (1:29-31)

When we speak of God giving up a person, we mean that God is willing to let them go from bad to worse, if they are determined on going that way. You know, sometimes this is the only way.

There are broken people who want to go a way we cannot accept or support. We would like, with all our heart, to fix them. We are always kind to them, but we also have to be firm as well, and not support them or enable them in the harmful journey they have chosen.

We have to let them go. We have to entrust them to God by giving them up, in the hope that they will see the truth and seek God’s help (and our help too) when they are ready; when it is the right time, when it is God’s time, when they “hit bottom” and feel the pain of the way they have chosen.

We know (in the sorrow of our heart) that giving someone up, or giving them over to the life they choose, is not a lack of love. It is an act of love, and faith, and a prayerful, concerned hope. And so, one of the discoveries we make about the wrath of God, through what Paul teaches us, is that the wrath of God is not separated from his love in any way. The wrath of God is not an absence of love.

We know, from human experience, that even the presence of a red-hot anger is not necessarily a sign of hatred: not when we are family or friends. And all people belong to the family of God in virtue of their being his creatures. They are God’s sons and daughters by creation.

We know, from human experience, that our anger can give way to complete indifference, or to bitterness and hatred in the end. But we also know (or we should know) that we are not God, and that God is not measured by our limitations.

Our love seems to come to an end because of our human limitations, but God is love. God has no limitations, nor does his love. If God stopped being love, in any way, he would stop being God. “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)

We have a lot of misunderstandings about the wrath of God, and understanding that wrath is a part of the love of God doesn’t make it any easier to understand. Paul says that we can experience God’s coming wrath (or even God’s judgment) as kindness, tolerance, and patience (2:4), and that even his own people (like you and me) might not realize that not feeling the wrath or not feeling the judgment of God for ourselves might be the kindness that is meant, by God, to lead us to repentance. (2:4)

If the wrath of God means that God will sometimes let people go their own way, what does it mean if, so many times, God lets us go our own way? We think what we want, we feel what we want, we deal with other people as we want, and we think that, because nothing apparently goes against us, that everything is OK.

The Bible clearly doesn’t agree with what we might be thinking, and feeling, and doing, but we manage to do it anyway. Sometimes we explain this by saying that the Bible is sort of extreme and it doesn’t always mean what it says? And, after all, we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and so we are immune to God’s wrath and judgment (so they say); because God is a God of love.

We wouldn’t be the first to think this way. Paul knew such people, and they appear in his letter to the Romans.

But Paul is saying that we are not immune and, if we think that God allows us to be so, then we are doing what Paul says that others have done who wanted to go their own way. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” (1:25) And Paul, in this part of his letter, is talking to the Christians in Rome. He is talking to us.

The people of God in the time of the prophet Jeremiah thought they were immune from the wrath and judgment of God. In their case, part of their self-confidence was that they had “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.” The Lord had his dwelling with them. (Jeremiah 7:4)

The temple seemed to them like a wedding ring on the finger of the bride of the Lord, and so they thought they were protected. They thought they were immune. Are we not tempted to think the same way, just because we are the bride of the Lord Christ?

They thought he would never let anything happen to them. We think that God will never let anything happen to us to show that we have been caught, and that we have been found to be false.

Jeremiah said that they had made the temple into “a den of robbers”. (Jeremiah 7:11) This means that they had made it into a hiding place where they thought they could escape detection, and where they could not get caught. They had made the temple into a den where they could even hide their own eyes from the truth abut themselves.

They had robbed God by depriving him of their primary allegiance and their first love. They worshipped idols, just as we worship our homes, and our security, and our money; just as we worship our own happiness.

They mistreated and used other people for their own happiness. And, in this way, they robbed those who were supposed to stand before them as the image of God. They robbed them by not giving them the treatment that we owe to those who are made in the image of God. And they robbed them by not being for others the image of God that we are created to be. They robbed them by not being the image of God’s steadfast and faithful love to others.

Jesus acted against the temple as a hiding place. He attacked the very operation of the temple as a place where the mercy of God was acted out through the sacrifices made for the forgiveness of sins.

These sacrifices could not be made because they could not be bought without the temple coinage that the money changers provided. Because of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, all offerings for sin stopped in the temple that day. The only offering for sin that was present in the temple that day was Jesus, himself.

The attack of Jesus on the temple was a sign that the temple had come to an end as a place for the mercy of God to be found, because of those who used it to hide from their own failure to love God and to love others.

The cursing of the fig tree was another sign of this wrath of God, and of his promise to destroy the temple. Jesus said that every faithful prayer for God’s judgment to come upon the mountain of the house of the Lord would find itself fulfilled. (Mark 11:23) When Jesus says “Have faith in God!” he means for us to trust that he will never let this sort of robbery and hiding stand.

When we read Paul’s writings about the wrath and judgment of God and see how he applied it to his readers, including us, we see that he is very interested in getting us to stop hiding from our involvement in sin. He says, “You who pass judgment do the same things.” (2:1)

We don’t do all of the things on the list. That would be nearly impossible. It would be exhausting.

But look at that list, and I will tell you what disturbs me most about it. There is no order to it. There is no top or bottom of the list. There is no way that we can comfort ourselves because of where our peculiar sins fall on that list.

Envy comes before murder. Is envy worse than murder?

The God-hater comes two steps below the gossip. What does that mean?

It means watch out. It means know yourself as God knows you. It means stop hiding and stop thinking you are immune.

What makes God mad? What gets his wrath going? Paul says, “For the wrath of God is being revealed…against all godlessness and wickedness.” (1:18)

Godlessness and wickedness represent the two most important parts of our lives when we have gone wrong. We show godlessness when we are not living as if our lives belonged to God. We show wickedness when we are not living our lives in love and service to others.

We are made for love; which means we are made for life with God and with others. When we do not live for love we destroy God’s work of creation within us. When we fail in love for God and others it is as if we had cut off our own arms and legs. It is as if we had plucked out our own heart, and given ourselves a lobotomy.

When we do not live in love toward God and toward others, we have robbed God and others of the gift that we were created to be. We have mutilated ourselves and lived destructively.

My dad had two big tattoos on his upper arms: a panther on one, and a snake on the other. He hated them.

He had not gotten them willingly. When he was a kid in the navy, going on shore leave, some of the other guys got him drunk and took him to a tattoo parlor and got him tattooed.

The panther and the snake were a constant reminder to my dad of a time when he was the butt of a joke that had mutilated him against his will, and yet his going out with those guys was a willingness to play into a behavior that got him there. He never quite got over the wrath in that; the wrath toward the guys who did it to him and the wrath toward himself for the foolishness that got him in trouble.

We are, in our own time, the people of God and the people of the covenant, in Christ. But we are not immune to the consequences of where we place our heart. We need to be, spiritually, centered in a state of repentance, which is an intensely practical place to be.

Repentance means a change of mind and heart. It means turning about face. It is the difference between going one way and going the opposite way. Paul asks us to look at where our heart loves to live. What way is our heart going?

The gospel means good news, and it is the good news of “the righteousness of God” and “the power of God.” (1:16-17) The good news of Jesus is that God has done everything that is needed to put an end to the self-seeking self, and to make you new and give you a new heart.

God has come as a human for your sake, to die for your sins so that you can die to yourself. And God, in Christ has risen from the dead so that you may rise with him into a new life that will not end.

In a self-mutilating world God has two options for us. One option is holding onto the mutilated life. In such a life we continue to seek our own way instead of living in love for God and for others.

The other option is the new life rising from the ashes of the old as, through Christ, we die to the old life and rise into the new. In such a life our hearts are set on a relationship of love with God and others that will never fade, or spoil, or end.

Think about the world as it is; this beautiful, magnificent world that is packed so full of outrage, and injustice, and victimization, and brutality. What is more surprising in such a world: the wrath of God or the grace of God?

Would the world be a better place if God was not angry with what we have done to it? Should the absence of the very thought of God’s anger make us happier with the world as it is?

Between wrath and grace, does it seem unjust that we have no third choice? What third choice could there be (between wrath and grace).

There could be a third choice. Between grace and wrath, there could be a choice of God making us cease to exist. It could be a kind of spiritual euthanasia or mercy-killing. In such a mercy killing God could say, “I brought you into existence but, given the chance, you have shown yourself to be unworthy of existence.” Perhaps God could take our undeserved existence painlessly away, but would that be the work of a God of love?

Even the wrath of God can be the love of God. It can be God saying, “In spite of what you have done to waste your life, and in spite of the way you have diminished and damaged my children and my world, your life still has meaning for me. Even now I have not made junk. I have loved your existence enough to give you life and I will not deny it or take it away.”

The love that will claim to mercifully remove a soul from existence is not the love it claims to be. It judges a person to be unworthy of life. It goes beyond saying that you can love a person and yet continue to be angry with them. It goes on to say that you can love a person and destroy them completely.

For those Christians who believe, as I do, in capital punishment and the death penalty, I would explain it like this. In executing the person who is guilty of a heinous crime we are not claiming to eliminate their existence from the universe.

We are sending them to a higher court. We are sending them to face their maker and the one who died for their sins. Capital punishment is wrath. It is violent, but it does not deny the worthiness of a human soul to live.

Wrath and grace are both about love. The message of the wrath tells us that we should understand that we may be hard to love. The message of the grace of God tells us that God finds it to be a very costly thing to love us. God’s grace can be called his power because it comes through his own death, taking our place on the cross. And it comes through his breaking the power of death through his own dying and resurrection.

Above all that, the story of God’s grace tells us that God finds that such a love is not too hard for him. The love of God loves to love us into salvation and transformation even when he must bear such an infinite cost.

This is why God’s plan of grace for the world and for us (if we want it) is good news. And when a world of wrath becomes too much for us we can find our freedom by the surrender of ourselves that comes through faith.

Monday, October 10, 2011

God's Power: A Faith Based Identity

Preached on October 9, 2011
Scripture readings: Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 9:18-27; Romans 1:1-17

When you meet a total stranger, and you want to know something real about them, what is the first question you ask, after you introduce yourselves to each other?

I ask people where they are from. People from small towns and rural communities tend to ask that question first. There are experts who get paid to study this. The experts say that the first question that people from the city will ask is: “What do you do?”

Nowadays, when I am in my home town, I am practically a stranger. I’ve been gone so long. It used to be that, when Maxine Dodge was editor of the Live Oak social column in the Gridley Herald, my activities would get reported in that paper because I worked at the Community Cannery when Maxine was the office manager, and she felt motherly toward me. But Maxine passed away years ago, and so I am no longer mentioned in that newspaper.

But my dad was so active in the community, right up to the end of his life, that I can introduce myself to people as Ken Evan’s son, and then people know who I am. Or I can say, “I was in the Live Oak High School class of ‘69.” Then people will ask me who I went around with in school. So now, in my own home town, my identity is based on the people to whom I belong.

This is what it means to be a Christian. It means having your identity based on someone you belong to. Paul addresses his letter to the Romans and to you, and he establishes your identity based on your belonging. Here is how he puts it to the Roman Christians and to you: he says, “You also are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:6-7)

These words are full of belonging. They are full of the language of relationship: love, grace, peace.

Even Paul’s identity as a servant or (better translated) as a slave of Jesus Christ, is not about the question of what he does. His identity is about the issue of the one to whom he belonged.

In the Greek and Roman world, to which Paul was speaking, a slave could legally be asked to do anything. Even if you once belonged to the nobility, but lost everything you had, and were forced by your debts into slavery, you could be sent to work in the mines if you made your owner mad. Being a servant or a slave had no legal job description. It was a relationship, and what mattered most was the one to whom you belonged.

Paul identified himself as an apostle, but apostle was not the title of a job. It meant someone who was sent on a mission, and that mission was to serve, in whatever capacity necessary; as the representative of the one who sent you.

You and I, in our own fashion, are also apostles. Each one of us is sent about our lives as a representative of Jesus Christ. There are instructions and guidelines for this, but no written job description. We might be asked to do anything, within the limits of the love and the holiness of God.

I tell people that I don’t have a job. I am a minister. I change light bulbs. I visit people in the hospital. I moderate meetings. I write, and fold, and address, and stamp the newsletter. I turn on the furnace and the heaters in the winter time. I preach. I belong to the Lions, and the Grange, and I serve on the Park and Recreation District Board, and maybe some other things as well, because I am a minister.

I talk to people. I have painted the trim on the church. I get the little candles ready for the Christmas Eve candlelight service.

Some years ago, I spent hours, in the middle of the night, talking to a guy who was holding a revolver to his head. I didn’t like doing that at all. I didn’t realize I was going to have to do that when I got a call from his family and went to see him. I only knew he was having a hard time.

Not long after that, I got a similar call from his family, and I called 911, because our elders told me that was the right thing to do. But I did get a friendly call from him, from out of state just a few months ago. He’s doing OK now.

This is just a part of my relationship with Jesus, and with you. It seems to be what I am here for. I am a servant. That is what the word minister means: servant; or, maybe, sometimes, even a slave like Paul. Some people resent being a servant or a slave. Paul didn’t resent it. He boasted about it. How can I do anything else?

Well, what will you boast about being? You are ministers too.

Neither your ministry nor mine, neither your calling nor mine, has any real job description. We have a relationship, and we represent Jesus Christ in that relationship.

Now Paul, in his letter to the Romans, has a lot to say about faith. It is about what we call, and what the Bible calls, being saved through faith.

Paul talks about “the obedience that comes from faith.” (1:5) Paul talks about how one person’s faith can encourage the faith of others. (1:12) He talks about “a righteousness from God…that comes by faith.” And he quotes a line from the Old Testament prophets, “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:17; from Habakkuk 2:4)

We completely misunderstand what faith is when we treat it as a question of, “What do you do?” It would be much better to see faith in relationship to the question of, “Where are you from?”

The answer would be, “I come from God, through Jesus Christ.” To my way of thinking, that would explain what it means to believe and to be a person of faith.

To come from God, and from the Son of God, is to be a certain way, a certain kind of person. If someone from the city wondered why it is that, when I am outside, I turn to look at each car that comes down the road, I would tell them that I grew up in a small town, and people driving down the road are probably people I know.

You wouldn’t ignore a person who comes into your room. You can’t ignore a person who drives down your road: not when you come from a certain place. Faith is like coming from a certain place where you have met the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

That place is called the gospel. Gospel means good news. It is the good news of God (1:3) and it is just as much the good news of the Son of God (1:9). In the same way the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. (8:9)

It is all the same work. It all comes from the same place and the same heart. It comes from the heart of the one God who made heaven and earth. We belong to the God of good news, and that good news is about love, and grace, and peace from the Father and from the Lord, the Son Jesus Christ, communicated to us, in power, through the Spirit.

We misunderstand faith, because we think it is about something we do. We think that faith is a deal, a bargain, or a transaction. We think that we pay God our faith and he pays us with salvation and with the other things we want.

But salvation is not a payment. Salvation is life. “The righteous shall live by faith” Notice he says, “The righteous shall live.”

We misunderstand what righteousness is for the same reason that we misunderstand what faith is. There are so many uses of the word “right”. We make being right a matter of proving something, or judging others. It ought to be a simple thing for us to know that sometimes things are just not right.

When my mom was in the hospital (and even now, while she is getting better) things were not, and are not, quite right with me. I did not like the way my mind and my emotions were working.

I was much too sensitive about things not being the way I wanted them to be. Even little things were not right. Nothing felt right in my gut. I was not steady inside. I think my sisters and I found ourselves understanding each other less, instead of more, the way we needed.

Something went wrong with my brain, so I had more trouble taking things in properly and keeping everything straight. This is not changing the proper meaning of the word “right” to make it mean something else. I was not quite right; not quite right with my self, not quite right with others, not quite right with the world, and maybe not quite right with God.

That is the issue that God has with rightness, and the Bible uses the old word righteousness to describe it. Righteousness is being right in your relationships with God, and with others, and with the world you live in, and with your self. The human race went wrong and took the whole world wrong with it, so now God wants to make us right and to make the world right through us.

This is part of the righteousness of God. It is essential to what God wants to do, what God wants to empower. It is why the Father sent his son into the world. He wants your life to be taken over and co-opted by his good news and set right.

It is not good news about what we have done. It is not even about what we can do or will do. It is about what God has done, and what God can do and will do to empower a new life.

Paul gave thanks to God through Christ (1:8) because God through Christ made a new relationship possible where our lives are made right and righteous. And we can be part of making other people’s lives right, and making this righteousness a part of the world we live in as representatives from God.

God entered the world and became human through Christ in order to form a human and divine bridge, so that we could cross from a life of separation into a life of relationship. The bridge began with God’s becoming human like us; and God’s work led to his carrying our sins, and sharing our fears, and the injustices of the world, and pain, and death on the cross. And the bridge was made complete when God, through Christ, broke the power of sin, and death, and hell in the resurrection.

When Paul says that Jesus, “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead,” (1:4) he means that the Holy Spirit brought the fact of the resurrection of Jesus home to us, in our hearts. When we are called to faith in the good news of God and of his Son, it means that the Holy Spirit confronts us with the great things that God has done, in the humility of his heart. The Holy Spirit brings it home to us, with a power that makes faith possible. We find our hearts and minds opened to a faith inspired and made possible by the Holy Spirit.

Faith is a word of belonging and relationship. It is not a bargain. The Holy Spirit makes the good news of the beauty and the power of the love and grace of God real to us. We see it, and we must surrender to it. It would suck the life of us to ignore it. It would break our hearts to deny it:; and that is faith.

It is like falling in love, but hormones have nothing to do with it. Who would say that falling in love was a transaction? You see a certain human being in such a way that you want to belong to that person and have that person belong to you.

As a result, it is true that you will do things you would never have dreamed of doing before, but you don’t claim the credit for that. If you tried to claim the credit you would not really be in love.

Faith is a word about belonging because trust is essential to it. When you have faith in a ladder, you climb it with confidence. You entrust your self to the ladder. But you are not bargaining. You are not giving the ladder your trust so that the ladder will give you something back and keep you safe.

A ladder, of course is only a thing, but we often put our trust in things. It is like the credit card commercial where they ask you the question, “What do you have in your wallet?”

Maybe you have money in your wallet. Your money represents what you have worked for and what you can get as a result of your work. How much value do you place on what you have earned; and do you think that what you have earned can do much between you and God? Is any love really required for that?

The commercial is about a credit card, and some people think that credit gives you the power, for a while, to buy something you may not be able to afford. Some people make faith into the power to get from God more than you can get by yourself. You get more than you can afford because of the credit someone has extended to you. But that is not about belonging, or about the relationships that matter, unless getting what you want is what truly matters.

What have you got in your wallet? Maybe you carry pictures in your wallet; pictures of people you love, pictures of people who love you.

Those pictures have very little to do with what you deserve, or what you have earned, or what you have the power to get. If your pictures are of people who are there for you because of what you can get, they are not there because of love.

Those pictures are the most valuable thing in your wallet only if they are about belonging and relationships. They, also, are about faith and faithfulness. Those pictures better be the most important things in your wallet.

Faith is about what you value and what you trust. Paul and the writer of Psalm 25 talk about the connection that faith and trust have with not being ashamed. This has to do with what is enough for you.

What is enough for you? What do you value? If you have not received what is enough, if you have not received in life what your heart desires, you may feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Paul had a brilliant and energetic mind. He had a lot of potential and the will to put that potential to use.

He started out on an ambitious career in the religious establishment in Jerusalem. He used the persecution of the Christians to advance his career, and he played an important role in the arrest and the killing of Christians.

He could have become a person of power and he could have used that power for gaining wealth. But he left that life because he met Jesus, and could not say no to Jesus.

He became a tremendous disappointment and an example of failure to many. There were people who came to be ashamed of their former association with the ambitious Paul. He became an embarrassment to them

But Paul was not ashamed of this change in his life. He was not embarrassed by the turn he had taken. He had not stopped being ambitious; only his ambitions had completely changed. It was an ambition that his old associates did not share.

Now Paul was coming from a completely different place. He wanted the good news that he could not earn or bargain for. He wanted the love, grace, and peace of God that he found in Jesus. And he wanted to belong to the people who loved the good news.

Faith is our response to something in God that only God has, and only God can give. Faith is not just an effort or a bargain made by our minds, and wills, and energy. The relationship where faith is alive is, as Paul says, in the power of God, and it is all about relationships from first to last; or it is all about faith from first to last. (1:17)

There is a book I love that was written in the late sixteen hundreds by a Scottish minister name Henry Scougal. The title is “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.” For me, that title (The Life of God in the Soul of Man) describes what happens when the gospel comes to life for us and we respond in faith. It is the power of God.

Faith is our surrender to a relationship of trust in the God of the good news, and that good news becomes our home. This is where we come from now. It is all about belonging and the one we belong to.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Good News in the Shape of a Table

Preached on World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2011

Scripture readings: Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 10:1-17; Mark 10:28-31

A college graduate was asked which books helped him most in getting through school. He thought a moment and he said: “That would be my mom’s cookbook and my dad’s checkbook.” The graduate survived and succeeded because there was more to him than met the eye. He was part of a family, and he had the resources of his family to help him.

This is what Paul was writing about to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. In our reading from First Corinthians Paul describes what it means to be more than meets the eye, in being part of a family, the family of God.

We belong to a very ancient family that is bound together by a common tradition. We share one family story.

This family has had many ups and downs. It has prospered, and starved, and enjoyed victories, and has been defeated. It has been enslaved and it has been liberated. It has lived in splendid cities, and tiny villages; and it has wandered in the desert. It has made many wrong choices, and completely missed the boat, but it has never ended.

The story of this family is always changing, and always the same. It is always the same old story, and it is always a new story.

Paul writes: “I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud, and that they all passed through the sea.” (Paul is talking about the pillar of cloud that guided them through the desert, and about their crossing through the Red Sea on a land bridge exposed by God.) But the point of the family here is that Paul is talking to essentially non-Jewish Greek Christians about their Jewish forefathers, because it doesn’t matter what your race is (or your nation, or your past). The love of Christ makes you belong to God’s family just as much as the people who seem to have inherited their place in it, and have their names written on the pews.

I knew a girl from a town near to my hometown who belonged to a family named Handforth. She had blue eyes and blond hair. She had two brothers. One of them was an American Indian. The other was an Eskimo. They were (all of them) adopted. But they were raised to be members of the Handforth family.

When we talked about our future plans, and how we would make our way in the world, this girl would repeat the Handforth family story and tradition. She would say what her father had taught her: “No Handforth has ever gone hungry”. She was not a hereditary Handforth; yet she was very much a Handforth.

Paul was one of the hereditary members of God’s family (the family of Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Jesus), and the Greek believers were his new brothers and sisters. They were very much members of the same family. Somehow his ancestors were their ancestors too.

This seems odd, but it means that whatever your story is, it becomes a part of the story of the family of God. And equally strangely, the ancient story becomes your story: wandering in the wilderness, and living in tents with Abraham, waiting for the Lord to give you a home in the Promised Land; wandering in the wilderness, and living in tents with Moses, on your way back to the Promised Land; or living in exile in a foreign land and trying to find a way to get back to the Promised Land.

There is a lot of wandering, and lostness, and trying to find your way, in the story of God’s people as told in the Bible. The story of the family of God is mostly a traveling story, or a hoping to travel story. And it makes your story into a traveling story, too. It makes your life into a journey to God’s Promised Land: the land of God’s love, and peace, and hope.

The story is the same in the New Testament. The family story puts us with the disciples on the road with Jesus; headed (first) for a cross and (then) for a resurrection. And then there is more traveling with the disciples, and with Paul, as they spread out over the world.

The story of the family of God is the story of being on a journey. Sometimes it seems like an endless journey, but it is not endless. It has a goal. It has a finish line. It has a reward. It has a promised land. It has a heaven; and a new heaven and a new earth.

What makes us brothers and sisters is that, all around the world, Jesus Christ gives people a common journey with a common goal. The goal is to be a family (because the journey is not just a personal journey). And the goal is to get to God’s Promised Land together, as a family: to be aware of the troubles along the way, and help each other through those troubles.

Part of the story of the family of God, no matter where they are in the world, is that God provides for them on the journey. Paul says: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”

There is a verse from the twenty-third Psalm that goes: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This means that in the very midst of the situations that scare us, that bring trouble, and danger, and risk, and insecurity to our lives, God provides for us and takes care of us. Part of this comes from God providing us with a spiritual family.

You know I am a worry wart. I am a terrible worrier, and so I don’t always believe this. But I almost always believe it after the fact.

(Tell the story of the tire blowout when I was driving my mom’s car: night time, no flashlight, the jack not working, and there was help. It could have happened to my mom, but it was best that it happened to me. It could have happened at no better place or time.)

The fact of the Lord caring for us is always there; whether we see it at once, or only after the fact. This is the common story of the family of God.

To help us remember our story, Jesus Christ gave his family (gave us) a table to share together. He told us that, at this table, he would feed us the food and the drink of his very self. (“This is my Body. This is the new covenant in my Blood.”)

The table where we come to eat is the table of the cross of Jesus. The food and drink is Christ giving his life for our lives, and for the life of the world. The food and drink is the grace, and mercy, and strength, and peace that come from Jesus, and his presence and his partnership with us.

Paul speaks as if that table had really been there from the very beginning. Even the people of Israel sat at the Lord’s Table in the desert, when they gathered the strange, daily bread that appeared on the ground around their tents every morning, and when they drank water from the springs that flowed when Moses hit the cliff with his staff.

Paul imagines a spiritual rock that followed them everywhere (a spiritual rock, mind you). That rock was Christ long before he walked with human feet upon the earth.

But this is our story, too. As we follow Jesus, who walks with us with human feet, Jesus follows us too, and fills us, and quenches us in our desert.

When those of us who were my Polish grandmother’s (my Baci’s) family gathered for a feast in her apartment, there was no room for a table there for us all to sit at. We all had our own TV trays or our places on the floor. We had no prayer, but we all laughed a lot and we were all one in spirit, and maybe there was no ceremony except the audible groaning afterwards.

Well, all the males of the family groaned, not the females. The food was good, and Baci always made us eat too much. But maybe that groaning was our prayer of thanks, said after the meal, all of us (men and boy) in unison.

This big world is scattered full of little tables where the family of God gathers to be fed. There is only one table set in Washtucna, and one in Kahlotus, and three around La Crosse. But there are thousands, and millions, of these little tables set around the world. Some of them are very fancy, and others are very plain. Maybe some of our brothers and sisters have to use the earth itself as their table because they have no other table.

We are not alone, the Lord is always with us, but he has not called us to be the only ones who eat with him. You might not see it but (wherever you go) there you probably have brothers, and sisters, and fathers, and mothers, and children there, and the whole world is full of your family.

Some of them don’t even know, yet, that they belong to your family. They haven’t seen their way home yet.

They are on the same journey you are on. You are on the same journey they are on; and this is true whatever is going on in their world or in yours. And we all have the same destination in Christ. So let us work and pray to help each other get there. Let us work and pray to help those get there who don’t know (yet) that they belong to this family. Somehow let us play our part in this big family, all around the world, so that we all arrive together in our Father’s house.