Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of Christmas Peace

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012

Scripture readings: Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:1-20

“Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

Jesus is the prince of peace the prophets tell us about. The angels tell the shepherds and us that the baby lying in the manger will be the source of God’s peace and favor.

Who are the words “Fear not” for? Who is receiving the promise of the peace and favor of God?

Bethlehem represents the small, the neglected, and the forgotten. If this is you, the peace of Christ is yours.

The Shepherds represent the mistrusted and despised. If this is you, the peace of Christ is yours.

Mary and Joseph represent those who sacrificially bear the burdens of others. Mary, though innocent, was stigmatized because of her untimely pregnancy for the sake of Jesus. Joseph, though honorable and righteous, volunteered for a life of sharing Mary’s shame.

They bore the burdens of others, and Jesus learned his own sacrifice in a home where such a sacrifice came naturally from love. If this is you, the peace of Christ is yours.

Jesus revealed his peace by becoming all of this on the cross. This peace began in the manger of Bethlehem. This is the peace and favor Jesus shares with you. This is his Christmas blessing.

Now Showing: The Coming of the Reaching In

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 23, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 148; Galatians 4:1-7

There is a set of books for children that have its readers solve a single question. The question is: “Where’s Waldo?”

You are given a picture. It’s a very complicated picture. It’s full of hundreds of people doing all kinds of different things; on a big city street, in a crowded sports arena, at a fair, in a park.

In this picture, of hundreds of people milling around and doing every conceivable thing that you can do in that place, there is Waldo. Waldo is a tall and skinny guy, with a red and white tasseled cap, and a shirt with horizontal red and white stripes, and blue jeans, and big round glasses. You have to find Waldo in the picture.

Looking in at My Tree, 2012
There are people in the picture who look a little bit like Waldo, in one way or another. They may have a red and white striped shirt, but the stripes may go up and down, or the cap is wrong, or the person doesn’t wear big round glasses like Waldo does. The book of big complicated pictures is a story, and it doesn’t make sense until you find Waldo.

Sure, you can enjoy the pictures without finding Waldo. There’s a lot to see and think about. You can get the feel of it, and get into the experience of the big places in the pictures. You can think about the times when you have been in such a place, and what happened to you there. You can think about what you might like to do if you were in a place like the one in the picture. But you don’t know the secret of the picture, or the meaning of the story, unless you can find and follow Waldo.

Now the psalm we have read and the third and fourth chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia give us two huge, complicated pictures. There is the same secret to be found in both pictures. There is a figure to find; an event to discover. The figure and the event is God reaching into that picture and putting himself right into the middle of that picture and revealing its secret meaning.

The psalm gives us a complicated picture that contains everything that exists; beyond our world, and in our world. It contains everything visible and invisible: angels, winds, stars, oceans, plants, wild and tame animals, mountains and hills. There are people of all kinds, and positions, and genders, and ages.

What do they have in common? They are created. They are organized. They are praising God.

Why? At the end of the psalm, we see. Everything that exists can see it. They see that God has reached down into this vast world, and God done something that would make his people close to him. “He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to his heart. Praise the Lord.” (Psalm 148:14)

What did God do? “He raised up…a horn.” And what does that mean? A horn is a defense system for the animal that has horns. A horned animal is an armed animal. A horn is like a weapon. It means, in the thought of the Hebrew people, strength, and freedom, and life.

My Tree, 2012
“Raising up a horn for his people” would mean God doing something to protect his people, or to make them strong, or to expand their life, in a way that they couldn’t do for themselves. It could be something like a victory won by God for his people.

It would bring them closer than ever. It would make his people fit the name that the psalm gives them, when it calls them saints. The word saint, in the Bible, doesn’t mean perfection or even goodness. Saint means being set apart by God for a purpose.

But this special word especially means people who are different because they are the target of a special love of God that does not let go. It is a love that comes from God making a promise to them to love them always. It means God never letting go of that promise, and always finding a way to bring them close, even when their love fails.

Sometimes the word “horn” in the Bible refers to a person. It may refer to a leader or a king. In this case this person, this king, would be a gift from God to bring his people near; so that they can live within the beating of his heart.

In the Gospel of Luke, before the birth of Jesus, there is the father of a baby who was going to grow up to be the man we call John the Baptist. John would be a prophet who prepared the way for Jesus by teaching God’s people to be ready for their savior to come to them.

The father of John the Baptist was Zechariah. At the birth of his son, Zechariah was filled with God’s Spirit and spoke about the future of his son and the purpose his son would serve. Zechariah said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us….” (Luke 1:68-69; also see Psalm 18:2)

This horn of salvation is Jesus. John’s purpose was to live and speak a message to God’s people that would prepare them for the appearance of Jesus.

The psalm tells us that everything in existence exists to find its purpose in praising the God who reached into their world to bring his human children close to him in Jesus. The sun and the moon, the weather and the waves, the birds and animals and the creatures of the ocean exist to praise the event in which God comes close, through the person who gives to his people the strength, and the freedom, and the fullness of life that they could never have without him.

Paul brings two big pictures together. He brings out a picture of what he calls “the basic principles of the world”.

Part of what Paul may mean by this has to do with the picture the psalm gives us. It has to do with all the parts and pieces of the universe. They teach us lessons but they can also enslave us. They limit us and confine us, unless God gets us beyond them.

The visible and even the invisible world can teach us many things. We may even reason out, from what God has made, how God wants us to live and why we are here. But we can never, Paul tells us, never get very far unless we see the God, who made all things, reach down into our world to act out his purpose in our sight. We can never grow up and grow close to the heart of God, unless we see God reach into the world he has made, in Jesus, and be born in a stable, and walk the countryside, and die for the sin of the world on the cross.
Ornaments from Our Church Tree

The other picture that Paul gives us, in Galatians, is the world of God’s laws. So many people see God’s laws as the way to please God, and win his favor, and get God to let us into his presence. So many see it this way, and Paul saw it this way, as well, until he met Jesus.

Paul saw that living in the world of rules, even when they are God’s rules, is really not the way to live. It is not the way to live in a way that is fully and passionately alive. I mean that the law, seen like this, creates a complicated world of obligations.

You ought to do this. You ought to do that. And you can’t do it all. And each rule we address reveals some flaw or limitation within us that we cannot overcome.

Each law shows us that there is a secret, or a not so secret part of us, that plays with the laws of God, and always seeks our own advantage, as if we wanted to be our own gods.

These laws, seen in this way, make us into competitors, and into score keepers, instead of playing with all our might simply for the joy of the game. There is a not so secret part of us called sin that can take the map to the good life and make it petty and ugly. There is this thing called sin that distorts our understanding of the good life and robs it of passion and freedom.

We are nothing better than slaves in the face of God’s laws, and the good life, until we see God reach into the world of laws and rules. God reached down into this world of his own law and God became the very victim of his own laws. He died at the hand of this world full of sinners who claim to love God’s laws; or at least they claim to love truth, and right, and goodness.

God reached down into this world of his law in order to buy us out of the kind of slavery that thrives on taking his good laws, and making them fail, and making ourselves worse as a result. God bought us out of our slavery by becoming what our failure and sin actually make us, under the law. Jesus was condemned by the law. God became a man condemned by the people of God’s law, and nailed to a cross to die.

God came in Jesus and became the victim of his own laws. He won a victory over his own law by keeping it perfectly, and by overcoming the condemnation that comes from falling short.

God died on the cross in his Son, Jesus Christ, so that we could be reborn into a new life through trusting the power of God’s love and grace. Faith means trusting the faithfulness of God.

Receiving the faithfulness of God changes us. Instead of obeying God in order to be loved, we obey because we are already loved. We are loved with a love that is based on God’s promise, and not on our performance. It is a love that makes us saints, who are loved by an unstoppable love. It is a love that is perfect in its absolute commitment to us, the beloved.

When I was little, I would try to get away with things I wanted to do that I knew my parents didn’t want me to do. My mother had this saying. She would give me a piercing look and say to me, “I can read you like a book.”

Angel of Our Church Nativity Scene
Most children suspect their parents have this kind of superpower. Children learn to be good, first of all, by learning to be afraid of getting caught and punished. When they get older, and no longer think of themselves as children, they sometimes stop caring about getting caught; but that doesn’t make them better people.

The best way to learn goodness is not about the rules and the fear or being caught. And learning goodness doesn’t come from thinking that our parents love the rules better than they love us.

We change for the best when we get a vision of goodness that is stronger and more passionate than our own self discipline. Our vision of goodness is a vision of what true love is.

This is part of the vision that comes from God reaching into our world, in Jesus, and meeting the issues of sin and law, and raising us into the issue of love and faith in the faithfulness of God. Jesus is the faithfulness of God. Jesus is the horn, the weapon and the defense, of a loving heart. Jesus is the horn, the weapon and the defense of the love given to us by a God who goes into action to bring us close to him.

God came in the Son he sent, born of a woman named Mary, to join us in the world where we live. Beginning in Bethlehem the Lord allowed himself to be surrounded, as we are, by a big world that tells us many things, but not the one thing we need to know. He became the Waldo we need to find, in order to understand God’s story. He was born of woman to show us that single thing we all need to know, of the reaching love of God that brings us close to him.

He was born under the law, among the people of Israel. They loved God’s laws, but they continued to misunderstand the nature of the love and the relationship that God really wanted. They kept straining to keep a perfect Sabbath, and to live such a perfect life that God would be obliged to come near to them.

So Jesus was born under the law in Bethlehem of Judea to be the one thing that the law could not give. He became the secret thread of the law. He became the Waldo that we must find, in all this world of “everything we ought to do and be”. He became the perfect offering and the sacrifice under the law that his people could never be; to be the gift, for us, that we could never give to God.

And so God came in Christ to redeem us. This redeeming means to be bought from slavery. God came and gave himself to us, in Jesus, in such a way, that we would come to the end of ourselves, and die to ourselves, and be born again.

In Jesus we become the beloved sons and daughters that we could never be on our own. We become such beloved sons and daughters that the Holy Spirit can freely come and tell us so.

Our Church Nativity Scene
This is a miraculous way to grow up into the kind of maturity that makes us children again. The Holy Spirit tells us so and, in our hearts, a merely formal relationship comes to an end. A rule-conscious, obligation-conscious, relationship comes to an end. We just start living in a way that calls God “Abba: papa, daddy, dada.” This is what Abba means. The Holy Spirit brings us to Jesus, and Jesus gives us the ability to say “dada” to God, by the power of his Holy Spirit.

It is the glory and majesty of God that he has no consciousness of his own dignity. It is the glory and majesty of God to make us also forget his dignity. That is why he was born just as we are.

Everything in existence exists to praise this, and it did. The whole universe can find no true peace without this reaching down of God to us. That is why, on the hills near Bethlehem, angels sang as they must have sung in the psalms: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”

Monday, December 17, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of Victory

Preached on the Third Sunday in Advient, December 16, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4

The psalm we have read and the opening lines of the Letter to the Hebrews are happy words. They are simply happy. They show a happy God and a happy world. I don’t think I am accustomed to thinking of God or the world in this way, are you?

December Late Afternoon between Riztville & Washtucna
With so many angry psalms, the psalm we have read has seemingly no hint of anger. All danger is gone. There are no enemies left to fight and defeat. There is nothing left to fear.

The opening lines of the Letter to the Hebrews are about the happiness of the Father and the Son. We know that the Son is Jesus who “made purification for sin.” We are told that this Son, this Jesus, is the radiance of the glory of the God who spoke through the prophets.

Jesus is the glory of God and the communication of God. Even though Jesus is said to sit at the right hand of the heavenly majesty, and even though this kind of wording might make us wonder what it is that Jesus is seated on the right hand of, and what it means for Jesus to be positioned to the right of it, this still means that wherever God is, wherever the Father is, that is where the Son is.

Jesus is God’s speaking and God’s communication. If you hear God, it means you have heard Jesus. If you listen to Jesus, it means you have listened to God.

December, Looking East at Four O'clock
Jesus is the radiance of God. So, if you have seen the Son, you have seen God. If you have seen God, it is because you have seen the Son.

Jesus shows us the fullness and the completeness of God. The Son does the Father’s work by creating everything. The Son does the Holy Spirit’s work by “sustaining all things”, keeping everything in the universe in existence, as if he carried it all on his shoulders.

These lines from Hebrews give us a picture of the life of God as a continual state of generous and joyful togetherness. Glory, as the languages of the Bible have it, is like the brightness of light and the thrill of music that makes us want to sway, and jump, and dance. The life of God is a continual sharing of work. The life of God is the unending exchange of gifts, and courtesies, and honor.

The life of God is happy. It is this happiness that the world is founded on. It is happiness that has made us. It is happiness that reaches out to us and gives us our purpose in life.

Wouldn’t this be nice? Who wouldn’t want to just reach out to this happiness and receive it; or take a daring leap and dive deep into it? We reach out to God for happiness, and he turns us around to be aware of the unhappiness of our world, and he sends us into that world. He tells us to follow him by carrying our crosses, which are smaller versions of his own cross.

Looking West at Four O'clock
Some people are instinctively aware of this danger. They avoid it by going their own way and seeking their own happiness at the expense of others. Or they learn to embrace their misery, their unhappiness, and their anger, and they turn it against others. They spread their dysfunction and they may spread outright destruction.

There is this huge capacity of God for happiness. It is a happiness he seeks to share with us. It is a bright, shining, glorious happiness, but it is happiness that has a shadow.

There is a shadow in the glory and happiness of God. The Psalm says, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” And the word for salvation, here, is often translated as “victory”: but victory over what; victory over whom?

Hebrews tells us that Jesus won his victory over us, because he won his victory over sin. It tells us that Jesus “provided purification for sins”. But this is a soft way of putting it.

On a summer afternoon, when I was little, I was playing with a bunch of other kids at a neighbor’s house. They had huge a pile of rough, red, volcanic rock in their driveway.

They were going to use it as a border around their yard. But, for small children, it made the perfect place to play the game “King of the Mountain”. The mother was at home, but she wasn’t paying any attention, or she would never have let us play on her mountain.

I fell down that mountain, and the rough, red rock was crumbly, and bits of it gouged my hands and arms. There were tiny grains of that rock under my skin.

I was screaming bloody murder, as we used to say. The mother heard, and came out, and saw the damage.

She was a nurse; and she hustled me inside, to the bathroom, and she began to scrub my hands and arms with hot soapy water, and she put iodine on my wounds. I howled, and I fought her with all my strength; and she fought back until she was satisfied that I was clean and properly disinfected, and then she sent me whimpering home.
December, Walking Back to Washtucna from the Cemetery

The purification Jesus gives us is a case of the deepest cleaning imaginable. He doesn’t simply provide it. He made our purification like you make a construction project. He made our purification like you make a piece of furniture or build a house. He made it like a surgeon makes repairs on your body. He made it like he made the universe.

The word for our purification implies something deep and horrible to feel, and to hear, and to look at, and to deal with. I haven’t seen a lot of horrible things, but I have seen some. I have seen some gruesome wounds, and the victims of bad auto accidents.

I have seen some evil. When I was ten, I saw some teenagers beating up an old man. It scared me and I ran away. Several years ago I found myself spending some hours in a room with a man holding a gun to his head.

All of this is nothing. There are far worse things to see or hear in this world, and there is a whole world of purification to be made and carried by Jesus. There is a victory that needs to be won and, when it is won, the whole world, and everyone in it, will sing. They will clap their hands, and make the most joyful music forever.

Washtucna Star Seen from a Different Perspective
The victory has been won. It has been won by the cross and by the resurrection. But the beginning of that deep cleansing happened in Bethlehem, where God became a baby in a homeless family.

The beginning of the victory over the sins of the world began when God became a baby who (as the Gospel of Matthew tells us) narrowly escaped the massacre of all the boy babies in the town where he was born. The village of Bethlehem was ruled by a king in Jerusalem who was determined, with all his might, to fight the interference of a God who works for the purification of this world. However it may work, God’s project began, even from the start, by God (himself) making direct personal contact with unspeakable horrors and the destruction of innocence. The work of purification is a battle, and serious work.

There is a battle being fought by the spiritual powers behind the evil of this world. They fight with weapons of madness, and hate, and anger, and despair, and pride, and greed, and lust, and power. They fight with words, and injustices, and abuse, and neglect. They fight with clubs, and fire, and knives, and guns, and bombs.

Good people may try to fight this battle with reforms, and laws, and governments. They may even try to fight with arms and armies. These are weapons of this world and it is hard to prove where these weapons have truly been effective. We seem to think of them only after the damage is done. We mostly use them for stepping in and mopping up afterwards..

God fights differently. God fights from person to person, from soul to soul, with the weapons of his humility and his servanthood. God fights with the weapons of his birth, and his life, and his death on the cross. He fights with the power of his resurrection. The Lord tells us that these are the only weapons that will end the vicious cycle of our world.

We say Jesus was born to die. It is just as true to say Jesus was born to rise from the dead and to defeat death itself. God fights by faithfully carrying this world we live in by speaking his resurrection life into it: his word of power. This world and our lives go on because Jesus is continually speaking to us his word of power: his word of life.
Christmas Program, The Play, December 16, 2012

He establishes a beachhead in each one of us. Then each one of us plays a part in bringing the victory of Jesus to others around us, in our living, and serving, and speaking, and praying, and loving. Jesus wages his war for the eventual victory of the kingdom of happiness, and he calls for us to help.

The Psalm tells us that God’s “right hand and holy arm have gotten him the victory.” Jesus is God’s right hand.

For most of us, our right hands and arms are the one’s we work with the most. For most of us, our right hand is the strongest hand and the smartest hand. Jesus Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:24)

Jesus is God reaching his strong and skilled right hand into time and space to fight for the transformation of the world. To do this he had to meet every form of evil, and weakness, and lostness. It is his happiness, in the present, to share this battle with us.

He had to confront the worst this world could do, in order to give us his best. So God became the child Jesus to make our purification, and to make the purification of a world that seems so empty of safety and hope. It is his happiness to share this battle with us. And so, as Mister Rogers said, we are to look for the helpers. We are called to join the helpers.

Christmas Program, Handbells/Chimes, December 16, 2012
Mister Rogers once said this: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster’, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers…so many caring people in this world.”

As bad as this world seems, it is carried along by Jesus who promises to share with us the gift of happiness that flourishes and thrives in his heart. He is dedicated to bringing into our world of danger and fear, a bigger and better hope that has all the power of a high dive from heaven to earth.

Our hope is based on his faithful, tender, and humble love. This is the hope that we see in its first steps from the manger of Bethlehem.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of Fire and Philanthropy

Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 97:1-12; Titus 3:1-8

2012 Setting up Nativity Scene, Washtucna Community Church
There was a news story, recently, about the New York City policeman who saw a shoeless beggar apparently living on the street as winter was drawing near. The policeman walked straight into a nearby shoe store and bought some shoes and gave them to the shoeless man.

There were people who were determined to follow up on this story. They tracked down the homeless man and they found that he was not really homeless. He lives in public housing. Being shoeless may have been a gimmick for begging, or it may have been the result of the murky thinking that comes from substance abuse, or it may come from actual mental illness.

The result of this story is that some people are criticizing the policeman for not being smarter than he should have been. Maybe he should have checked up on the shoeless man before he helped him. Or maybe the policeman should have just taken the shoeless man to some agency or charity that would have checked up on him, and not given him such nice shoes that he didn’t deserve.

Some people are definitely criticizing the shoeless man for being shoeless, and maybe for being dishonest. Maybe he is also to blame for being a drunk, or a drug addict, or just plain crazy.

The Main Door
Now I see this story relating to the Psalm we have read and our reading from Titus. The Bible teaches us all kinds of things. It teaches us how to think, how to have faith, how to love, how to live.

Often the Bible teaches us by boiling down issues to their greatest simplicity. It often tells us to see the world as if it was made up of two kinds of people. (Sometimes I boil down human nature to two kinds of people: the kind that throws away old magazines and the kind that subscribes to National Geographic.)

Paul, in our reading from his letter to Titus, gives us a picture of two kinds of people. The surprising thing about these two kinds of people is that they are exactly the same people; in a before and after picture. There is the picture of the kind of people they were before the appearance of the kindness and love of God, and there is the picture of them after the kindness and love of God appeared.

A change took place, “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared.” The amazing thing that happened was that the kindness and love of God their Savior actually saved them, and this transformed them.

The love of the savior worked. It made a difference. The saving was that they were saved from what they once were, and they were saved for a new life (“the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”).

Paul often thinks backward, so he has already told us what the new life is like; the life that comes from the God who appeared in Jesus. The new life makes us subject or respectful to law and authority. The new life makes us obedient and ready to do whatever is good.

Church Windows
Notice that Paul tells us that our new life that comes from God makes us ready to do whatever is good. Nowadays the word “whatever” is the word of a person who doesn’t care. But Paul’s “whatever” describes a person who cares about everything; ready to do whatever is good. Otherwise I could say, “I don’t have to do that for you, I am doing enough already.”

You could say that you don’t have to work on your temper because you are already an elder and you are planning to bring a dish to next Sunday’s potluck. “Whatever” includes whatever good things that God loves, not just the good things that you have put on your own personal list. It means being ready to do everything good.

To slander no one, means to speak evil of no one. I always think of what my parents told me when I was complaining about someone or something: “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

We are “to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all people.” Humility, here, translates the same wonderful word that the King James Version translates as meekness, yet meekness is such a horrible word.

My Greek professor, in seminary, defined meekness as the quality possessed by a well-disciplined war horse. Meekness is a strong and beautiful horse that responds instantly to every signal of its rider. In this Greek idea, a war horse would be trained to walk when commanded to walk, to charge when commanded to charge; to turn, to stop, and to retreat, on command.

Meekness tells us to laugh when laughing is the good thing that pleases and glorifies God, and nothing so glorifies God as a well timed and well told joke. Meekness knows when to stop laughing and to be angry, and when to listen, and when to shut up. Meekness knows when to give shoes to a shoeless man. This comes from the new life that the Holy Spirit gives us.

After Paul describes the new life, thinking backwards, he next describes the old life. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.”

Hangin' o' the Greens
Why would Paul go and remind us of what used to be? I think he does this to make us think twice about ourselves and feel the variety of humility called shame.

I love it. Yes, I can remember back to the time when I used to be foolish; can you? Once I was young and foolish. Now I think I am getting old and foolish. It’s true that there is some real difference (isn’t there?) in the new life; only not enough difference to give us very much confidence.

There is just enough difference between my foolish past and present to serve me as a warning. I wonder if, until I become perfect, there might be something to be gained from an occasional, wholesome sense of shame at the thought of my past foolishness; a little bit of instruction and guidance, perhaps.

What should we think of that old, foolish, hateful and hating self of ours? Don’t you just want to hate it?

Until we become absolutely perfect, I think we are wise to hate it. Why? At least we hate it for safety’s sake (our own safety and the safety of others).

Think about the psalm we read. There are two kinds of people there, in that psalm. One kind is the people who are called wicked, and the enemies of God.

The other kind is the lovers of God. They are called the righteous and the upright. The righteous upright are the one who know how to do the right thing at the right time. They are like the well disciplined war horse that knows its rider’s commands and responds instantly; to go forward, to turn aside, to back up, and to stop.
Doing the Tree

They know how to respond. The righteous life is the responsive life. To be responsible is really simply to be responsive to the situation and the needs around us, as well as we can understand them.

We think of righteousness as arrogance, but it is really humility. It is holy meekness, in the war horse sense of the word: strength and beauty under control and ready for action.

In our translation these people are called “his faithful ones”, but this is an odd word. The King James Version calls them “his saints” (God’s saints). But this is an even odder word.

They are people with a relationship to love. There is more than one Hebrew word for love, and the quality of faithfulness and sainthood, in this Psalm, is an odd word that works two ways. It works between the giver and the receiver. The giver of this love makes the receivers of this love into his faithful ones. The object of the lover’s love becomes beloved, and that gives to the beloved a new identity.

This word for the love that makes a person faithful means a “covenant love”. It is a love that is based on the promise of the giver of the love. It is a pledge that binds and changes the receiver. God’s people are his faithful ones because they are the target of God’s faithful love: God “covenant-promise love”.

This is the love that makes sinners into God’s faithful. It is the love that we call the grace of God. Paul tells us that this is the sort of kindness and love that God gives us us. “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

The Theme is Candy Canes
God’s faithfulness is an inseparable part of God’s righteousness and justice, which (the Psalm tells us) are the foundation of his throne. They are at the very core of what God is as the true God and Savior. This faithfulness based on the foundation of righteousness and justice is part of what makes God truly God.

When the Psalm says that God reigns and rules it means that what God is, and what God does, works. It gets done.

The Psalm tells us that (one way or another) the enemies of God are consumed. First it tells us that they are consumed by fire, and then it implies to us that they are consumed by shame. It is the shame of their choices; the shame of their foolishness.

What about the enemies of God that Paul describes to Titus? Who are they? They are the foolish, the hateful, and the hating.

But think some more about who they are. They are the people who used to be us. And what consumed the people who used to be us? It was the kindness and the love of our God and Savior who appeared to us in Jesus. This consumes our old lives and the Holy Spirit makes us new.

And what happened to those people who were the enemies of God? They became us. What about the fire of God? Sometimes we do burn with shame, and our old self is consumed by that fire. The faithful fire of God’s love makes us God’s beloved.

There is a picture of this in the Old Testament; in God calling Moses to lead his people out of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land. God, in his burning compassion, appeared to Moses in a burning bush; a bush that burned with flame but was not consumed by that flame. Moses’ life was changed by his encounter with a flaming God.

In the New Testament the flaming God has not really changed. The glory of the Lord that came shining on the shepherds of Bethlehem, at the birth of Jesus, frightened them because it told them of the arrival of the flaming God.

Another odd word in Titus is the love that is paired with the kindness of God. This peculiar love is called, in the Greek text, “philanthropia” (“philanthropy”). Philanthropy is the brotherly love of the human race.

God made himself our brother when he came into this world as the child of Mary. God made himself our brother in Jesus to love us all with a brotherly love and thus to make us his brothers and sisters. It was a work that began in Bethlehem and it continued all through his life. It was completed through his death for our sins on the cross, and through his resurrection that destroyed the power of death.

We become his faithful ones who will never fail to love him because he loved us into eternity. He loved us into his kingdom that shall never end.
Isn't It Beautiful?

The hatred we read about in the Psalm is the right way to feel about anything that keeps anyone away from this love and sacrifice of flaming God. It is right to hate whatever it is in us that we use to hold God off, at arm’s length, and keep ourselves in charge. It is right to hate, in others, the things that destroy, within them, the image of God that comes from their creation and from God reaching out from the cross to save them.

The psalm tells us that God wants this movement of his faithfulness to be seen and heard by the whole world, even though it can make the world tremble. Perhaps a love that is infinite and absolutely relentless and undefeatable can look as dark as a storm and as scary as lightening.

We don’t always want to receive love from just anyone who wants to love us, and we may seek to drive that love away, or make it ineffective. Even the best children sometimes try to test their parents love. That is the time for parents’ love to burn like a raging inferno, and to show what it is made of by not being driven back.

The great industrialist, robber baron, and philanthropist of the nineteenth century, Andrew Carnegie, said that philanthropy, after all, is about “doing real and permanent good.” A burning love never settles for less.

In the story of the policeman and the shoeless man, how do these two individuals fit the two kinds of people? The policeman who bought the shoes stands for the faithful love of God who seeks to change the life of the receiver of his love. The shoeless man is the kind of person who may be burnt by the fire of love, but whose life may yet change because of it.

Mostly Finished
What about the other people in the story, the ones who followed up on the story, the ones who criticized the shoeless man for being shoeless, and the policeman for giving him shoes? I would say that they are the foolish and hateful people in God’s terrible simplicity of thought.

And who are we?

Aren’t we the people who have seen and heard? Aren’t we the ones to whom the kindness and philanthropy of God our Savior has appeared in the birth of the baby God of Bethlehem?

This is the love that still burns when we touch it. This is the love that wants to make room within our hearts reach itself out through us to others.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of Holiness and Hope

Preached on Sunday, December 2, 2012: The First Sunday of Advent
Scripture readings: Psalm 96:1-13; Titus 2:11-14

For several years, when I was growing up, my dad was the chairman of our town’s fall festival parade. In those years, the only complaint about the parade was that it was much too long and that it had way too many antique cars.

Pictures Taken: Fall 2012 Bassett Park Washtucna WA
My dad’s parades did have a lot of old cars, because he loved old cars, and he liked sharing what he loved with others. But the parade also had a lot of other things; lots, and lots, and lots of other things. The way I remember it, his parades were all well over an hour long. My dad often seems to have lived by the theory that you couldn’t get too much of a good thing.

There was a time when my dad’s attention zoomed in on one good thing. He decided to get Bing Crosby to be the grand marshal of our fall festival parade. My dad liked Bing Crosby. Who wouldn’t? Bing Crosby was the singer and star of stage, screen and television from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-sixties. And Bing Crosby came to Sutter County every fall to hunt.

Western Sutter County is one of the oldest, and best, and most accessible places in the state of California for bird hunting: all kinds of birds. Bing Crosby loved hunting all kinds of birds.

In the wetlands and fly ways of Sutter County, there were Bing Crosby sightings every year. Only you had to look closely because he dressed in boots and blue jeans, and he never wore his toupee.

My dad found that he had connections; that he knew people who knew people who had connections (or said they did) to Bing Crosby, and he played those to the hilt. He pursued Bing for two years in a row. The first year, we were politely turned down. We had tried to schedule him too late.

The second year it became clear that we were not worth his time. Bing Crosby would never make a grand appearance in the Live Oak Fall Festival Parade.

Our Psalm for this morning and our reading from Paul’s Letter to Titus tell us about another grand appearance: the appearance of God in our world. The Psalm says, “Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” (Psalm 96:12-13) And Paul says, “We wait for the blessed hope; the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ….” (Titus 2:13)

In the Psalm, the grand appearance of God is seen as a future event, although it tells us that we can see him even before we see him. It tells us that we can see that the Lord rules and we can sing about it. “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all the peoples.” “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns.’” The Lord rules! (Psalm 96:3, 10)

And yet the Psalm gives away some reasons why we should not see God here at all, and reasons why God should not appear. The Psalm looks forward to the appearance of God because, “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.”

This Psalm is telling us that we will see righteousness and truth take over the world when the Lord makes his appearance, meaning that we don’t see it yet. We live in a world where righteousness and truth are not apparent. We may not see them at all. Why should a holy God grace, with his presence, a world without righteousness and truth?

And why does this world lack righteousness and truth? This world deliberately ignores a righteousness and truth that stares it in the face every day. This world can look up at the sky and see the righteousness and truth of God. “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” (Psalm 96:5)

We may think of idols as statues and pictures of false gods and goddesses, and it’s true that there are such statues and pictures. But God’s people, in the Old Testament, had a curious way of describing these. They didn’t call these statues and pictures “statues and pictures”; they called them “nothings”. Idols were real things that were “nothings”.

Pretty much everyone but the people of God worshiped real things that were “nothings”. Even some of God’s own people straddled the fence and worshiped those real things that were “nothings”.

What were they? They were gods and goddesses of weather, and harvest, and wealth. They were gods and goddesses of sex, and intelligence. Yes, even some of God’s own people secretly worshiped such gods, such idols, such “nothings”.

Doesn’t the whole world still worship these? Isn’t it the greatest scandal world? Isn’t it the greatest embarrassment in the world, when someone finds out that you don’t worship these gods like everyone else does? We may not bow down and pray to the statues and pictures of these things any more, but we don’t dare to call them nothings. We don’t dare to neglect them.

Jane McCormick’s father essentially called them nothings. Jane grew up in a home with lots of brothers and sisters. I think there were nine children in her family, growing up together. In later years Jane joked with her father that, if he had raised pigs instead of children, he would have been a wealthy man. He looked at her and said, “I am a wealthy man.” He knew what real wealth is.

The Psalm was teaching its people to look forward a world where God would make his grand appearance, and would show that world what real wealth is. We think of righteousness as a quality that makes us better than other people. The people who think they are righteous may look down on us. True righteousness is a life that makes things right; that sets wrongs right.

God’s judging the world in righteousness doesn’t mean just that he is right and we are wrong, and that God means to assert his rightness over us. God’s judging the world in righteousness means his life reaching into our world and reaching into our lives and setting us right, making life good.

What if you devoted yourself to making life right and good for your husband, your wife, your children, you neighbors, and your world; being a person serving the purpose for which God created you; not turning away from that? What if you did this because you were letting God set you right? Imagine God making your right with him, and making you right within yourself; working on the process of you heart, and mind, and imagination. Imagine God working on your desires and dreams and setting those things right.

A ancient king would travel around his kingdom and serve as its chief justice. The king’s justice existed to set things right in his kingdom. That is what God’s grand appearance is for.

Paul tells us that this grand appearance has come, and the justice that God brings is grace. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope; the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ….”

But Paul surprises us to say that there are two grand appearances. Jesus Christ has appeared already and, as Paul says, he “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, has appeared, Paul says, and this God and Savior gave something for us in order to do something to us. Jesus came and took away our worship of nothings. So he purified us through his coming.

And what did he do to take away our nothings when he came? He came as the baby for whom there was no room. He was a baby that a king and his soldiers tried to hunt down and kill.

He was a boy in a carpenter’s shop. He got calluses, and big honking splinters, and gashes in his boyish hands, learning how to make important things with wood: to build a roof, or a ladder, or a table, or a plow; to make something that would make the lives of simple peasant people better.

He became a teacher, and a healer, and he raised the dead to life. The wind and the waves obeyed him, but he had no roof over his head because he would not live to serve nothings.

He said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) And he was arrested and killed, in a viciously painful and dehumanizing way, by those who had seen and heard more than enough of him. Although the truth is that he died to redeem us, to purchase and buy us, from our slavery to the nothings of this world.

Then he rose from the dead. Then he returned to heaven to rule and lead his people with the promise and the hope of his next grand appearance.

He purified us from our nothings. Paul’s talk of the change from godlessness to godliness tells us about this. In this particular place the Greek words give us an ancient way of thinking about the quality of our life.

Our language and our way of thinking lack the words for it. We could say that the appearance of the Lord changes us from impiety to piety, but what is that?  We think of pious people as being, somehow self-righteous or hypocritical. The Old Testament concept of this is called “the fear of the Lord”, but what is that? We think that the fear of God would make us sad and cringing.

In our Psalm Ninety Six we read that the Lord “is to be feared above all the gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols…” Eugene Petersons paraphrases it this way: “His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap; pagan gods are mere tatters and rags.”

In the ancient world a pious person lived every day and every moment of their life in an attitude of reverence because they knew that they were living in the presence of a terrible beauty: an unspeakable beauty. They were living lives of enormous consequence and worth because they had the attention of a beautiful God.

When we worship nothings, then nothing is holy, sacred; but when the Lord makes his appearance then everything and every moment is sacred. Every step we take is a journey we make on holy ground.

This sounds deadly serious but this doesn’t mean we lose the gift of laughter. Even laughter, even the humblest and the silliest thing, is holy. I almost think that whatever doesn’t kill us should make us laugh.

My little town of Live Oak was too small for the great Bing Crosby, but a manger was not too small for our God and Savior Jesus Christ. This purifies our hearts from the worship of nothings.

Sometimes our nothings seem so big and important that they blind us the terrible beauty of God. They outweigh the gifts of God that take the form of our own family and our neighbors. We make ourselves too big for God, when God did not make himself too big for us. Death on a cross, to take away our sins and give us a new life, was not too small for him.

So we have been changed by the appearance of God in Christ, and we wait for his coming appearance that will bring real righteousness and truth to our world. We have been so changed that we no longer worship the nothings. Instead we have a passion for the most important things of all: rightness and truth, even when they seem smelly and difficult (like mere mangers and crosses) to the world around us. We have a passion and eagerness rightness and truth, even when they look like mere mangers and crosses to us.

These will be the things that count. These are the true wealth. Our hope to see rightness and truth rule is not wishful thinking. It is because of our faith in the God who appeared in Jesus. This is why we live with hope. The passion of God, appearing in Jesus Christ, gives us a passion for the little things of rightness and truth that make us truly wealthy.

The passion of God in Christ makes us faithful in little things, because we see that even they are holy, and we are not afraid of this passion because we are people of hope: the hope of his appearing; when God’s good will be seen to be good, and when God’s rightness will be judged to be right, and God’s truth will be proven true.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creatures Designed for Moral Integrity

Preached on Sunday, August 22, 1999 and on Sunday, November 25, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 33:1-11, (13-15); Romans 1:18-25

Fall '12, My Back Yard
A four-year-old girl was jumping up and down, up and down, on her bed, and her mother heard the noise and came into her room. And the mother said to her, “Honey, you’ll get hurt if you jump on the bed.” But the little girl just said, “I won’t get hurt, Mommy.” And the Mother said, “You’ll break the bed!” And the little girl said, “I won’t break the bed.”

At that the mother gave up. “Fine then,” she said, “You’ll just have to learn live with the consequences.” 

The little girl froze when she heard this. She was suddenly almost in tears. “No Mommy, I don’t want to go and live with them... I don’t even know the Consequences.”

It is an important thing to get to know the consequences; but the consequences of what; the consequences of our mistakes? Yes! The consequences of our sins? Yes!

 What is sin? Anything we think, or say, or do, through which we raise a wall against a holy God who loves us: this is sin. Anything we think, or say or do, that raises a wall against others or damages them, even though they are creatures who belong to God: this is sin. Anything we think, or say, or do, to deceive ourselves or to damage ourselves, even though we are creatures who belong to a holy and loving God: this is sin.

There are consequences to our mistakes. There are consequences to our sins. But I don’t think we will ever really know the consequences unless we look deeper, or go further back beyond sin, before sin.

Fall '12, My Back Yard
Down at our roots, deep in our bones, back in our genes, human beings are creatures designed and made in the image of God. Part of what this means is that God’s plan was for us to live, day by day, knowing the reality of the power of God, and the goodness of God.

Paul says it is God’s eternal power and divine nature. For divine nature, the King James Version has a really strange word, the word “Godhead”, which means the “godness” of God. Maybe you could even call it the godliness of God, or the fitness of God to be God.

It is the excellence of God: God’s faithfulness, holiness, the compassion of God, the justice of God, all the attributes, all the characteristics, all the virtues of God that make God beautiful, and magnificent, and desirable. When you know what is beautiful and magnificent about God then you know what is good, and you know how to listen to God, and you know how to treat others, and you know how to live.

Once I was talking to a youth group about who God is, and about what we are. And I asked them how they would grade the human race, how would they grade human nature. And I forget whether they gave humans a “D” or an “F”. Either way, it wasn’t a good grade.

In the lines we have read in the letter to the Romans, Paul is just beginning to make the case for how bad things are, how far away each one of us is, unless we receive God’s mercy, God’s help, God’s rescue, unless we let the Lord give us a new life, through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Fall, My Front Yard
But Paul is saying that no matter how far away we are, there is still something in us that ought to recognize who God is and what goodness is. The Psalm we read talks about the human heart as belonging to God, because God made the heart.

The heart is not just the big muscle in our chest that pumps our blood. The heart is not just our feelings. In the Bible the heart means the core of you, the real you within, that decides what you want, and what you don’t want. Your heart is what holds onto dreams, or it is the part of you that schemes and connives. Your heart is the inner part of you that chooses friends, and the object of your affections. Your heart is the real, inner you that sets your course and makes your choices. Your heart is you.

And the Psalm tells us that a heart which is right with God is a life where you are able to give praise, where you are able to sing, and you know what you are singing about. Why does it say you sing? It says you sing because “the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice, and the earth is full of his unfailing love.”  This is a Psalm about those who know what the Lord loves, and they love it too: truth, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, and unfailing love.

They see it. They taste it. They want it. They follow it. They live it out. The Lord made their hearts, and this means that the Lord is the one who should be in charge of their hearts.

They don’t mind this. No, they are glad about who they belong to. And as a result they can sing. They can experience the reality of God, and see in God what is good, and they live accordingly.

Fall '12, Washtucna
The psalm also tells us that some people are in a state of war with God. The Lord made their hearts, and they ought to acknowledge that they belong to God, that the Lord is the one who has authority over them. But they don’t. They fight and do whatever they can to cut the ties.

Now the rebellion we see even in the psalm, and especially in Romans, is a universal inherited trait. It is a part of each one of us that we cannot undo by ourselves, and if we do not give ourselves up to God the rebellion will spread inside us. It will poison our life, and spread over into other people’s lives. It will take over, and win, and make us all blind to God; and it will blind us to the life God offers to us.

Now I still haven’t told you about the consequences of being moral creatures, creatures designed to know God and to know what is good. All sin comes from a rebellion against what Paul calls God’s “eternal power and divine nature.”

All sin comes from the desire that there be no one in charge and no one to tell them what is right and good. It seems to me that even a child can understand that.

All sin is destructive.

Paul says that the reality of God and the reality of goodness can be seen in what God has made. Sin destroys the ability to look at a sunrise, or a sunset, and see that it has a purpose. They say that if you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an agnostic you get a person who knocks on your door and doesn’t know why.  Sin makes it harder and harder to look around you and see the assurance of God’s love that is written in what God has made.

God’s creation is a gift, a personal gift from God to you. Sin makes it harder and harder to see the gift. And without a gift there is nothing to be thankful for.

And part of what God has made is people. Sin makes it harder and harder to see other people as God’s creation, and harder to treat them accordingly. 
Fall '12 Historical House Washtucna

Sometimes preachers doing a wedding describe husbands and wives as being God’s hammer and chisel for each other. And I hear that it can really feel like that. But when we don’t want to be ruled by God’s power and God’s goodness we won’t see God’s hand behind the hammer and chisel.

We won’t listen because the other person is always wrong. But maybe they are not completely wrong. Maybe they only seem wrong because God has a difficult truth to give you. Part of the message of the difficult truth from God would say, “Listen, and let my power motivate you, and let my goodness lead you.” 

Your neighbors, and the people you work with, and the pool of people you have to volunteer with are all the same, all part of what God has made, all part of the message. And listening is one of the symptoms of whether or not we want to have a God who rules us and shows us his standard for what is good.

Listening! I am not sure if I am good at it. I find myself being pretty eager to prove that I am right, instead of listening to a difficult truth. I wanted to justify myself.

But justifying me is God’s work. My work is to listen. Wanting to justify myself is the same as wanting to be God on my own, and not listening to the God who rules and has the say over what is good.
Fall '12 Looking toward Bassett Park, Washtucna

This is sin. And this is destructive.

Sin is destructive because it is like a self inflicted lobotomy. A lobotomy is brain surgery where a certain part of the brain is removed. In the past lobotomies were done on criminals or the mentally ill, in order to make them controllable.

When we sin we take away part of our ability to think, and understand.  Paul says that the mentality of rebellion in us suppresses the truth.

We have a case of use it or lose it. God gave us the capacity to absorb the truth, but if we spend all our energy suppressing or ignoring the truth, we will lose the capacity. Paul uses the phrase that when rebels insist on their own way, God gives them over to what they want, God lets them live with the consequences.

They didn’t want to give thanks, so God lets their minds be darkened, because what else is thanklessness but darkness? They wanted to be wise without seeing the way God sees, so the Lord let them become foolish. They wanted freedom from the only one who gives us worth, so the Lord let them become slaves.

C. S. Lewis says (“The Problem of Pain”) that the lost, “enjoy the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self enslaved.”  When we live with unseeing, unhearing hearts, this is what happens, and this is the consequence of sin. But, deeper, this is the consequence of being created for moral integrity and abusing our creation.

'12 It Looks Like Fall, Feels Like Fall: Sign Says "Spring"!
Now, where is the gospel here? Where is the good news? Remember that God is the maker of hearts. The maker is also the owner. Even those who have done a lobotomy on themselves have, within themselves, a gap that God can fill. Someone once said that every human being has a God shaped gap that only God can fill. Augustine said, “We are restless until we find our rest in him.”

God is the maker of our hearts and lives, and God will give us a new heart in Jesus Christ. Christ died on the cross so that we could see our sin, and give ourselves up, and die to ourselves. Then we will have a new heart and a new life where we can live everyday knowing God’s power and God’s goodness, and living in what we know.