Monday, February 27, 2012

God Speaking: Like a New Life

Preached on Sunday, February 26, 2012
Scripture readings: Ezekiel 36:24-28; John 3:1-21

Nicodemus had some kind of business he wanted to do with Jesus, but we have no way of knowing what that was. Jesus interrupted him before he could get that far. Nicodemus seems to say that there were people on the Jewish high council who recognized that God was working through Jesus. Nicodemus and those other interested parties probably wanted Jesus to “clue them in” and let them know what God was up to.

Long before this, God had done signs and wonders through Moses, to get his people out of slavery in Egypt. That was the story of the exodus. (Exodus 7:3; Deuteronomy 6:22) Now they wondered when God would do this again, because they felt they were slaves again.

It was a low-grade form of slavery in the form of centuries of conquest and occupation by foreign powers. They wanted something wonderful like the exodus to happen again. They wanted a prophet like Moses or a king like David to lead them to freedom.

It wasn’t just the common people who hoped that God was doing something wonderful with Jesus. There were people of power and influence, like Nicodemus, who realized that the “miraculous signs” of Jesus could be the “signs and wonders” of God’s intervention like those so long ago. They wanted to know what God might be up to, and what part Jesus might play in it.

If Jesus passed the test, they were prepared to do business with him. They would make a deal with him. They would use their power and influence on Jesus’ behalf.

Jesus had no resources of his own; not like they did. He had no real organization behind him; only a few disciples, or students, who followed him and didn’t understand him very well. Friends on the high council could help Jesus succeed in his plans. The people who could attempt great things for God needed to work together.

Nicodemus was a great man. He was a respected scholar and teacher among people who rated those qualities high.

Nicodemus came to Jesus after dark, when things would be quiet. His first words to Jesus were respectful, gracious, complimentary, and even flattering. Jesus sounds rude in comparison. Nicodemus came to deal, and Jesus refused to deal.

Here is Jesus’ refusal to deal with Nicodemus and his friends. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3) In a sense, Jesus is saying, “Wait a minute Nicodemus. As soon as you opened your mouth you showed that you were completely misguided. You need to start all over again.”

In another sense Jesus is saying this. “I need nothing from you; you have nothing of value to offer me; and you don’t even realize this.” It is like saying, “Are you offering to support me when you can’t even see what I am doing?”

Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus immediately responds to Jesus’ interruption by completely misunderstanding what Jesus is talking about. He does not see what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God. Being born again is at the heart of the kingdom of God, and Nicodemus cannot understand how this works.

Kingdom, here, is not about a thing with geography, and borders, and a capital, and a form of government. Kingdom, here, means the authority and power of the king. How does the king exercise his power? How does God, the king, make things work and get things done?

Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about being born again in the sense of being given a “do over”.  Maybe a teacher will let a student take a test over again, if the student was sick and had to miss too much time in class before he or she took the test; sometimes school teachers give “do overs” to their students.

It happens in other ways. You move to a different place. You get a second chance at love. You go back to school. You get a “do over”.

Before I came here to Washtucna and Kahlotus, I served a church in central California was there was a minimum security prison. It was the prisoner’s last stage before they were released back into the world. I did chapel there quite a few times, and the prisoners who came to chapel always asked for prayer before they got out.

They wanted to stay “clean” on the outside. They didn’t like it in prison. They didn’t want to come back. They knew how easy it could be to fall back into their old patterns. They wanted to succeed with their new chance at life. They wanted to make good on their “do over”.

Sometimes the power of regret plays tricks with us, so that we are tempted to daydream about what it would be like to go back in time and change one thing about our life, or change one bad choice we made. This is nothing more than a game, and it never makes us feel any better.

This is a kind of “do over” that God, in his wisdom, does not allow. Just imagine what kind of a world this would be; if everyone lived by going back in time to second guess and to replay themselves; replay their lives?

Our birth was something over which we had no control. Being born again is just the same. It has nothing to do with ourselves.

A “do over” is the chance to do something for ourselves. Our ambition to be able to do something for ourselves was the thing that got the human race in trouble, in the first place. Adam and Eve were tempted to do something for themselves to make themselves like God. It was an ambition that put human nature outside the life of God. It put human nature in the dark.

Being born again means coming to the end of your self and letting God be God. Being born again means letting God do with us what we, ourselves, cannot do. Only God can make us new.

Jesus quotes an event in the Old Testament, when Moses was leading God’s people through the desert; leading them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. God’s people complained, and complained, and complained. They were stewing themselves in the poison of their frustration and fear in the face of the adventure of faith that God was giving them.

So God gave them something really poisonous to think about. The desert was full of snakes. The snakes didn’t give them trouble before. Their lives had been as free from snakes as their sandals had been free from wear and tear. God had blessed them with a charmed life beyond their imagining. So God let the snakes loose. God’s snake-hearted people got bit.

The healing for their snake bites was to look at the bronze snake that God told Moses to make and put on a pole. Those who looked at the snake were healed.  (Numbers 21:8-9)

Jesus said that the kingdom of God was like the snake on the pole that gave healing to all who set their eyes on it. I see the snake as the image of the sins of the people God loved. If those people could look at the snake, they would see their own sin. They would see their very selves. And they would see the healing of God in the same image.

When God speaks himself in Jesus on the Cross, we see the image of our sins. The cross is an ugly and painful thing. Sin is ugly and painful. The cross was an ugly thing to do to Jesus. It was unjust, and hateful, and angry. It was a crime committed by the proud and the hypocritical. But that is the way sin works, and we see that in the cross, as well.

Jesus is the Word of God; God speaking himself and revealing himself. When we look at Jesus on the cross we see God on the receiving end of our sin. We see human pain and ugliness. We see the evil of injustice, and hatred, and anger, and pride, and hypocrisy. We see our very selves. We see God carrying the weight of our sins, and the weight of who we are without him, on the cross.

On the cross we see ourselves as we are. On the cross we see who God is. We see his kingdom. This is how God rules. This is how God works and gets things done.

Believing means trusting what we see on the cross. What we see about God on the cross is such good news. We see perfect and unrelenting redemptive love.

The news is so good that believing it is nothing to be proud of. Believing in Jesus is not an achievement. It is not how we do business with him. How can we help ourselves? How can we not believe, when we are able to see this good news?

This is how he rules us as king. This is how he gets his work done. What we see on the cross brings us to the end of ourselves. It brings us to the place where God can do with our lives what only God can do. He makes us new.

Being born again doesn’t work by being a thing of the past. Being born again is a way of life. Every day we need to be washed clean. Every day we need a new breath of the Holy Spirit to make our hearts fresh and new. There is nothing we can do or give God to make a deal with him or bargain with him. There is only our surrender to the saving love of God.

The kingdom of God rules by the power of a redemptive, saving love. That is how the people of the kingdom live. That love, living in our hearts, is what we give to others; so that God’s rule will extend to them.

Then we live the truth. We live in the light of God. Then others can see the light of the kingdom, and come to it, and be born again to a life that only God can give.

Monday, February 20, 2012

God Speaking: Like Fine Wine

Preached on Sunday, February 19, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 104:10-23; John 2:1-11

John tells us that, when Jesus turned the water into wine, he revealed his glory. (2:11) John has told us about this glory before. He has told us, first, that Jesus is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1-2)

John has told us that, in Jesus, God entered human life. God became human. This is how he said it: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (1:14) John sheds light on the glory of Jesus (the Son) this way: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (1:18)

Jesus is the Word, who is God, making God known. Jesus is God speaking; expressing himself and revealing himself.

So when Jesus turned the water into wine, it was God speaking; expressing himself and revealing himself. It was a demonstration of a reality about God. It was a sign of who Jesus really is, and who the Father really is; and so it is a sign of who God really is.

Human beings can make grapes into wine, but we can’t make water into wine. The glory of turning water into wine is that it gives us a sign of who God is and what God can do.

God is the creator and the Lord of water, and grapes, and yeast and the fermentation process (all of which are a part of nature; all a part of creation). God can turn water into wine and that is why Jesus could do it.

When God does what we cannot do, that is a miracle. We have a God of miracles. The sign Jesus did tells us that. There is a special kind of trust and confidence (there is a special way of life) involved in knowing the God of miracles.

That trust, that confidence, that way of life, is meant to belong to us. A relationship to the God of miracles is what we have through Jesus, who gives us a new life through his birth, and through his sacrifice for our sins on the cross, and through his resurrection from the dead. Jesus makes us new people who are no longer separated from the God of miracles.

But, if miracles were the point of what Jesus did, by turning water into wine, he would not have needed to do that particular miracle. If miracles were the point, any old miracle would do.

The gift of turning water into wine makes a special point. Jesus did it to serve a specific purpose and meat a specific need. It sends a message of the sort of God we have and what sort of things he does.

The bride, and the groom, and their families needed wine for their wedding; and they had run out. I am sure that they did not run out of wine by mistake. They had run out of wine because they were poor.

Every house in the village had wine. The village was full of wine. They could have had it, if they could have bought it. They just did not have the money to buy enough wine for their guests.

The families wanted these two kids to get married. Weddings took lots and lots of wine because weddings always lasted for days, and whole villages, and whole neighborhoods of villages would come to share in the celebration.

A proper first century Jewish wedding was very expensive. It was one of the biggest expenses of their lives, and such weddings were an obligation of family honor.

The parents would have discussed the situation like this: “So many people are going to come. We can’t afford any more wine than this! What if we run out? So, maybe we won’t run out. There’s a chance we won’t run out. What will people say if we run out of wine? So, maybe we won’t run out.”

What was a wedding without wine? Wine represented joy. The ancient rabbis had a saying: “Without wine there is no joy!”

Wine was not about getting drunk. The custom was to mix wine with water before people drank it. The formula was two parts wine to three parts water. So the wine the guests drank was watered down by more than a hundred per cent. The wine they drank was more than half water.

But watering it down like that didn’t hurt it because it was a thick, meaty wine. Grape skins, and flesh, and seeds and stems stayed in the wine until it was poured into serving jugs through a cloth filter.

Practically speaking, because it was cut in half with water, your bladder wouldn’t allow you to drink enough of it to get drunk. The most you could hope to achieve, that way, was just a mild buzz! It did nothing more than make you happy.

If we could have traveled back in time to such a wedding, and if we heard the news that the family had run out of wine, we might have said, “Oh what a shame.” Only we wouldn’t realize the seriousness of the shame because we don’t life in an honor society. Running out of wine would have been a serious loss of face. It was an embarrassment where honor was everything. They would never forget their shame, and neither would anyone else.

The families of the bride and groom had been saving up for this since they got married, themselves. Their honor required them to provide what tradition required.

The days of their wedding were supposed to be remembered as the best of days. They were supposed to be the richest, brightest, and happiest days of their lives.

The bride and groom were treated as royalty. They wore crowns. They were addressed as king and queen. They were carried, round and round, through the village streets in a torchlight parade. But when their wine failed the honor and joy of those days failed, at least until Jesus stepped in.

My dad started making wine when I was about fourteen years old. I remember how much planning and preparation he put into it.

My dad was a perfectionist. He kept notebooks of the dates he did everything, the ingredients, and the amounts for each vintage.

Over time, my dad built his own crusher, and wine press, and filtration system. Wine was a lot of work, and a lot of waiting, and a lot of eager anticipation.

He did have some failures, wines that were bad, wines that spoiled. Early on my dad found that there were recipes for wine that would not work. He also found that, although may be true (theoretically) that you can make wine out of anything, there are some things that should not be made into wine.

My dad could make wonderful wine. His main wine was from grapes, of course. But he made all sorts. I loved his cherry wine. I gagged on his tomato wine, and his cantaloupe wine. They were horrible, truly horrible. He never tried those again.

Sometimes the wine does fail.

Life can be like wine, and sometimes it fails. We run out of something essential. Our courage fails. Our best intentions fail; or our wisdom.

Our patience wears out. Our time runs out. Our resources are spent. The people we depended on are gone.

We cannot mend all the harm we cause. We cannot mend ourselves. We cannot protect those we love from hurt or failure. We watch the defeat and the end of a cause we love. We are no longer quite whole because of grief and loss.

All of these are signs of being the children of a long fought rebellion. They are the signs of a rebel world. Everyone in the world suffers from a deformity and an isolation that began when our first ancestors tried to build a life independent of God. A life independent of God is a life where the wine runs out.

In a rebel world, there are barriers in our nature between us and God, between us and the people around us, between us and what God intended us to be. We look at our selves and we find there are parts missing; parts like an unselfish love, or like true humility, or like the ability to fully give the trust of one’s heart.

We may not always be aware of this. But, when we truly know ourselves, when we truly understand our world, then we realize that, as wonderful as life can be, as amazing as this creation is, we do run out of wine.

The God who turns the water into wine does the impossible, but this is not a case where just any miracle will do. The rabbis said, “Without wine there is no joy.” What God came, in Jesus, to give us was a humanly impossible, infinitely renewable, and everlasting joy.

Later in this gospel Jesus will say this of us: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

This is the wine: the barriers go down, the missing parts are restored. Water is good but wine is rich, and strong, and joyful.

If you want to follow Jesus, notice who he cares for and who he helps. It’s true that Jesus cares for the sick, and the hungry, and the disabled, and the poor, and the dying. He also cares for the ashamed, and the shunned, and the defeated, and the empty, and the joyless.

Notice that the kind of care and compassion Jesus shows is extravagant and not sparing of anything. The one-hundred-and-twenty to one-hundred-and-eighty gallons of wine would be more than enough for that wedding in Cana. The village would be drinking that wine for months to come. They would have to find new reasons to celebrate together. Jesus gave them far more than they needed.

God’s grace conquers us because it is so rich, and wild, and extreme that we cannot really argue with it. When we see Jesus reaching out to us from the cross how can we say “no” to it? I found that I couldn’t say no to it. How can we say, “I want only half of that, not quite so much please!”?

My Polish grandma (my Babcia, my Baci) expressed love through food and always made us eat too much. She shouldn’t have done this. Even in those days we knew this. But you couldn’t say no to her. Her grace was too big.

The grace of the gospel of Jesus is way too big. We can never hope to escape our debt of thanks to him.

If we follow Jesus, our grace toward others will always be too much. On Christmas, and for birthdays, my other grandma would give us clothing that was far too large. Often we would never grow into it. It would wear out before we grew into it.

When my mom would mention that the clothes were much too big, my grandma Evans would just say, “That’s a good fault.” The grace of God and the grace of Christians are big like this. If this were not true Jesus would have told everyone at the wedding that water was good enough.

He turned the water into wine because his grace to us had to be too big. He turned the water into wine because the grace he wanted us to give to others also had to be too big.

The Word of God and our life with him should be as refreshing as water, and sometimes it is. But the Word of God and our life with him is also meant to be far richer, and stronger, and more joyful than water. God speaks in Jesus. And God speaking is like fine wine.

Monday, February 13, 2012

God Speaking: Like a Lamb

Preached on Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scripture readings: Isaiah 53:1-12; John 1:19-39

John the apostle begins his gospel by telling us about someone called the Word of God. He tells us that this Word enables us to know who God is. The Word of God would be God speaking. Enabling us to know who he is means God speaking himself; God expressing himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

This Word of God, as we are told, became human: became flesh; real flesh and blood. We know this Word of God as Jesus. Read about this in the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John.

As soon as John has told us this, he begins to tell us the actual story of this Word made flesh. John sets the stage by the banks of a river in the desert where crowds of people are being baptized. The man doing the baptisms is another John: John the Baptist.

This other John was famous in his day. There was a lot of speculation about him. They said that this John was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One; the King of the Kingdom of God. But John the Baptist completely denied that he was anything of the kind.

In fact John the Baptist seems to deny that he is anything at all, and that is kind of scary, but it is also not exactly true. He does say that, compared to the one who was coming, he was less than a slave. In the Jewish world, the Rabbis said that a disciple might do any job for his master but fasten or unfasten his sandals, or washing his master’s feet. Taking care of sandals and feet were a slave’s job, and a disciple was not supposed to act like a slave.

John said he was not worthy to untie the sandals of the one who was coming. That meant he was claiming to be lower than a slave, but there was no one lower than a slave.

So John presents us with a scary version of humility, but I can’t let you misunderstand this. John the apostle tells us only a little about John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke tells us that lots of people, coming to John the Baptist to be baptized, asked him what they should do when they went home. He told them to live generously. He told them not to be greedy. He told them not to push other people around. He told them to be content. (Luke 3:10-14) He told them to live the good life, and the good life was the full life because it was the humble life. It was full because it was empty of the things that people choose in place of real life. It was empty of pretence, and pride, and the love of power.

John’s job was to be a voice in the desert telling people to prepare themselves to see the Lord. “Make straight the way for the Lord.”(John 1:23) Get rid of the meanderings. John was wise enough to know what the prepared life was about.

His almost scary humility taught this important and very simple lesson in two parts. He would want you to know this: first, there is a God; and, second, you are not him. Live accordingly. But it is surprising how easy it is for us to forget this lesson.

John’s life was definitely not about himself. This is another scary side of him. And, yet, it doesn’t have to be scary. The life that is not about your self can be the most attractive life of all.

One of the Washtucna saints was Violetta Hille, whose life was not about her self. She seldom spoke about her self. She lived in the faith and presence of God, and she loved others, and she loved the world of God that surrounded her. Her life was as rich as it was humble.

She was a profoundly quiet person and, if you listened to that quietness, you could hear her witness to the love of God in Christ. She was a powerful example of the concept of “being blessed by God to be a blessing”. (Genesis 12:2)

This points us to the odd quietness of Jesus, through whom we see God himself. Jesus actually does a lot of talking in the Gospel of John which (I think) is the chattiest of the four gospels. But the odd thing is that our first glimpse of Jesus, in this gospel, is a Jesus who doesn’t say anything at all. Even at our second glimpse, Jesus says very little.

If there is someone who is the Word of God we expect to hear him speak. The Gospel of John sets us up, right from the start to be ready to hear the Word of God, but the Word seems to take his time about it. He just walks around. People talk about him and he doesn’t say anything back. People follow him and he only asks them what they want. People ask him silly questions and he barely answers them; not to put them off, but because their questions need very little for an answer.

His first conversation, in this gospel, is where he asks two guys, who are walking behind him, “What do you want?” (If you noticed that there were two guys deliberately following you, would you ask anything different?) And they say, “Where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” And that’s it. There is the Word of God.

“Look, the Lamb of God!” The prophet Isaiah tells us about the quietness of the Lamb of God. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

Now this is about the willingness of Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. The four gospels, taken together, give us the picture of a Jesus who is a man of few words while he was being arrested, and beaten, and questioned, and put on trial, and nailed to the cross. The thieves who were crucified on either side of him seem to have been much more talkative. (Matthew 27:44; Luke 23:39-43)

Yes, the silence of Jesus is around the cross, but Isaiah also speaks of the whole life of Jesus, in his growing up and his adulthood. “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)

The scriptures reveal Jesus, and the fact that they say so little about most of his life is not for the purpose of hiding the truth about him. The scriptures exist for the sake of revealing the truth about Jesus. They reveal a life that was quiet: not much there to write about!

This is not a bad thing. It is not an insufficient life, when there is not a whole lot you need to say about it. Jesus shared our life, which (for most of us) will not go down in the history books. The value of a human life is found in a different place than the history books.

The quietness of the Lamb of God surely reveals the quietness of the glory of God. In the life of the prophet Elijah, when Elijah was running for his life and running through the depths of despair, the Lord spoke to him. At first Elijah was surrounded by the noise of things that God often used to show his presence: earthquake, wind, and fire.

But this time God was not present in those noisy ways. God spoke to Elijah in what the Bible calls “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:9-18)

In that quiet, Elijah could hear the sound of his own voice speaking to God, and so he heard his own need. He heard his own pain, and anger and brokenness. He heard the sound of his own heart. The quiet helped him to hear himself. Then the quiet helped him hear God’s strength and God’s faithfulness. God used the quiet to create faith within Elijah’s heart.

I have a good friend in the ministry who excels at being quiet at exactly the right times. It is one of his great gifts as a servant of God. It is a blessing to have someone we can talk to who doesn’t have to always talk back to us. I wish I were better at that. Some ministers think they have to answer everything.

We think we are alone and forsaken when we do not hear God speaking to us, but Jesus, the Lamb of God and the Word of God, reveals the quietness of God. There is a short psalm about this that is worth learning by heart. It is Psalm 131.

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and for evermore!” (Revised Standard Version)

The Lord’s Supper is an example of the Lord’s quietness; a bit of bread, a sip of wine. What is that? That is the presence of the Lamb of God, the Lord of quietness. How humble the Lord is, to come to us in this way.

And what about us?

Are we much more than a bit of bread and a sip of wine, ourselves? And yet Jesus died for us to give us a new life and to come to us in such simple, quiet ways: a cloud, a look in someone’s eyes, the touch of someone’s hand, the knowledge that there are eyes like those eyes that see us from the throne of the universe, the knowledge that there is a hand like the hand that touches us that was pierced by a nail for us and for our salvation.

These are quiet things. There is life in such things; a passionate life that comes from God. This is how we hear God speaking like a lamb.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: Fools in Good Hands

Preached on Sunday, February 5, 2012

Scripture readings: Nehemiah 13:1-22; 2 Timothy 1:3-18

There were some guys talking and they realized that they all had a new thing in common. Each one’s wife wanted him to lose some weight. One of the guys said, “Yeah, I know; inside me there’s this skinny guy trying to get out, but I can usually sedate him with a cheese burger and fries.”

Sometimes our best intentions, in our lives as God’s people, do not take into account our human ability to stand in our own way, or in God’s way. We need to commit our lives and our service to God into his hands, which are the best hands.

The story of Nehemiah tells us about how he saw a way to help God’s people rise together to meet a changing world. Israel’s pattern for being God’s people had depended on their independence from the outside world; their freedom from its influences.

In fact the Bible tells us how miserably they failed to do that. They never truly did a good job at being God’s people in the days of their independence. But their being independent, and having boundaries to keep the outside world out, had allowed them to hold onto the illusion of being what God called them to be.

In the judgment of God, they lost the independence that they had played with and abused. Now the outside world pressed in on them and they responded to this pressure in different ways.

Nehemiah and others wanted to help God’s people respond by recapturing the essence of what God had given to them, so that they could continue their mission. Most of God’s people responded to the pressure of a changing world by conforming to that world. They responded by their readiness to scrap what made them unique through God’s design.

They were called, like the first members of their family Abraham and Sarah, to be a people of faith, following a faithful God wherever that God led them. That was part of the design that shaped them as a people. Now they caved in to the world around them so they wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the discipline of faith.

They caved in to the world around them so they wouldn’t have to take the risks that faith required of them if they were going to represent the counter-culture of God. God had called them to be mediators (go-betweens) who represented a different way of life. It was a way of faith and grace. Faith and grace were to be the distinguishing marks of a life that was designed to show what we were created for. They were called to be the mediators of God’s way that was so different from the world’s way.

The pattern was spelled out in their books of history, and law, and worship, and wisdom, and prophecy. We have those same books. They belong to our Old Testament.

And we have Jesus who is the living demonstration of everything that went before him. God came in Jesus to live out perfectly all of God’s intentions for his people in their faith and their life. God became human, in Jesus, to show us, in one single life, the faithful God and a faithful humanity.

In Jesus, God offered himself, through his sacrifice on the cross and through his rising from the dead, to be the one who was able to destroy the power of sin and death at work in human lives and human relationships. Adopting our humanity in Jesus, God could mend our humanity by coming to live inside us. When we receive him and believe in him, we find Jesus coming into our hearts, carrying the gift of what he has done for us.

This is the good news of the grace of God. This is how we receive a new life based on the mercy, and the power, and the faithfulness of God.

In Jesus, God calls people to gather around him. Jesus called his people to be “disciples.” Disciple means “learner.

Those who were nearest to Jesus had to learn the discipline of being disciples together, to trust him and follow him together, and that is the foundation of what we call the church. We are not just people who trust and follow the Lord Jesus, but we are “a people” who trust and follow him together. It is how we trust and follow the Lord Jesus together that truly enables us to meet a changing world.

In Nehemiah’s time, God’s people had to meet a world that would no longer allow them to be separate and independent. They met their changing world by blending in and losing themselves.

They blended into a world that mixed them with other people whose identities were based on other faiths. They did this by marrying spouses who would not share their faith or share an interest in raising their children in the faith.

They blended into a world of bondage to work by giving up the Sabbath. They blended into a world where most people lived on a subsistence or survival level, and who slaved their lives away. They blended into a world where the lucky few lived on the continual work of others: the work of those people who were servants or slaves.

God’s people blended into that world of work by ceasing to rest. The Sabbath meant stopping the activity of survival; stopping the way of life that depended on the work of others, at least for one day out of the week.

The Sabbath meant stopping work to enjoy the gift of simply being. The Sabbath meant having faith in God and enjoying the grace of God in all of its forms: a day of grace and faith. In some ways it was a day of heaven, a day of eternity, outside of the world of work and need.

In Paul’s time God’s people, who followed Jesus, had to meet a world that was changing from a position of simply not noticing them or understanding them to a position of danger and hostility. God’s people were tempted to blend into that new world of danger by surrendering to fear and going into hiding. They blended into their surroundings by backing away from their connections with those of their own (like Paul) who got caught in the jaws of that hostile world. Their desertion of Paul was the same thing as deserting a way of life; as a people of God who belonged to each other and shared their lives together.

Paul was under arrest. He was in prison in a culture where the prison system did not support the prisoners. The prisoners had to come up with their own means of support, often through family and friends.

Paul needed the churches to supply him with money for food, and drink, and clothing. He needed money to make payments to his guards; to keep them happy and make sure they treated him well. Prison was not cheap.

The churches of the Roman province of Asia, which was what we now call western Turkey, had all deserted him. They represented the biggest and richest part of the church of that day. They had the means and the stability to spare something for Paul.

We don’t know why they deserted Paul. There may have been political fallout. Enemies of the Christians may have been using Paul’s trial in Rome against the Christians in their province, threatening them with arrest, or penalties and fines.

It wasn’t just the Christians in the province of Asia who deserted Paul. The Christians and co-workers of Paul in Rome did not show up at his preliminary trial where they may have had the opportunity to speak for him against the charges that had been made against him.

Jesus told his disciples, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

The Roman Christian lawyer, Tertullian, around the year 200 AD, wrote that this was one of the most important gifts that the Christians had to give to the world of their day, because it was such a cruel and cutthroat world. Tertullian described the Romans who were not Christian as saying this about the Christians: "Look," they say, "how they love one another" (for they themselves hate one another); "and how they are ready to die for each other" (for they themselves are readier to kill each other). (Apology, Chapter 39)

At a time when the world seemed to be rising against them, the Church was in danger of blending in, in such a way, as to not meet the needs of a loveless world. They blended in, in such a way, so as to hide the very gifts that cruel and cutthroat world needed most from God.

Sometimes I think our world is changing into a place where future generations will live their lives as individuals facing screens for work, and for play, and for human relationships, and even for faith. The danger is that we may try to meet them by blending in without showing them another way.

We, as the people of God, may have to live with one foot in their world. But we will have to point beyond our screens to that other way.

The other way, as old as God’s creation, is where faith, and grace, and truth find their true fulfillment by sharing life together as a tribe, or as a family, following and trusting the Lord together. The Lord came down and became human so that our life with him could be truly human. In the body of Christ, our life with God that takes the physical form of being physically present in each others’ lives, and growth, and worship.

Paul had spent three years in Ephesus; the capital of the province of Asia. (Acts 20:31) That was the longest single period he spent working anywhere during his travels. So he was deserted by God’s people living in a place where he had done the most work; where people should have known him best. If anyone deserted Paul, it would never be the Christians of the province of Asia. But they did it.

Nehemiah was outraged by the failure of God’s people in the very areas of life where he had worked with them the hardest. Nehemiah had worked with God’s people, as governor of the Persian province of Judah, for twelve years.

He had worked with them to restore their identity as God’s people. He had helped them live out that identity in a world that had changed around them. He worked to help them not lose themselves in that changing world.

Nehemiah worked to focus them on passing on their faith by choosing spouses of faith and building families of faith. He worked with them to learn the discipline of stopping to enjoy the gifts of faith and grace through the Sabbath; the Lord’s Day.

After serving twelve years as governor of the province, Nehemiah went back to the Persian capital to serve the king there. A few years later, he asked for a new appointment as governor of his people, and what did he find? He found his people right back in the business of blending in. It was just as if he had never worked with them in the first place.

Over and over, in his book, Nehemiah records his frustration and his prayers for God to have mercy on him and remember what he had tried to do. In order to keep the good work going, it would require the mercy of God and the remembering of God to see it through.

Remembering, in the Bible, does not mean thinking about something that is over and done with. Our remembering (and especially God’s remembering) means taking something that has been started, and doing something with it, and seeing it through. In ordinary life, reviewing even our most idle and unimportant memories serves to establish who we are, and our attitudes, and how we live our lives.

No human being really has the capacity to see God’s work through. “Remember me for this, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” (Nehemiah 13:22)

The great love in Nehemiah’s prayer translates a special Hebrew word for love: the word “hesed”. It means “covenant love”. It is a love based on the promises of an almighty, and faithful, and gracious God. It means God’s ability to see the promises of his love through to their fulfillment. It is God’s ability to finish the work he has begun through us.

Paul has something to say about the power of this love, which is also called the gospel, or the “good news”. Paul says: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” (2 Timothy 1:8-9)

As Paul says, the work of God, giving a new life to people, bringing a new world into existence, was the work of the grace and perseverance of God. So Paul gives us a famous short prayer. It is a prayer that appeals to God’s ability to remember, and have mercy, and bring his own work through to completion. “I know whom I have believed and know that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

When we, as God’s people, seek to meet a world that is not the world of our grandparents, or parents (a world that has changed almost beyond recognition in our own lifetimes, if we are middle aged) we have to learn from God’s people in the time of Nehemiah and of Paul. We have to learn to remember the human element.

We have to ask God to have mercy on us, and for God to remember what we hope to accomplish. We have to do this because we will always be at risk of falling into the very things we want most to guard against.

In our very ambition to meet a changing world, we are always at risk of blending into that world and losing what we have to give. That is the danger. May God guard us against it! May God have mercy upon us!

Being the people of God does not make us immune to lulling ourselves into a false reality. Knowing our danger, we will pray, and commit it to God’s faithful care, and we will keep alert.

Sometimes, faith is like the Sabbath of knowing when to rest and trust. But faith is also the push of offering something from God to the world that does not know him. Faith means knowing that God has designed a different pattern for human life than the world knows anything about. And we are to live God’s way.

In Christ, God gives us a life that is an alternative to everything that goes on around us. Our changing world is like a river, and only living things go against that flow. Faith is what gives us enough fullness of life to swim upstream toward the source of our life that comes from God.

This faith is not the straining of our willpower toward God and the work he gives us to do. Faith is a love that comes from seeing how much greater is the love and faithfulness of God. Faith means entrusting our lives and our service as God’s people to him.