Monday, April 30, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: Two Roads


Preached on Sunday, April 29, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 1:1-6; Matthew 7:13-14

"The Road Not Taken" By Robert Frost 1874–1963

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Jesus grew up singing songs about two roads. One of those songs came from the Book of Psalms which was Jesus’ songbook. Well, Psalms was his family’s songbook and the songbook of all his neighbors. It was the songbook of God’s people, and those were Jesus’ people.

The best known “Song of Two Roads” was the Second Psalm. There are two roads in that song, and the choice between those two roads makes all the difference. But the choice is much more serious than the choice in the poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”.

In the poem by Frost, you can make a choice between the two roads, and expect to live to tell the tale, “ages and ages hence”. In the song that Jesus and his family and his neighbors sang, one road led to destruction and the other road led to life. You might sing on your way along either road but, in the end, when the roads reached their destinations, only one of them would turn out to be the real singing road.

The roads, or the ways, that the Psalm sings about (and Jesus talks about) have a couple different angles to them. We could say that these roads are the roads of life; that there are basically two ways to live. What kind of decisions do you make day after day, year after year, and where do those choices take you in life?  What are the experiences that come from those choices? What sort of story do those choices tell? How have the people around you been influenced by the story of your life?

The other angle is to say that these roads are roads of the heart. Here the road is not where you go, but who you become. You manufacture your self. You process your self.

Well, you don’t do it all yourself. Other people play a part. But, what kind of process is it? Is it a refining process? Is it an artistic process? Is it a destructive process? Are you making yourself a combine, or an all terrain vehicle, or a race car, or a space ship, or a sailing ship, or a kitchen table, or a comfortable chair?

What do you make of yourself, and what is the story of your making? Will your life carry people places, or give them an adventure, or a place of peace? Will you teach them, or give them the gift of seeing or hearing something. Or will the finished product be a caution to others? Even though what you make of yourself is not the end of the story, even though what you make of yourself is only the beginning of some future story, the way to become that finished product is your road.

The choice of the two roads, in the song that Jesus grew up singing, is about the choice of happiness; and this is what Jesus liked thinking about. We might seem to have ten thousand choices to make, but they all boil down to two choices; two roads. One road will lead to happiness, the other road will not.

The Second Psalm begins with the word “blessed”. The Sermon on the Mount, which leads up to Jesus’ short story about the two roads, also begins with the word “blessed”. Both in the Old and New Testaments, these forms of blessing are forms of happiness. And the psalm uses to word “delight” to go along with the road to happiness: “His delight is in the law of the Lord.” The strange thing about this is that the Lord’s people do not always give a clear demonstration of our Lord’s interest in creating happiness.

The idea of delighting in the law of the Lord might not seem delightful. Some people will laugh at the idea of such a delight being a delight at all. We could call those people, here, mockers or scoffers, as the psalm does. They see laws and rules as spoiling all the fun; spoiling their happiness.

There are people who laugh at everything serious, but that is their law. If you don’t laugh with them, then they will laugh at you. The mockers and the scoffers laugh with each other, but only at the expense of someone else.

If you were sitting with them, the way the psalm tells us not to do, and you said, “Let’s stop laughing at other people. Let’s only laugh with them, instead,” they would think something was wrong with you. You would be infringing on their rule. They are people who do not delight in laughing with you but only laughing at you.

There is one of the famous Ten Commandments that says, “You shall not steal”. (Exodus 20:15) The mockers or scoffers steal the value of their fellow humans beings as creatures made in the image of God.

When we delight in the law of the Lord we will look at our fellow humans with wonder, and with prayer, and with concern, and sometimes with great worry and horror. But sometimes we will look at others with great thankfulness and laughter. Our laughter will not steal anything from them. Our laughter will be a celebration of them, and of the God who made them.

Laws as rules for life are delightful things. A lot of traffic laws are rules for life. The law of the road tells us not to pass another car on a curve. It tells us not to pass where you can see another car that is coming your way, in the other lane, or at least not where you can see that it is too close to safely pass.

Don’t pass! It is the road to happiness where people keep it. It is the road to destruction where people don’t keep it.

The Lord created the laws of nature and physics. These are delightful laws. They keep our planet rotating on its axis, giving us just the right amount of day and night. They determine the force of gravity, and gravity keeps us and the atmosphere from spinning off the planet. I like breathing and being on this planet. It makes me happy. I would like to fly through space, but, I want to do that the right way; in a space ship and with air to breathe.

The law of the Lord has a special meaning in the Bible, besides referring to the sort of laws we call rules. The law of the Lord means the ways of the Lord and the teachings of the Lord. The law of the Lord is not only about rules he makes for us to keep; the rules that require us to make the choice between becoming fruitful trees or chaff blown by the wind. The law of the Lord is about the Lord’s own rules. They tell us who God is and how he works.

The first five books of the Old Testament are called the law of the Lord. In Hebrew, they are called “Torah”. So the creation of the heavens and the earth are part of the law of the Lord, because we read about this in the Book of Genesis, the first of the first five books.

The creation of the universe is a wonderful thing. We are surrounded by wonders. Our life of wonder is possible because God is a creator. The nature of God to love creation is a law of his nature; the law of the Lord. It is a law to delight in.

The story of the elderly, childless couple named Abraham and Sarah is part of the law of the Lord. We see God’s ways at work in their story, and it teaches us essential things. The Lord called them to go out into the wilderness and to trust him. They didn’t know where they were going but the Lord knew and he would show them the way.

The Lord called them to trust that he would make a great nation out of them by giving them a son, and by giving them the land through which they wandered. The Lord said, “You are going to have a son. Wait a minute! OK, you are going to have a son. Wait a minute! OK, you are going to have a son. Wait a minute!” This went on for years and years. Plenty of things happened but they waited and waited for that child. Then the promise came true. And God said, “See, I told you so!”

The Lord made his promises happen. The law of the Lord is about grace, and faith, and waiting, and waiting, and being shaped by the long road of the promises of God.

The mockers and scoffers say this: “The heck with waiting; the heck with life being made in the image of God! Let’s make our own laws.”

Jesus calls the two roads the road to destruction and the road to life. The psalm calls the two roads the life of becoming chaff and the life of becoming a fruitful tree.

There is a life that so empties itself of life that it is like chaff or dust that blows away. This is a life that tends to suck the lasting value out of other lives as well.

There is a life that so embraces life that it sends strong roots down and brings up its nourishment from deep, deep down in the love of God. There is a life that so embraces God’s ways that it becomes a life that brings life into being in others. There is a life so full of life that others are fed by it.

There are people who build a marriage that will be a source of happiness for generations to come, even for those who do not know the first happy husband and wife of their family. There is a secret working of good that will last because a man and wife built their lives together with lasting devotion, and gratitude, and faith, and love.

For them, sex was more than entertainment. It was the mystery and the humble playing together of an Adam and Eve in a little world that goes on and on. Maybe you know such an Adam and Eve in your family, or in a friend’s family.

When our friendships are seen as a gift from God they give our lives a weight and a reality that give us pleasure all our lives. Our lives become heavy as a tree full of fruit when we have been faithful friends. We will not blow away like the chaff.

There is a secret for blessedness, or happiness, in the family of God (which is the Church). We see this secret of happiness in the Gospel of John, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.

Jesus said this. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s fee. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17)

This is the secret to happiness in the church. It is when Christians love each other with a humble servant love. This is where law and blessing, law and happiness, law and delight meet in the body of Christ.

There is a choice of two roads. It is a law that you must choose your road. But the purpose of that law is not for us to earn points or to prove ourselves. It is not a choice that allows us to say, “I’m smarter than you. I’m better than you.” It is not a law for earning points and earning happiness.

In my own life I cannot see that I ever chose the straight and narrow road. In my life all the other roads seemed to be cut off from me. In each case the Lord gave me a choice between loving him and loving a false road. That was the grace of God at work. It was the gift of the Lord.

I did not choose my road. The road chose me, because Jesus is the road. Jesus is the way.

I don’t think that the Lord ever tells us something that we don’t already know. We know a false road when we see it. It just feels wrong and we can only take it by wanting what we know is wrong.

The Lord graciously shows himself to us at each fork in the road and says, “Follow me.” It is the law of the Lord, the law of his nature, to keep his own law of grace and empower us through that gift of grace.

Happiness comes from taking time with this.  Instead of playing back a bad memory, a destructive memory, in our minds we play back this law of the Lord that led him to wash us by dying for our sins on the cross and rising from the dead to give us his victory. Our life is a gift that comes from his life given for us and given to us. Happiness comes from meditating on this.

In the road that leads to life, it is Jesus’ life as a servant that makes us fruitful trees that will not blow away with the chaff. How Jesus spreads that life and makes it grow in us is a mystery, in many ways. The song Jesus sang, about the two roads, is about choosing the things that count, the things that last; and most of all choosing the laws that are life-giving because they come from the God of life.

There are laws that make our lives fruitful when we love them and follow them. We cannot just make up our own rules along the way, or pick and choose what we will follow. The Lord knows what choices lead to life.

Then there are the laws of the Lord that the Lord himself follows. These define the Lord as the grace giver whose love we do not earn. The Lord is the grace giver who gives us a new heart and a new mind to delight in his ways and set out on the road that leads to life.

The road to life, in fact, is Jesus himself, who is “the way and the truth and the life”. (John 14:6) The road to life is Jesus and we receive his road into our hearts. They become our heart’s highway, and we follow Jesus by trusting what he has shown us.

Monday, April 23, 2012

God Speaking: Like Freedom

Preached on Sunday, April 22, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 51:1-17; John 21:15-25

At the end of the Gospel of John, the disciples finished their breakfast with Jesus on the beach on the Sea of Galilee. After the meal was over, Jesus and Peter seem to have gone off together, and Jesus started asking Peter a question.

It was a shocking question, and Jesus asked it in a shocking way. And he would not stop asking it. Peter said “yes” to the question, but we see that it must not have been a very satisfactory “yes”. It must have been a reluctant “yes”, and Jesus would not accept that “yes” for an answer.

Jesus did repetitions that made his question hurt. The repetitions of Jesus made Peter hurt, and we wonder where that desire to hurt came from?

The repetitions of Jesus were like the repetitions of a physical therapist working with a patient. When a physical therapist works with an injured patient, or with a patient who needs to recover strength from an illness, or from the effects of a surgery, there are exercises to be done. There are exercises that reverse the damage of an injury. There are exercises that build on the healing of the work that the doctors have done to repair bones, and joints and muscles, and tendons. These exercises are repeated over and over, even though they cause a lot of weariness, frustration, and pain. The repetitions are therapy. They are healing. They are a gift to be thankful for.

After breakfast on the beach at Galilee, we find Jesus giving a gift to Peter; giving Peter the healing therapy that Peter had not asked for. Peter desperately needed something from Jesus, but he had not asked for it. It was the same gift that King David had desperately needed from God; and David begged and begged God passionately for that healing gift. We see this in David’s desperate prayer in Psalm 51.

The gift that Peter did not ask for (the gift that David begged for) was the gift of forgiveness. The actual word “forgiveness” is not used in either place. But the repetitions of David’s request; and the history of Peter experience of the trial of Jesus; show us that forgiveness is what was needed, more than anything else in their lives.

The same thing is true of us, as well. For us, forgiveness is what is needed, more than anything else in our lives. Forgiveness is the healing that will set us free. But we need to know what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is more than words. You know this, when another person asks you for forgiveness, or when you are afraid they want it. Forgiveness is not a simple thing.

We tend to forgive others by making excuses for them. We forgive them because we know they had some reason, or some weakness, or some struggle that they were dealing with; but forgiveness is not about that at all. And where there is no excuse for what someone has done, it just about kills us to forgive.

If we forgive another person, we have to give something. We have to give something up; a piece of ourselves, or a right to claim something for ourselves or for others.

Actually forgiveness is something God has to do, and only God can do. The rabbis and the Pharisees were right to be outraged when Jesus forgave a person’s sins. There was a paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12) and, instead of saying “Be healed,” Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus’ point was that he can do (by virtue of who he is) what only God can do.

Jesus is the forgiveness of God and this is a part of what Jesus does in the work of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not overlooking sin, or wrong-doing, or evil. Forgiveness is the reconstruction of reality. It is the creation of a new reality by removing something offensive from the picture of another persons’ life, or from your own life.

King David’s problem was that he could not get rid of what he had done. David had done a detestable, despicable thing that was an offense against innocent lives, against the trust of his people, against his own self-respect, against all that is decent and sacred, against God himself.

David had committed adultery with the wife of one of his most trusted officers. To cover up his sin, he engineered the death of this officer by giving orders to his general to get this officer to the front of battle and withdraw in a way to leave the man stranded behind enemy lines and be killed by the enemy. David involved others in his sin, his lie, his cover-up, and in the death of the innocent man, the man who was wronged in the first place.

David saw his true self and could not face what he saw. He could no longer hold his head up. David was an outrage to himself. He could not shake what he had done, and he would never forget it. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:3)

David needed God to reach into his life, his heart, his mind, and change what was there. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:1-3)

David prayed, “Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean.” (Psalm 51:7) This takes us back to the feast of the Passover; where the blood of the sacrificial Passover lamb was dabbed on the doorways of the people’s houses so that the angel of death would pass over them. It was the sign that a death had been died (the death of the lamb) that marked them as people who had been forgiven. So they were spared. They were free.

It was a branch of the hyssop plant that was used to mark the houses with the blood of the Passover. David asked for his own Passover. He prayed that God would mark him with the sign of forgiveness; and that the death he deserved would pass over him and he would be set free.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus is the lamb who shed his blood to take away our sin and free us from the death that comes from sin. Jesus is the forgiveness of God. Jesus is God forgiving us.

The blood of Jesus removes our sins from the equation of who we are in the sight of God. The blood of Jesus declares that a price we could never pay, to be free from our sins, has been paid for us.

David’s prayer was that God would, “Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)

The answer to that prayer was that, in the centuries to come, Jesus would enter the world as the lamb of God and make a new creation in the heart of anyone who trusts in the Lord for forgiveness. Just as the Holy Spirit breathed life into the creation in the beginning of time, so the Holy Spirit will breathe the new life of God into us. Our hearts become new. We have a new freedom.

When our hearts are new, when they are pure, we become simple and uncomplicated, and we only want one thing. We want what God wants. Our spirits are willing to do what God wills. This is a great gift. We receive a freedom we could never have given ourselves.

Peter was in the same situation as David, because he had become an outrage and an offense to himself. He knew what he was capable of, and he knew he was capable of betraying Jesus.

He had done it. Peter had denied Jesus three times. He denied knowing Jesus. He denied belonging to Jesus. (John 18:15-18; 25-27) Peter could not free himself from what he had done, and he would never be free of it. I don’t think that Peter believed that he was even worthy of asking Jesus for forgiveness.

So Jesus showed amazing independence that comes from being who he is: the forgiveness of God. Only God forgives sins, and we forgive others because we know that he has paid an infinite price to take away the sin of the world. But Jesus forgave Peter without being asked. This is what the forgiveness of God is like. This is what we believe in.

Peter denied three times that he belonged to Jesus, so Jesus put him through the repetitions that would heal the injury of his sin and shame. “Peter, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15)

We need to know that Peter had claimed that he loved Jesus more than any of the other disciples did. Peter had promised that he loved Jesus so much that he would go with him, and die with him. (John 13:37; Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29)

Peter couldn’t say this (or brag this) anymore. Jesus put him through the repetitions until they hurt. And Jesus asked Peter if he “truly loved” him.

There is more than one Greek word for love. The question and answer repetitions between Jesus and Peter play on these words. The “truly love” of Jesus’ question (in the New International Version) refers to a love that will deny itself and give of itself sacrificially.

Peter would be a liar if he claimed to love Jesus nearly so well. Peter’s answer was to lay claim to a much humbler kind of love. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 12:15)

This is a different kind of love; a different level of love, a love with a lower profile. It is not the love that denies itself and gives itself sacrificially. It is the love we call brotherly love, but this also includes the love called “belonging”. It is a belonging love.

Peter didn’t claim to love Jesus with a love like the love shown on the cross. Peter claimed only to love Jesus as someone who belonged to him. It hurt to not love Jesus the way Jesus deserved to be loved.

Then Jesus used Peter’s humbler kind of love. He didn’t use the “truly love” for Peter. “Peter, do you love me like a brother? Will you love me as if I belonged to you and you belonged to me?” It hurt Peter to think that Jesus was settling for a lower kind of love than the love he deserved.

How could Peter rise above his failure? He knew he could promise nothing more than this. “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you not sacrificially as you deserve, but as one who simply belongs to you and nothing more.” (John 21:17)

Then Jesus made a mysterious prediction that when Peter was old he would be dressed and taken where he didn’t want to go, and his hands, his arms, would be stretched out. And, in this way, John tells us that Jesus predicted that Peter would be crucified for him. Peter would grow to love Jesus with a sacrificial love.

Jesus took Peter’s failure, Peter’s outrage, away. Jesus took it out of the equation. Jesus washed that sin away. Jesus did not remove the past, but he removed the burden of the past. He removed the past as an obstacle to the future. He said, in essence, “Your sin does not always have to be before you. You sin does not always have to be in front of you.” Jesus set Peter free from his sin.

Jesus said, in essence, “You can love me as much as you can love me and feed my sheep.” It would be like Jesus saying to you, “You can give me less than I deserve, and I will still give you more than you can ever deserve.”

But it really isn’t a matter of what we deserve, at all. Peter loved Jesus with a love that said he belonged to Jesus. The truth is that Peter did belong to Jesus, no matter how badly he had failed. It is the fact that we belong to Jesus, and that we belong to his forgiveness, that gives us a gift worth giving to others.

Serving Jesus has nothing to do with knowing what you have to give. Serving Jesus has nothing to do with knowing that you have anything special to give. When you do nothing but belong, and when you know that belonging is a gift, it is then that you have everything you need to serve.

You belong because you know that Jesus loves you. You are claimed, and there is a calling to you, in Jesus, that claims you completely. You don’t dare object to that. You just go ahead and feed his sheep because you belong to him.

Jesus has given you his sheep, just as he gave them to Peter. You have the sheep of Jesus to feed. Who are they?

You are one of those sheep. Who are you and where have you been? That tells you a lot about who they are.

They might not even know they are the sheep of Jesus yet. They might not know who Jesus is, or what Jesus means. Yet they are the people of Jesus. They are his sheep.

They include the people who do know him. They include the people who live, and worship, and work together as his church, his body.

Even some of these people may not completely know what Jesus wants them to know about belonging to him. The truth is that a lot of us don’t know who we really are. How can we really know what it means for us to be his sheep? Jesus wants us to see them as the sheep of Jesus. Take care of them just as you want to be taken care of.

You will find that many of Jesus’ sheep have devoted themselves to feeding his sheep. That is what they are bred to do, just like you.

At any rate, those sheep might not know who you are! You have to talk to those sheep, and look into their eyes and into their souls as well as you can. You have to take care of them, even if they don’t think that’s your job; because they don’t know who you are. They don’t know that you are a feeder of the sheep. They don’t know that you belong to Jesus.

How do you feed Jesus’ sheep? You just see what they need and do it. That’s all.

And then you have to remember that Jesus is the true shepherd. Jesus is the Good shepherd. (John 10:11) We are only helpers. We are under-shepherds of the good shepherd.

If we thought about this, we would realize that this is a good job for us. It is much better than we deserve. It is a huge honor.

We are like people who are in need of physical therapy, only the therapy we need is spiritual. Physical therapy makes people who can’t walk free to walk, and people who can’t work free to work, and people who can’t take care of themselves free to make themselves at home in their real home. The therapy of Jesus gives us freedom to walk, and work, and live together in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus gives us freedom in the forgiveness of our sin. Sin is disabling in a way that only those who truly know their sins can understand. The forgiveness of our sins makes it possible to live in ways that can only be understood by those who have been changed by that forgiveness.

The love of Jesus who died for us takes us to a new place where our old failures and burdens no longer tell the story of our lives. The love of Jesus tells our story. Our story is how we learn the love of Jesus and how we live a new life because of it.

Sometimes it may be painful to learn that new life, and it may take practice and countless repetitions. Like any good therapist, Jesus can do those repetitions with us longer than we think we can bear them.

Jesus sent Peter into the world with the healing of the forgiveness of his sins. There was a time when Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” And then he said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36)

Jesus does his repetitions with us because he died for us and he chooses to make us belong to him. He makes us answer him until we learn to surrender to his love, because he knows all things and knows that we love him.

The only holiness that makes a church fit to serve the mission of God is the holiness of knowing our sin and knowing his forgiveness. The freedom of giving this world the love of God only comes from the freedom that we have from being forgiven by God in Christ.

It is the healing of forgiveness that gives you something to give. It is the healing of forgiveness that sets you free to follow Jesus when he says, “Follow me.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

God Speaking: Like an Outfitter

Preached on Sunday, April 15, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 23; John 21:1-14

On one of our rafting trips on the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers, we took a break at a spot where there were already some other rafts drawn up on the shore. There were people working there, pitching tents and setting up awnings.

They were outfitters. They belonged to a business that guided tourists on the rivers and took care of them on their journey. They guided them. They protected them. They fed them. They set up their tents for them. This was their way of giving their customers a true, wild river adventure. So they said.

They seemed to like what they did. They claimed to be very good at their jobs.

When we read the twenty-third psalm and say, “The Lord is my shepherd”, we are saying, “The Lord is my outfitter.” A shepherd is a sort of outfitter for sheep.

The Old Testament King David, who wrote this psalm, started out as a shepherd, the youngest in a string of eight sons. He was never likely to do any better in life than be a shepherd working for his brothers. Life told him, at the start, that he needed to be humble, and he got a lot of wisdom from thinking what it would mean to be a person who was like a sheep; being guided, and protected, and cared for by God as his shepherd.

It is the nature of God to be an outfitter of his people; and really of his whole creation. There is another psalm that says: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16)

It is the nature of God to be an outfitter. He took care of his people when he led them out of slavery in Egypt. God brought them food, and gave them water to drink. God kept their clothing and their sandals from wearing out. God showed them when and where to set up camp; and when to break camp, and what direction to go next.

God even provided them with traveling money. But that is another story. (Exodus 12:35-36)

The outfitters on the Grande Ronde gave their people a pretty comfortable adventure. As we read about the adventures of the chosen people with God in the wilderness, it becomes clear that having God as your outfitter never takes the adventure out of the experience. It never feels easy. The word “comfort” would not describe it.

Jesus is a bit like an outfitter in the last chapter of the Gospel of John. He directs his disciples to a lake they know very well, in the north of the country: a good fishing lake. He knows that they know where the boats are. He seems to be on shore watching them fish all night. He gives them some successful advice when they need it. And he has breakfast ready for them when they come in for the morning.

Now the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life.” (John 1:1-4)

Jesus, as the Son of God, has always been God always speaking himself, and expressing himself. Through Jesus we see who God is. Our relationship with Jesus is what our relationship with God is, because we were made through him.

So John tells us that the one who guides us, and protects us, and feeds us, and quenches our thirst, and shelters us is the one who suffered and died for us on the cross. He is the one who defeated the power of sin, and death, and the devil by rising from the dead. It is the nature of Jesus to be our outfitter even in the face of death itself.

The psalm tells us this. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  (Psalm 23:4)

In fact Jesus shows us why we fear no evil in the shadow of death. On the cross Jesus carried our guilt, our regrets, our failures, our weaknesses, and even our fears and doubts. He shouted from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)) God took even our fears and doubts into himself. Jesus is God doing this.

Our experience with Jesus will tell us that Jesus’ outfitting our journey does not make that journey easy, because he didn’t make it easy for himself. If it were easy, it would be no adventure. Crosses and resurrections are extreme adventures. That is his trademark as an outfitter.

It is the nature of the God who created us in his own image to be a lover of adventure. If we want our journey to carry his trademark, if we want to be the people who have been made in the image of God (as we see that image in Jesus) then we must be people who are ready for the adventure; even though that adventure may be difficult and challenging.

Good parents want this for their children. They don’t want their children to be so afraid of life that they do not go ahead and live.

 In Jesus, God may not make us comfortable; but he does make himself our comfort. In Jesus, God may not make our adventure easy; but he does make himself our strength. He gives himself to us as our example, our companion, and our guide. We are never entirely on our own, because he is our Savior and our Lord.

One nice thing about rafting on our part of the Wallowa and the Grande Ronde is that the stretches of calm water and rapids are beautifully arranged. The rapids are challenging and exciting, but they don’t go on forever. Each set of rapids ends so that you know you have been stretched, but not stretched beyond your limit.

There is enough calm between the rapids to relax and even get impatient for the next section of white water. If you want to go forward, you have to row harder in the calm, because the water is slow. In the wild parts, the water itself carries you forward, and you are too busy dodging the rocks to think about how hard you are rowing.

When we meet the disciples by the Lake of Galilee, which got renamed in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, it is hard to tell whether they were on a calm stretch, or on one of the rapids of their adventure.

Of course Galilee is a lake and there are no rapids at all. But I wonder what was going on inside them, on the river of their hearts and their minds.

These people had been sent by Jesus on a mission. When Jesus went to see them after he rose from the dead, he told them, “As the Father has sent me I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

They had followed Jesus on his mission to the end. They would have felt some fear at the thought of being sent like him.

They were on the Lake of Galilee because Jesus has told them to go and meet him there. The Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was going to come upon them, and equip them, and empower them for their mission had not yet come.

They were in between. They knew they were supposed to do something, but it was impossible to visualize it. They were not convinced about what that something ought to be. They certainly didn’t know how they would do it.

They didn’t even know how to think about it, or how to pray about it. They felt inadequate and powerless in every way. They were waiting for further instructions, and they had no idea that Jesus was already outfitting them and instructing them while they muddled around looking for something to do and fishing in vain.

The friends of Jesus found themselves in an odd position. Jesus had died and rose from the dead. They had seen Jesus, and they had been sent by him. Now they seemed to be diverted by Jesus into meaningless stuff while life changing demands and challenges were just around the corner.

I think that this is part of the outfitting of God for our adventure. No matter how strange and intimidating, so matter how uncertain and uncomfortable our lives become, there is always so much “stuff” coming at us that can’t be ignored.

All of this “stuff” seems to have no meaning, in the sense that it has nothing to do with the huge concerns in front of us. But these things are meaningful.

They are the seemingly small, ordinary concerns that drive us crazy because we think they get in the way of the big things. We need to be taught to see the meaning in them. This is part of our equipping.

We need the small and ordinary things to remind us that we are ordinary. We are as humble, and as simple, and as basic as sheep; and that is a good thing. There is a holiness to be found in our smallness, and we must learn to respect it because so much of God’s love is spent on what we might consider small and ordinary.

God has outfitted life with a thousand common things to do. No matter how tall the mountain or how wild the river is, no matter how long and unrelenting the waiting seems, we still must eat, and sleep, and walk; and care for animals, and pets, and homes, and family, and neighbors. God himself is with us in our duty of seeing to these thousand ordinary things.

What wonderful miracle did Jesus do for his friends by the lake? He made them the very same breakfast they would have made for themselves, if they had caught some fish in the night. There was a fire started early enough to sink into coals for cooking the meal, without burning it or smoking it. There was some flatbread. There were the fish.

Jesus loves to think of the simple things that we might do for ourselves. Jesus gave his friends the living demonstration that (risen as he is) he is not above simple things. He is not entirely above us.

All that ordinary stuff is just as holy as it is necessary. We need to be thankful for every ordinary thing we have to do, no matter how much it all seems to get in the way of the big things.

Another lesson about the breakfast on the beach is that it spoke to the worry and stress of their hearts and minds. In all their confusion about what to think, and what to do next, they found that Jesus had them on his mind. Jesus was prepared to take care of them. Jesus had been working for them even when they hadn’t been aware of him. Jesus was watching them even when they didn’t see him.

On the before Jesus was arrested and crucified, he warned them what was coming, and he told them that they would have joy because they would see him again. (John 16:19-20) Even though Jesus rules in heaven, there is a sense in which we live, as Christians, by seeing him. This is faith, and faith is not as blind as some people would tell you.

But there is another source of joy that we can have when we do not think we can see him. That is another joy of faith, knowing that Jesus sees us. We are never out of his sight for one moment. While Jesus told them about his coming death, he also promised them this. “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:22)

Maybe it sounds like the same thing, but it is not the same. There is a joy that is equal to the joy of seeing Jesus. That is the joy of being seen by Jesus.

Jesus always sees us. Just like the disciples fishing on the lake all through the night, seemingly all for nothing, we are never out of his sight. This is our safety. This is our strength. Always being seen by Jesus is part of how he outfits us for our adventure.

When the disciples brought their boat and their haul of fish to the shore they found a big breakfast waiting for them. I think that the meal Jesus prepared for them was more than enough. John doesn’t tell us that they actually put their fish on the fire to cook, alongside Jesus’ fish. Jesus only offered them some room for their fish: “Put some of those here!”

No! Wait! I think they did put part of their catch on the coals, but that was for their second breakfast. Why would you have only one breakfast, when you have been out fishing all night?

Jesus had done enough. Jesus didn’t need their help. There was nothing lacking in what he had prepared for them.

We need to know this, if we are going to live as the friends of Jesus whom he has sent on a mission in this world. We need to know that Jesus has taken care of everything. There is something about who he is and what he has done that is enough.

When someone tells us that Christ is counting on us, we are in real trouble if we don’t know how to say that we are counting on Christ. When we hear someone tell us that Christ has no hands but our hands, we need to respect the urgency they want us to feel, but we also need the confidence of knowing that it isn’t exactly true.

We are his hands, his feet, his voice; but Jesus has hands we don’t know of. There are others working and praying in ways we do not know. We don’t know anything about them, but they exist.

The most important thing to know is that Jesus has power of his own to work without us. There is real power in what he has done for us and for the world. There is power in his death on the cross. There is power in his resurrection. They have more power than ideas. They have more power than inspiration. They have more power than motivation. They deliver a power into the lives of those who trust him. They deliver a power that works in the world that God loves.

Jesus standing on the beach, waiting for his disciples to come in and be fed and refreshed teaches us that we do not carry Jesus, but Jesus carries us. The Lord will provide a way. Jesus doesn’t need us, but he loves us, and he wants us, and he calls us.
We are the luxury of God. God is our bread. God is our necessity, just as much as food, and water, and sleep, and air. But we are a luxury to God. God does not love us because he needs us. God loves us because he wants us. God does not call us because he needs our help. God calls us because he loves adventure and he wants us to share this love with him.

When we were children, watching other children play, the best part of going to play with them was not because we thought they needed us. The best part of going to play with others was that we saw the abundance and the joy in their play and we wanted to be a part of it.

The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are full of abundance and joy in their playing in the creation. The adventure is not to be found in their need, because they have no need. The adventure is found in their joy.

But there is still the greater joy of being wanted; and being invited and called. This is what God in Jesus meant when he gave them a big catch and called them to share it with him. Jesus is God calling us; actually calling us to enter into his joy and share it with him. This is who God is, and he came in Jesus to show us this.

This is the God who sends us. Jesus sends us just as he was sent. He is God, the great outfitter of the adventure. He died and rose from the dead to change us from within, to change our attitudes, to free us from our past fears, and regrets, and failures. He has set us free from what other people have concluded about us, and from their judgments. He has set us free from our own self-condemnation and self-limitation.

Our limitations don’t come to an end, but God’s power steps in. God’s word to us is what he said to Paul, when Paul hit a wall that he called his “thorn in the flesh.” God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my grace is made perfect in weakness.” As a result of this, Paul spoke of the paradox of our weakness and God’s strength this way: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) This is the joy of what it means for us to be part of God’s creation, and the object of his saving love and power.

God outfits us in Jesus to give us freedom from every thing we have ever known before. In that freedom God gives us a new life fit for such an adventure; the adventure of being sent into the world by Jesus.

Monday, April 9, 2012

God Speaking: Like the Wave

Peached on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, at the main Sunday service

Scripture readings: Psalm 110; John 20:10-23

I don’t think it’s often you see people “doing the wave” in Washtucna or Kahlotus. I know I have seen it once or twice, and people laughed when they did it. Maybe, here, we should call it “doing the ripple”. It must be impressive to be in a stadium, with a crowd of thousands, where a wall of people rise and sit in harmony, and form a wave.

Then I think of an embarrassing thing. What if you were in such a crowd, and you wanted to start the wave, and you rose, and swayed, and no one else did?

The resurrection of Jesus is like the start of a wave. But what would that look like? Would it require resurrections to start happening all around the empty tomb, and through Jerusalem and the ancient world, and going on, and on through the ages, right up to our own day, with us being the ones in our generation who continue to be resurrected and pass the wave along. But that is what has happened.

For us, the fact is that this wave feels very much like a Kahlotus/Washtucna ripple, and maybe there are times when the whole church has seemed like that. In the first few generations, and the first few centuries of the church, the people who took up the wave of the resurrection of Jesus were just a minority. In those days, the people of Jesus swayed between the poles of being invisible and being in mortal danger. They did not look like a wave.

Today there is a wave of the resurrection sweeping over the earth. We don’t see it, because we live in the backwater. North America and Europe were the heartbeat of the people of Jesus for centuries, but these have become a spiritual backwater. Now your typical Christian lives in India, or China, or Latin America, or Africa. There is a wave cresting, there is a tsunami growing. Even in Muslim countries Muslims are becoming Christian, and they are dying for it.

Still, isn’t it strange to call what we are “The Wave of God or the Wave of the Resurrection of Jesus”? Jesus rose, and what happened to his disciples?

Mary Magdalene, and John, and Peter, and doubting Thomas, and all the rest were changed as they became part of the flow of the wave, but they were never anything like the risen Jesus; not by a long shot. Neither are we. This goes without saying.

We will come back to this. First let us look at the work of the God of the waves.

The Old Testament is the story of a wave. God came into the life of a man name Abraham, along with his wife Sarah. They were a couple who had no children of their own, and they were elderly. So the Lord came into their lives. He called them to cross the wilderness and become people of faith. God gave them a son named Isaac. Isaac became the father of Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons and he also had daughters. Two individuals of faith grew to become a family of faith. That family of faith became a nation of faith: the nation of Israel. (Not that they were a nation that always exercised faith, but they were always called to faith.)

God built within them a body of faith as he worked and spoke with them. God took care of them in their migrations with their sheep and goats. When they became slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom. God gave to them laws and prophecies. God gave them survival when they were exiled and scattered. God made them part of a spiritual wave. And that wave created another wave.

This is the wave we read about in the New Testament. The wave began with Jesus, and this became an even more amazing wave than the one before it. God started the first wave by coming into the lives of Abraham and Sarah. God started the second wave by coming himself in Jesus. The first wave captured a nation. The second wave is capturing a planet.

Between the two waves we see expansion. God does not just make waves. God seems to have started a wave of waves. Perhaps it is a wave of waves that join to form an endless wave; the tsunami of God.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul imagines God working in Jesus to make the wave of Israel with its prophets and the wave of the Church with its apostles into a building built of waves; one that grows higher and holier through the years: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:20-22)

Paul also says that the Father intends Jesus to be the head of the wave we call the church. Paul says that this wave “is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:23)

If Jesus is the one who fills everything in every way, then the first few verses of the Gospel of John help us to put this in the light of who God is. John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God who was God from the very beginning. It tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1-2)

Jesus is God expressing himself, revealing who he truly is, and Jesus is the one who fills everything in every way. So this is who God is: the one who fills everything in every way.

In this sense, we can say that God himself is a wave, and Jesus himself is a wave. It is the nature of Jesus, as it is the nature of God, to come and sweep up everything and everyone in his arms, and carry us along with him like a rising tide.

This doesn’t have to be a scary thing. I have called God a wave, and so it shouldn’t be strange to see us a part of the wave of Jesus.

Waves can be scary. They are scary because a wave of the sea and the wave of a flood have no heart. They have no conscience.

God has a heart. His heart is Jesus who died for the sin of the world; and for your sin and mine. The heart of God is Jesus, who broke his heart on the cross in order to give us new hearts of our own. He sweeps into this new heart with a wave of new longings, and new motives; and with a passion to say “yes” to the love and mercy of God, and with a passion to say “yes” to the wave of giving that love and mercy to others.

Jesus sweeps us all into a wave that has a heart. We can see him working like this even in the everyday world around us. Each of our families is a kind of wave that sweeps across generations and blends into other family waves.

I am part of a family wave. You see in me stuff that has been floating on the wave for generations.

Some of it has wept along from as far away as Ireland and Poland. When I am blunt and sarcastic, you are hearing the voice of my dad. I have an exasperated way of saying no that probably comes from Poland. When I stand with my hands on my hips, you are probably seeing the way someone stood in Wales hundreds of years ago.

Communities are waves: Kahlotus, Washtucna, LaCrosse, Hooper, Benge. Each wave is a little bit different. Each wave has some separate energy that probably needs to work together.

A congregation of the church of Jesus is a wavelet in the bigger wave of Jesus. There is what modern people call a special spirituality in that. There is a spirituality that comes from living as part of a wave.

A lot of modern people don’t want that kind of spirituality. Every person wants their own spirituality, as an individual unit, or as a family unit. They want to have a protecting wall around their particular wave. But a wave of one person, or of one home, isn’t the wave of God that wants to sweep through the world and fill everything in every way. They are good waves, nice waves; but not the great wave of the resurrection.

There is something in God that we also see in Jesus. Jesus seems to love a good wave. He started the wave we are in. He is the wave.

We are not a wave of water, we are a wave of “sending”. Sending is a kind of propulsion that is supposed to create momentum. It is the nature of God, in the Trinity, to work like this. They are always sending each other. The Father sends the Son. The Son sends the Spirit. They all send us.

Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to the other disciples. Then Jesus himself went to them to send them. Then, when Thomas couldn’t believe the resurrection, Jesus came to him, and showed him the holes in his hands and side, and got him to ride the wave with all the others.

The four gospels tell us how our wave got started. The Book of Acts tells how our wave started washing over the world. The rest is history.

But there is the problem in being part of the wave of the resurrection. Just look at us. We don’t seem to be very thoroughly resurrected. Jesus walked through walls and locked doors to get hold of the people he wanted to get moving. That would be extremely impressive, but we haven’t been resurrected enough to do that.

But, maybe we do have the power to walk through walls and locked doors. The wave of Jesus’ resurrection seems to be about peace and the forgiveness of sins. (John 20:21-23)

This is why Jesus came: to replace our alienation and our estrangement from God, and from others, and from ourselves, with peace, with wholeness of heart, and with health in our relationships.

Peace comes from forgiveness. If you forgive someone, you are giving them Jesus. You are being Jesus for them. The good news has come to them because someone like you (who is like Jesus) has come to them.

There are so many ways to help people to experience the peace, and the wholeness, and the healing of life and relationships that comes from Christ. This is like walking through walls and locked doors. This is very much bringing the results of the resurrection to others.

This is what it means to be a part of the wave of Jesus. Psalm 110 is about a wave. “My Lord says to My Lord sit at my right hand till I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Here we eavesdrop on the Father speaking to the Son about the wave they want to create.

Their enemies are not people. Their enemies are the things that destroy the joy of the wave: conflict, selfishness, pride, abuse, love of power and control, bitterness, anger.

These things are destructive of human life, and joy, and love. These are the enemies of the life of the wave. These are the enemies that the cross and the resurrection are intended to destroy.

The wave of the resurrection of Jesus is strong enough to make us thankful for the forgiveness and peace that have changed our lives and given us the ability to live more abundantly. When Jesus came to touch us with his peace and his forgiveness we did rise with him. There is much more of the resurrection to come, but Jesus has made a start with us. That start is a foretaste of heaven and all the hopeful things beyond our imagining that God has planned for us.

Peace and forgiveness are about the grace of God, and grace is full of hope, and trust, and expectation. Jonathan Edwards was a Christian minister in colonial America, in the early seventeen hundreds. He was a wonderful thinker and teacher.

He said this about grace and glory, and it relates to the wave of the resurrection. “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”

When you have grace, you have glory too. You ride the wave of the resurrection. You ride the wave of God in Christ, and Christ is risen! He is alive, and you can rise and live in him!