|His Eye Is on the Sparrow|
Friday, September 21, 2012
Monday, September 17, 2012
Preached on Sunday, September 16, 2012
Scripture readings: 1 Peter 2:9-25; 3:15-17; Matthew 28:16-20
When I was ordained, I moved to a small church on the Oregon coast. One of the first things I did was visit as many people as possible, right at the start, to get acquainted. On one such visit, one of my members told me, “Dennis, I hope you have big feet.”
|The Rabbit in My Back Yard|
I asked him what he meant, and he said, “A lot of people are going to expect you to fill Mickey Moffett’s shoes.” Mickey Moffett was my predecessor. He had pastored that church, in that small town, for more than twenty years. He was legendary in his community. He was one of those people who seem to be larger than life, and he had served his church until he died.
The verses at the end of the Gospel of Matthew are often called “The Great Commission” and they speak to us about our spiritual feet. They are the “marching orders” given by Jesus to his disciples, to the church, to us. They give us our mission, and they tell us how we are to proceed to our destination. Jesus tells us to go, and how to go, and that he will go with us.
Peter tells us that, as we follow Jesus, we are to go “in his steps”. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you and example that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)
I remember childhood trips to the mountains in winter, when there was snow on the ground. I remember my dad making footprints in the snow and me trying to follow “in his steps”. When Peter puts the suffering of Jesus as part of the pattern for our walking in his steps, we realize that Jesus has a pretty big stride; and big shoes (or big sandals) to fill.
The word “go” is a big word. It can be as exciting as saying “let’s go”!
Yet it was not always an exciting word to the first disciples. They may have found it scary.
There was a time when Jesus said “go” to a large group of seventy-two disciples. He sent them to provide a preview of what he would say and do in the towns where he planned to go next. He sent them to heal and to teach.
So they went when Jesus said “go”, and they came back completely surprised. They experienced the unexpected, and they were glad that Jesus had told them to go. They were glad they went. The fact that they came back so surprised and glad tells us that they did not set out that way when Jesus sent them. (Luke 10:17-20) Now they seemed to catch on.
|Is That the Same Rabbit by the Church Basement Widow?|
But, strangely, after all the excitement of the resurrection, when Jesus was preparing to return to his throne in heaven, when Jesus told the disciples to “go”, they didn’t go. Or they certainly took their time about it.
Jesus had to arrange the events of history to force them into the habit of going. Jesus practically drove them to it. The Book of Acts tells us a little bit about this story.
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) Some of Jesus’ disciples were goers and some were not. It has been this way ever since. Because of the goers, the good news of Jesus has become known all around the world, so that the Christians in North America and Europe are only a drop in a very large bucket of disciples.
Today, if you want to meet your average disciple, you have to go to Africa, or India, or China, or Latin America to find one. But there are still unreached people around the world, and there are still plenty of places to go; even in Washtucna and Kahlotus and Hooper.
Nation, as Jesus puts it, has very little to do with our idea of nation (in the sense of a nation with borders and a single government). Galilee, the land where Jesus grew up, was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” and that really means “Galilee of the Nations”. (Isaiah 9:1; King James Version)
Gentiles and nations only refer to all of the ethnic groups that exist outside the people of Israel. Galilee was full of these different nationalities, or groups: Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and others, living side by side, or in neighboring neighborhoods and villages.
I essentially grew up in a small town of many nations. You could list the local nations as: Anglo (that’s us), Mexican, East Indian Hindu, East Indian Sikh, Filipino, Japanese, and others.
But you could list the nations of my town another way: farmers, townies, Okies and Arkies, old-timers, and newcomers. The old-timers, themselves, were divided into at least two nations that didn’t speak to each other or agree on anything.
It could be just as hard to go and talk to someone you don’t know in India as it is to go and talk to someone you do know (all too well) who lives down the road from you. It could be just as hard to go and talk to someone who doesn’t know you in Haiti as it is to go and talk to someone who does know you (all too well), who lives down the road from you.
|A Big Yellow Rose by My Back Porch|
Most disciples give the command to “go” positive lip service, but most of us don’t want to go. We would like other people to “come” and to stay; but only if they are not too different from us, and if their staying wouldn’t require any change in us. If we do go to others, it is often with the assumption that we will change them to suit us, because we don’t need to change.
Perhaps (for those of us who are rooted in one place) going means receiving those who come to us. Their coming to us requires us to make the long journey of faith that is called change. The going that Jesus calls us to is meant to change us. Being a disciple is all about change, and about our abiding willingness to change. It is a part of living by faith.
How can you be a person of faith and not be willing to change? How can you listen to Jesus and do what he wants you to do without changing? Walking in Jesus’ sandals means either going to someone around the world, or next door, in a way that will change you forever. Or else it means receiving those whom God has sent to you and taking that journey without going anywhere.
I have described this command to “go” as something that applies to individual disciples. It is much bigger than that. It applies to the church as well. It applies to every single congregation.
Congregations are called by The Great Commission to go, and take the faith-journey called change. And what are they worth to Jesus if they never do it? Aren’t such churches in danger of becoming a private club? Jesus did not come to establish a club. What will become of the church that will not make the faith-journey of change? Jesus commands us to go and to move out.
Jesus says, “Go and make disciples.” The command to go is clear. The command to make disciples is odd, when you think about what it means.
Jesus gives us a big job, but it is the big job of little things. The big job of the big things belongs to Jesus. Jesus is the one with “all authority in heaven and on earth”. Jesus, the ruler of the universe, grabs people and conquers their hearts and minds. Jesus the King converts people and makes them a new creation. Jesus the Lord leads people throughrepentance and the crisis of decision. Those are the big things.
We are commanded to do the little things that surround the big things of Jesus. We make disciples. The word disciple means something like student or learner. The church is a lot like a school, and school is full of little things. School is full of seasons, and repetition, and routine.
As disciples of Jesus, we are people who go to the school of Jesus, and we invite other people to come to school with us. School is about watching and listening. It is about paying attention. Both students and their teachers have to do a lot of paying attention, or nothing will be properly learned or properly taught.
If we are going to make disciples, we have to pay attention to other people. We have to watch them, and listen to them. We have to ask them questions and try to answer their questions. We have to be patient. To make people into disciples, we have to love them first.
There was some advice that a camp counselor an old Disney show gave to a new and difficult camper. He said, “Take an interest in the others and they will take an interest in you.” The same rule holds with making disciples.
When I was a kid, a friend of mine wanted me to go to church camp with him. To get me interested, he told me all about the booby traps, and about how the cabins would raid each other.
To me this sounded far too much like school for me to be interested. I loved to learn, but I hated school. School was not full of real booby traps and raids; but every day there were kids lying in wait for me, waiting to do something to me. I saw summer as I time when I could be safe and quiet; where I could sit on the garage roof, under the spreading walnut tree, and read my books for hours.
We are called, and the church is called, to take an interest in the world and the people around us, and show them something worth being interested in.
This is why Peter lays so much stress on being an example. He give instructions on what to say. He teaches us to show respect and honor to others in the way we live among them. Peter says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12) He means that they will be one of us, praising God by our side, when God comes to earth. He means that God will use our lives, as students in the school of Jesus, to make them into the students of Jesus.
|Elephant Garlic among Asparagus and Rudbekia|
This is not only for us as individual disciples. This is for us as a community of believers, as the church, as the school of Jesus. If we don’t do this, then an old saying will come true: “Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.”
There is nothing big or dramatic about being disciples of Jesus, and bringing others to school with us. It takes a lot of time, and quiet, and patience. It takes learning to work well and play well with others. It takes a lot of just sitting around together with Jesus in our midst. That is what the first disciples did. That is part of what it means to be a disciple. We will look at this more, in the weeks to come.
When Peter tells us that, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example; that you should follow in his steps,” he is waking us up to the center of what it meant for him to be a disciple of Jesus. For Peter, the part of being a disciple that he could never forget was the practice of walking in Jesus’ steps.
Peter had a very definite idea of where Jesus’ steps would take any disciple. The steps of Jesus took Peter from the peace and quiet of Galilee to the risk and fear of Jerusalem. The steps of Jesus led Peter to the cross and the resurrection. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) This, too, is the road where Jesus says “go”.
Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (on the cross), so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) Jesus’ wounds and Jesus’ suffering were his experience of bearing our sins, carrying our sins on his own shoulders. By faith, we enter into the world of the cross, and we hang there on the cross with Jesus, or on the cross next to him.
As Jesus dies for us, we die to ourselves. We change. The faith-journey takes us to the change of the crucifixion and then to the resurrection. The sacrifice of Jesus and the death of Jesus empower us to die to ourselves. Then we experience the healing that comes from the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of a new heart, a new life. It is like being born again.
But notice that there are two actions that go together: dying to sin and living for righteousness. Righteousness is living right, and thinking right, and speaking right, and relating right to others. This never happens just once and then we are done with it. It must go on and on.
The same is true of dying to sin. Dying to sin, and living for righteousness, and receiving the healing of the soul that comes from the wounds of Jesus is something we need every day and every hour.
Our problem is that we actually like some of our sins, and so we certainly don’t want to die to them. Other sins we don’t like. We may truly hate them. But we love to wallow in them. We are addicted to the little hells of our sins that protect us from the healing change of God in Christ, because we are afraid of his command for us to go out.
And yet this is what we need, and Jesus transforms what we need into our marching orders, and then he says “go”. He makes what we need and fear most into what will heal us.
If you want to be a disciple and make disciples, you will have to die and rise; perhaps over and over again. That is what being a Christian is about. Some people think that being a Christian means following a lot of rules and meeting a lot of other people’s expectations, but it is not about that. It is about dying and rising with Jesus. The church must be a fellowship of people dying and rising all the time.
In fact, if you decide to avoid the church, and try to be a disciple on your own, without the church, you will probably find a spirituality that requires very little dying and rising. And that will seem like a good thing, because dying and rising can be uncomfortable and unwelcome. But it is the glory of God. It is the way of Jesus. These are the steps of Jesus and we must walk in them.
Jesus walks a wide stride in sandals much too big for us. But he is our master, and he calls us his children; and his children love to try, with all their heart, to match his stride and wear his sandals. The vast steps of Jesus may seem much too big, but they are redemptive. They are saving. They are the very heart of mercy and forgiveness. We will grow with Jesus as we walk in his steps, and go, and make disciples.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Scripture readings: 1 Peter 1:3-9; Matthew 28:16-20
The last five, or the last three, verses in the Gospel of Matthew are sometimes grouped together under a common title. They are called: The Great Commission.
|North of Kahlotus WA|
Even though this title isn’t in the Bible, there is a lot of wisdom in it. It tells us what Jesus wants to accomplish in this world of ours. It tells us his primary purpose. It tells us the part he wants us to play in his purpose, and how he wants us to go about it. We are going to look at this great commission over the next several weeks.
First of all, here is this thing called “The Great Commission”. I confess to having trouble holding a clear definition of “commission” in my mind. I do see it as a direction, a purpose, a mission that has been given to us. And by “us” I don’t mean “us” as individuals only. I mean “us” as the people of God, “us” as the Church, “us” as the Body of Christ in the world.
At the same time I see the great commission as a sort of authorization given to us by the authority of Jesus. We have been appointed; not delegated, but appointed. We have been given an authority to serve, under Jesus and responsible to him. It is almost like being given a rank, or made an officer; although, in the Church, the Body of Christ, the ranks we receive give each one of us a different role in the mission, but they never create an elite. They never create an upper echelon, or a high command.
I have relatives who are, or who have been, commissioned officers in the armed forces; in the Marines and the Coast Guard, and I am afraid of the thought of their seeing my uninformed attempts to understand this. The great commission means being given a rank of authority and responsibility in the purposes of Jesus. It means holding authority under an authority beyond your self. It makes us all, together, a unit serving “under orders”.
|North of Kahlotus WA|
The last verses in Matthew show us Jesus announcing his authority to his disciples, his followers, his friends; the people who have found their meaning in life through fellowship with Jesus, and in the growth that comes from living and learning with Jesus. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.”
Heaven and earth, in the language of the Bible, means everything. It means everything that has been created; everything physical and everything spiritual; everything visible and invisible. All reality belongs to Jesus. It is under his authority.
All authority is what Jesus has. Commissioned authority is what Jesus gives to us, his disciples. It is an authority under his authority, and always responsible to him.
Jesus spoke to the core group of his disciples. Since the disciple named Judas Iscariot betrayed him, and got him arrested and crucified, and then, in remorse, hung himself, there were only eleven disciples left, out of the original twelve.
|North of Kahlotus WA|
There were other disciples, besides the eleven. The core disciples were like the first impact of a wave set in motion by Jesus, and the other disciples were the extension of that impact. We, too, are the extension of that same wave. Jesus started it in the last verses of Matthew.
Everyone, no matter where they are in that wave across time and space, receives the same commission. The disciples (including you and me) are all disciples and disciple makers at the same time. The commission of Jesus allows for nothing else. We never become more that this. When any of us disciples helps another person to be a disciple, we aren’t helping them to become any more than a disciple and a disciple maker.
We are part of a wave, the wave of Jesus. Jesus created the wave when he made his high dive from heaven to earth. The dive behind the wave deepened when he died on the cross to take away the sin of the world. The wave became a tsunami, a tidal wave, when he rose from the dead. The wave destroyed the power of sin and death. The wave spreads life over the world as we ride that wave and follow him.
The wave of Jesus is also like the sound waves of a voice. Every voice has a unique wave pattern. Even if you were to record one voice, and make it sound different by speeding it up or slowing it down, the essential identifying pattern would remain. There is a technology for destroying the natural patterns of a voice, but that is another story.
|North of Kahlotus WA|
Every human voice is as unique as that person’s finger print, but the finger prints of our fingers are stuck in one place at a time. The waves of a voice can go on and on. We could capture one of your voices, and convert it into radio waves, and broadcast it out into the universe, and it would go on, and on, and on.
The wave of Jesus is like the waves of his voice. The wave carries the finger print of his identity. The wave carries who he is, and what he is like, and what he has done for us. The wave of Jesus takes each one of us up in its wake, and it carries the presence of Jesus through us, from disciple, to disciple, to disciple, to all people, to the end of the age and beyond.
And here we need to say that Jesus did not call those disciples (or us) one by one, to take part in that wave one by one. He called his core, as a group, as a body. He called them to come to him together, and he commissioned them together. He did not commission us to act as lone wolves.
We have been commissioned to become part of this wave. One of the great things about such a wave is that, although it may have no end, it must have a beginning, and it must have continuity. It must have a connection with its beginning.
We must have a connection with Jesus. We must have a connection with who he is, what he is like, and what he has done for us. We must have a connection with our master’s voice, in order to speak for him, or (even more importantly) to speak from him, and to pass him on to others.
So the story of Jesus giving his disciples (and giving us) his great commission, is about a meeting. The great wave began with a rendezvous with Jesus.
|North of Kahlotus WA|
At this rendezvous an amazing thing happened. We read that, at this meeting, some of the original disciples “worshiped” him, while others doubted. This is strange. It was a meeting with Peter, James, John, Matthew, and all the rest. Which were the one who doubted?
This was a meeting between Jesus and the people who knew him best. They were the closest to the events of what we might call Jesus’ greatest days. They were with him at the last supper. They were with him when he was arrested, and then most of them ran away. Peter and John followed, and they watched at least part of the trial going on, at the high priest’s house, for a while. Then they also ran away. John was there at the cross when Jesus died. I am sure that they had all gone to the empty tomb when they received the report that Jesus had risen from the dead. The gospels tell us that Jesus himself had come to them, and showed them the wounds in his hands and feet. These eleven friends had been most deeply involved in Jesus’ dying and rising from the dead. Their lives were wrapped up in Jesus and the powerful actions of his life.
When Matthew tells us that some “worshiped”, it doesn’t mean that they prayed and sang hymns. It means that they simply flattened themselves, face down, on the ground at the feet of Jesus, at the sight of Jesus. They prostrated themselves before him.
They had an immediate physical and spiritual reaction to the one who had all authority in heaven and earth. They didn’t need to be told about his authority. They just knew it and acted accordingly. How could they forget that this was only a few days after Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead?
We have to see that this is really all the same authority and power that Jesus was talking about. It wasn’t just the authority that Jesus said he had. It was the authority that knocked some of them off their feet. Falling flat on your face is a way of saying that here is someone in whose presence you don’t have a leg to stand on. Here is someone who has the right to do with you whatever he wants.
Some of the eleven doubted. They hesitated to let Jesus topple them, and overthrow them, and make them fall down. They didn’t know if they were able, or if they wanted, to give Jesus their unconditional surrender.
|North of Kahlotus WA|
The truth is that the one who has carried all the sins of a fallen world in order to rescue that world has great authority. The one who has carried all the world’s failings (including our own), and the pain, and the injustice, and the evil of this world (and yet who has been able to rise again out of the ruin of it all) has the authority to confront that world and say anything, and ask for anything.
Anything this world can dish out, Jesus can speak to. Any obstacle this world this world can raise to the invasion of the
, Jesus, the King, can overcome. kingdom of God
If we doubt or hesitate in the presence of Jesus, if we see him as he is, we do so in the very face of hope. It is true that some people are afraid of hope. Sometimes hope seems too good to be true; or hope confronts us with such a huge change of heart that we don’t know how to deal with it.
Peter tells us what comes to us on that wave. “In God’s great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade.” (1 Peter 1:3-4)
Jesus is the King who has created the wave we ride. He is the one who commissions us to ride that wave in order to pull others in.
Peter wrote about what it is like to be pulled into the wave that never loses its connection to the living Jesus. “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)
|North of Kahlotus WA|
Faith is not a virtue that we achieve by some mental process. It is not some kind of discipline of positive thinking. Faith, hope, and love are the gifts that come from being born again as children of God. Faith is a gift from God, working in Jesus, and it is a gift that carries, within itself, the giver of the gift.
I have an afghan crocheted by my Baci, my Polish grandma. I feel close to her when I see it or touch it. But faith brings an even stronger presence of the one who gives us faith. Peter tells us something about this living reality of faith that comes from its giver: “and even though you do not see him now you believe in him.” Peter’s choice of Greek words speaks of actually “believing into” Jesus. By faith Jesus is not something or someone “out there”. Jesus becomes the very world we live in, the very air we breathe.
Faith is not an idea or a determination that we develop. Faith is an entryway inward to God. It is a way of seeing the invisible and receiving it. It is not just about something you hope for, but it is something that comes to you, even as you hope. In the course of believing, Peter says that you “are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” It is something that is going on, and growing, even as we speak.
The work of Jesus that claims you for his own, and makes you like him, and pulls you into his wave in the world, is not only something you will receive at some point in the future. It is in the future. It is also something you are receiving now.
This is how you are being made into a disciple now. And this is how you are able to carry out your commission as a disciple maker now.
|Looking down at Kahlotus WA|
The Greek word for authority, that Jesus uses, carries the idea of capability and competence. It means that Jesus is able to make us, even now, what he wants us to be, no matter how unqualified we may feel, no matter how inept we may seem to ourselves or to others.
This is what Jesus wants to pass on to the whole world. It is his capability and competence to rule through the hearts, and minds, and words, and lives of those who trust him. This is part of his coming kingdom. It is his capability and competence to create new people of faith through those, like us, who have been commissioned by him.
Jesus’ capability and competence are perfect, because he has it all. He has all authority. Through him we, working together, and working with him, have whatever we need to go forth. So, together, we really can come to Jesus, and go forth together with him.
Monday, September 3, 2012
Preached on Sunday, September 2, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 13:1-6; Mark 9:14-29
When I ask someone, “How are things going?” there are some people who will always answer this way: “Can’t complain!” The classic long answer of this type is: “Can’t complain. It wouldn’t do me any good if I did.”
|Butterfly in the Oregano|
So, in the battle of wits (in which I am often caught unarmed), when someone gives me the short answer, “Can’t complain,” I ask them, “Do you mean; it wouldn’t do you any good if you did?” But I know someone who outwits me every time, and he always says, “No I just can’t complain.”
That’s a good answer. But it’s not true, I think, for most of us. And so the Lord has something to say to us about our complaints. This psalm (Psalm Thirteen) forms part of the Lord’s answer.
For all the complaining we do (whether do it out loud or in a suffering silence) something in our very nature warns us about it. At least we know this when we hear other people complain. We don’t like it.
Parents hate to hear their kids complain. Parents usually make a deliberate effort to teach their children not to complain, although some parents don’t use the best teaching methods. They don’t teach by their own example.
It’s like the five-year-old who was riding in the car while his mom was driving on errands in the city. The traffic was bad, and his mother was quietly doing her best to get through it. The little boy noticed this and he asked his mother, “Mom, why do the idiots only come out when Dad drives?”
The Bible gives us a lot of warnings against complaining. Sometimes the Scriptures call complaining “murmuring” and tells us that it is very dangerous. (1 Corinthians 10:10)
There is a beautiful warning that comes from Paul in his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:14-16a) I love this warning because it is so loving and positive, and it tells us why it is so much better not to complain. “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life….” (Oh Paul writes such long, complicated sentences!)
How can complainers ever look like children of God? How can they shine as lights in the world? How can complainers ever hold out to others the word of life?
On the other hand, Psalm Thirteen is a complaint. Technically, scholars call it a “psalm of lamentation”. It’s a fancy word but it adds up to the same thing. Nearly a third of the all psalms are psalms of lamentation; psalms of complaint.
|Looking down the gravel road above Washtucna Cemetery|
Four times David in a row pounds away at God with the same phrase, over and over again. “How long O Lord! How long? How long? How long?”
This isn’t a complaint, it’s a rant! Eugene Peterson paraphrases the opening line like this: “Long enough God – you’ve ignored me long enough.”
One third of the psalms are psalms of complaint. It is as if God wanted to teach us how to complain.
The truth is that this psalm is a complaint of faith. This complaint believes in the faithfulness of God: “But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:5) “Unfailing love” here is a translation of that single, special word in Hebrew for the covenant love (the promise love) of God. It is steadfast love; absolutely steady love: unceasing, unchanging.
In this psalm everything seems wrong. The writer, David, feels forgotten. “How long will you hide your face from me?” Peterson puts it this way: “I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough!” Has someone ever turned their back on you when you tried to talk to them, or refused to shake your hand when you held it out to them? I have; it makes you feel terrible. That is how David felt.
“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and, every day, have sorrow in my heart?” This sorrow, this struggle closes in on people suffering from depression.
And then it made me think of another kind of depression. During the Great Depression, my grandparents, on both sides of my family, had a hard time. They worked hard when they could. When they weren’t working, they worked hard to find work. Sometimes they traveled across the country in search of work. My grandpa Evans took his family from
New York to Washington
in search of a job on the Grand Coulee Dam project, but the waiting line for
jobs was too long; so they went back to . When my grandparents worked steady and hard
their cupboards were still often empty before the next paycheck. New
|Washtucna Pioneer Memorial Cemeter|
This went on for years; from 1929 until the 1940’s. They knew that they were better off than many other people, but they also knew they were living on the edge. They were thankful for what they had, but they always had the question of survival on their minds. To have thought about prosperity would have seemed like a luxury.
My grandparents had their lives to live and their families to feed, and they never knew if, tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, their jobs would disappear. The whole country was like this. The whole world was like this.
There were good reasons to fear and worry. It was a problem that had no end in sight. They must have often asked the question, “How long?” And they yet got through it.
They had families to provide for. They had children to raise, feed, and clothe. If they ever complained wasn’t because they were complainers. It was because they didn’t want to fail.
There were needs hanging upon their shoulders that required caring, and caring can be hard work. There were needs that begged for their unfailing love. Sometimes our complaining can be a form of that caring and unfailing love. Sometimes complaining can be holy.
So it is not surprising that the Lord, himself, complains. Jesus grew up singing that song that cried “how long”. Jesus used the words of that song in his own life.
Only he addressed those words to us. He cried, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19) It was the complaint of caring; the complaint of the unfailing love of the Lord.
Jesus had taken part in what was literally a “mountain-top-experience”. Jesus had taken his favorite disciples, Peter, James, and John, up to the top of whatever they considered to be a mountain, and he was changed before their eyes so that they had a glimpse of his true glory.
|Washtucna School: |
Football field, with the Church peeking over the school roof
When this experience of glory passed Jesus insisted on getting through to them that this glory included his death on the cross and his rising from the dead. These favorite disciples didn’t complain, but they were confused and full of questions. They didn’t like what they heard.
Then they came down from the mountain top, and they found confusion among the other disciples. They found a crowd waiting for Jesus. They found a big argument going on, and a big complaint. The disciples had failed to heal a demon-possessed boy.
When Jesus asked the crowd, “What are you arguing about?” he was opening the door to the complaint of the boy’s father. Jesus asked for the complaint of someone who cared with an unfailing love.
When he heard the complaint, Jesus uncovered the father’s need for faith, and gave him that faith. When his own disciples complained of their embarrassing failure, Jesus uncovered their prayerless prayers, and answered their prayer.
When it seemed (though the failure of his own people) that he had failed, Jesus proved his unfailing love. The real answer of Jesus to the complaints was that he overlooked the weakness of peoples’ faith. He worked in spite of the prayerlessness of his own disciples. He kept on his road to the cross, where all the unfailing love of God’s works its power.
If Jesus can complain; so can we. The psalms teach us how to complain. Our problem is that our complaints are not holy. They are not pretty. They don’t come from faith and love. We can’t complain and shine. We can’t complain and hold out the word of life as people who have clearly been made alive by that word.
I am tempted to say that we are not good enough to complain; at least not good enough to complain well. Jesus’ complaints are the complaints of God in all his caring and unfailing love. His complaints are holy. Often, our complaints are not.
|High School Football Practice in Washtucna|
One third of the psalms are psalms of complaint. God has taken them up into his word. They are his word to us. Partly they are cautionary, it’s true. But they also teach us how to live in an honest relationship with God. They help us to journey from where we really are, to the place where God has called us and created us to live. The complaints of the psalm are like the prayer of the boy’s father in the gospel, “I believe; help my unbelief.” This is what all holy complaints are looking for.
In fact (you will have to trust me on this) the good that the Lord does for David, at the end of the psalm, tells us something about this. David prays: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13:6) This is a very odd thing to say, when he has been ranting at God: “How long O Lord; how long; how long; how long?”
But the good that God has given David is not the ordinary Hebrew word for good. It is good in the form of an answer (see the
); but David has been
giving the Lord this long rant that doesn’t seem to deserve an answer. NEB
What the Lord gives is like a process of goodness; a journey of goodness. It is like the ripening of fruit. It is like the weaning of a child from its mother’s milk to solid food. (“Analytical Hebrew and Chaldean Lexicon”, p. 138) It is a goodness that has taken David from a bad place to a better place; from a complaining faith to a trusting and loving faith. This is a goodness that is possible because David has been honest.
Christians often believe that God requires them to be dishonest and to live a lie; or at least to live up to a lie, or to live up to a pious fiction. The truth is that God knows us through and through and pretending to be happy does no good. God does not reward play-acting among his children. Play-acting only makes them likely to fool themselves, and to teach others to do the same.
Psalm Thirteen has complaint and faith going hand in hand. This is honest. Martin Luther was able to put these together. Luther said: “Hope itself despairs, and despair yet hopes; and only that unspeakable groaning is heard with which the Holy Sprit, who moves over the waters covered with darkness, intercedes for us [prays for us].”
It seems schizophrenic. Christians do have split personalities. We have our old self; the self we are without Christ, without God. We have our new self; where we are in Christ and Christ is in us, full of the hope of glory. That sounds both honest and crazy, but there it is. This is what it means to say, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Jesus told his disciples that they could not heal the boy because such a healing requires prayer. I see this as a joke. I mean that Jesus was joking with his disciples. Of course they prayed, especially when the boy was not instantly healed before their eyes. They had done this before, and it had always worked. This is the kind of faith they had, to pray for the thing that had never gone wrong before.
I am sure they remembered to pray; but some prayers may not deserve to be called prayers. And, yet, what did Jesus do about this? He answered their prayerless prayers. He healed the boy.
This psalm rants its complaints; but it knows, in its heart, that none of its complaints are true. We are not forgotten. God has not turned his face away. We are full of worry but we know we are only being foolish because we also know that God will take care of us. It doesn’t matter if our enemies see us shaken and stumbling all over ourselves. It doesn’t matter who laughs at us, or how often.
There is another healing, in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John. (John 5:1-15) There was a man who needed a miracle and so he had gone to live in a place where there were periodic miracles. It was at a place called
where there were springs and pools of healing. Bethesda
It was like some places in the world, today, where people go on pilgrimage because they have a reputation as healing places. But the man lived in that healing place for thirty eight years without being able to get to the water at the healing time. He must have often prayed, “How long?” And then he must have stopped praying at all.
Jesus came to that place. He saw the man, and learned how long he had waited. Then Jesus walked up to him and asked him a strange and revealing question. “Do you want to be healed?”
The man did not ask for healing. All he could do was to tell Jesus his long, long, sad story. It was as if he were a broken recording repeating his unending complaint. Jesus healed him anyway, without his asking to be healed.
Afterwards, the man was pressured by the authorities to tell them who gave him this healing, and he didn’t know. He would have heard of Jesus; but Jesus had must have come to him anonymously, suddenly appearing before him out of the crowd. He didn’t know that his healer was Jesus.
So the man couldn’t report Jesus to the authorities. He went his way and the authorities let him go.
Then Jesus met him again, suddenly appearing to him out of the crowd, and gave him a mysterious warning. It was a warning not to sin unless he wanted something worse to happen.
|Cross above Kahlotus WA|
Now the man knew who had healed him, and so we can see what Jesus had warned him against. He responded to Jesus by becoming a tattle tale.
The authorities were expert complainers about the faults of others. They had many complaints about Jesus, and the man (knowing their power) played into their culture of complaint. He joined their club. He rejoined his place in the complainer’s club.
There is this danger; that even the apparent grace of God may not cure us from being complainers. There is a complaining nature that stops being honest.
Complaining becomes an addiction. It stops caring about answers. It stops caring about believing. It stops seeking, and finding, and sharing the unfailing love of God. It only wants to hear itself. That is the danger and curse of complaining, when it stops being honest and becomes unholy.
God save us from that! Psalm Thirteen teaches us to rant and then to stop and give it up; to trust and to love. Then we will sing to the Lord, because we know he has been good to us.