Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creatures Designed for Moral Integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All sin is destructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is sin. And this is destructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving as a Way of Life

Preached in Kahlotus only, on Sunday November 18, 2012

Scripture readings: Ephesians 5:15-21; John 11:1-15

Canal near Live Oak, CA
A family was sitting down for supper, and the parents asked one of their young kids to give thanks for the food. Everyone bowed their heads, and sat silently: and they sat, and they sat, and the child finally looked up and said, “If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know I’m lying?”

Paul writes about, “…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20) Is Paul telling us to give thanks even for the broccoli?

I try to always be thankful. But I don’t always succeed. Some things make it hard to be thankful. I have a lot to learn.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul writes, “Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Here, Paul does not say, “for everything give thanks,” but “in everything give thanks.” He means “give thanks under all circumstances” which means that even though, sometimes, everything seems to be going wrong, yet there is one thing that is not going wrong. Somehow the Lord is at work, and we need to be able to see this, or trust that this is true.

In Romans chapter 12, verse 9, Paul says, “Hate what is evil, love what is good.” If we were to thank God for something evil, then we would be tempted to talk about God as if he had an evil streak in him.

A little later, in the twelfth chapter of Romans (12:21), Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” If something bad were going on around us, and we put our energy into overcoming that evil by doing good, then, in those circumstances, good people would not be thankful for the evil going on, but they would be thankful for those who were trying to overcome evil with good.

Well given thanks requires perception and understanding. It is an art.
Canal near Live Oak CA

In the eighth chapter of Romans (8:28), Paul says, “We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him….” Even when times are hard, and even when evil seems to have the upper hand; we are to trust that God is working for good, overcoming evil with good. We trust that evil may be evil, but we also need to trust God is Good, and that God is God; and that God will be proved to be God, as well as good.

It is like when the two Dutch sisters, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, were enslaved in a Nazi work camp. It was hell on earth, but Betsie tried to live a thankful life. Of all the hellish things about her living hell, she even gave thanks to God for all the tiny lice that infested the barracks where the prisoners lived: the lice that lived in their hair, and their clothes; the lice that covered their bodies.

Betsie told Corrie, one day, that she gave thanks to God for all those lice, and Corrie thought her sister was crazy. How could lice be a gift from God? But Betsie explained that it had dawned on her that their lice were the reason why the guards never came into their barracks. Lice were the reason the guards never discovered that the prisoners were illegally having a Bible study, and praying together. The guards never disturbed their Bible study because of the lice.

The guards who were so powerful, who were so frightening and brutal to these poor women, were afraid of catching their lice. Betsie had formed a habit of giving thanks to God for everything. But really her discipline taught her to look for God in everything, in all circumstances.

I have not found that Jesus said to give thanks for everything, or (even) “in” everything. But he seems to have managed to act thankfully in the darkest times. Jesus seems to have recommended the same habit of mind to those who follow him.
Canal near Live Oak CA

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed (or happy) are you, when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

In the Gospel of John, when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus gave thanks (at least he said he was glad that he was not there to save his friend from dying). Jesus did not give thanks for his friend’s death. Jesus gave thanks because his disciples were going to see something that would help them to believe in him; even in the darkest and most evil times.

At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus gave thanks that his Father always heard him. Jesus didn’t give thanks for everything that day, but he did give thanks under the circumstances of that day, because God’s plan was unfolding.

When Paul tells us to be, “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of Jesus Christ,” he is really telling us that, whatever happens, always look for Jesus, always look for the Savior.

The name of Jesus is the ownership, the authority of Jesus. The ownership and the authority of Jesus is what we have to be thankful for. It is as if Paul is saying, “Whatever happens, the Father, who made you, is working through his Son, who died for you, to help you, and to bring you through it.”

Canal near Live Oak, CA
Paul is saying the same thing here as he said in Romans chapter eight, toward the end of the chapter, after listing all the possible disasters of life. He wrote, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities; nor things present, nor things to come; nor power; nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37, 39)

Paul is not telling us to give thanks as a condition for receiving some kind of reward. Paul is telling us to give thanks because we have already received gifts beyond our imagining. We have received Christ and, with his help, we will be more than conquerors through him who loved us. So, whatever happens, we give thanks in his name; not “for what ever happens”, but “for Christ who is Lord, whatever happens”.

Another thing helps us to see this.

Paul writes, “speak to one another with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing, and make melody in your heart to the Lord.” This is not about an obligation to sing. It is about having something to sing about.
“Be filled with the Spirit…” Paul is telling us about the difference between emptiness and fullness. He is saying that the Spirit of God makes us full, and this is what we sing about.

We can either see these verses as a checklist of rules and chores to do. Or we can see them as signs of fullness. Always giving thanks is not our job description. It is more like the marks on a rain gauge. It shows where we are at. It shows our awareness of Jesus.

Feather River near Live Oak, CA
One of the most important facts about being a Christian is that we have a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus suffered and died for us on the cross, and he rose from death for us. Jesus overcame the worst things that could happen and he came back from it all.

Jesus lives in our hearts. We have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and Jesus makes us full. His love replaces our emptiness.

A big cause of the human evil in this world is spiritual emptiness. There is an empty space within human hearts that people will try to fill in every way they can, without the Lord’s help. They try to fill the emptiness through power, or lust, or violence, or abuse, or money, or self-destructive behavior. All the while, God himself is reaching out to them, to give himself to them and replace their emptiness with his fullness.

The verses of our scripture reading in Ephesians tell us what our life is like when we open our lives to the fullness of God. When we are filled with the Spirit we simply see life differently.

We see time differently. Time is not our enemy. Time is a gift from God, and we are thankful for it. Paul’s advice is, “making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

But the word for time here is time as opportunity: not time as hours and days, but time as quality. Some people say that time is money. Paul says that time is opportunity.

Many people are afraid of the times we live in. We live in a time of fear and great danger. Nature itself seems full of warnings.

Paul lived in evil times and saw, in his time, the opportunities he had to serve the kingdom of God and to live the kingdom way of life, in his love and care for others. If we do not claim today as a gift from God, it may be a very bad day indeed. But we can “redeem the time.” We can make our time an opportunity for God.

Paul teaches us when he says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which is debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit.” The alternatives here escape or fullness: which one do you want?

For instance, if you take a vacation for a reunion with family, or to play, or to rest, or to see great things, your vacation will probably accomplish what you want; if there are no mishaps. But if you take a vacation to escape, when you come back, it will be just as if you never had a vacation at all, because you cannot ever, really escape.

Feather River near Live Oak, CA
Even if you escaped by not ever coming back from your vacation, you still might not really escape. A lot of what drives us to want to escape really comes from inside ourselves, and we can never get away from ourselves for long. We keep coming back and getting in the way. We can’t escape from ourselves.

Jesus doesn’t give us an escape. He gives us a new heart, a new mind, a spirit of faith, hope, and thanksgiving.

When we are full of the Spirit of God, we can face what we need to be able to face. We can live the way of Jesus, and we can live from his strength and fullness, so that we do not have to run away any more. Fullness of the Spirit gives us fullness of life.

Paul says says, “Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ.” (5:21) When we are filled with the Spirit, we are thankful for other people. We share life with others in a new way: in reverence. They belong to Christ. Or Christ wants them to belong. What a great thing it would be if we lived in a world where everyone was important to Jesus. But that is exactly the world where we do live, when we are filled with the Spirit.

Paul says, “Be very careful how you live…” and he says, “…do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” He says this because it seems so hard for us to absorb the fact that the Lord wants to claim our whole life.
The Lord wants to fill us. Look at all the ways we are tempted to forget, to leave God out, to worry, to run away, to give up, to lower our sights and our aim. 

Don’t do that. See the opportunities. Avoid the escapes. Be part of God’s plan for other people’s lives. This is the way to a full life. This is the way to a life full of the Spirit. This is the way to a life that is full of thankfulness.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Going with Jesus: Holding It Together

Preached on Sunday, November 11, 2012

Scripture readings: Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Peter 5:1-14

I was at the Washtucna School the other day, talking to someone who was in the middle of eating their lunch. They were eating a sandwich, and it took me a while to notice how it was constructed. Instead of the insides of the sandwich being laid out between two slices of bread, they were laid out between two leaves of lettuce. That sandwich looked like it had a lot of good things inside it: and so I thought, why not?

A trail along the Feather River
Slices of bread hold the contents of a sandwich together, and keep the sandwich from becoming too hard, too messy, to eat; maybe not all of the time, but most of the time. The lettuce seemed to work the same way.

But some things seem unlikely to hold things together and prevent a mess. A sandwich made between two layers of tomato would not work so well. A sandwich made between two layers of tuna salad or egg salad would not work at all. Even though they are good things to eat, they are very messy things to hold onto. Those things need to be inside the sandwich, and they need to be held together by the right stuff.

The closing words of the Gospel of Matthew are called “The Great Commission.” They are shaped in a way to hold good things together; things that could be messy if we tried to hold onto them by themselves. They are Jesus’ “marching orders” to us, as the members of the body of Jesus that is called his church. They are orders to go to everyone, and make learners of everyone; to claim everyone for God, to give them everything Jesus gave us. We need a way to hold onto all of this, and Jesus gives us his way. It is a way called grace.

The great commission is the work Jesus gives us to do. It is our mission. “Go and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a)

But is this our work, or the work of Jesus? Alright, it’s the work of both. It is our work and Jesus’ work. It is certainly the work Jesus wants done. It is not always the work we want to do.

The only help for us, sometimes, is that Jesus has shown us his truest and deepest self, and so we love him with all our heart, and we know he loves us with all his heart. When you love someone, and you know that that particular someone loves you, and you know that that someone wants you to do something very important, then you have got to do it: you have got to try, or you can never be happy.

This is so not bad, really; and it is about love. Real love is strong. When I have been in love, I wanted to know that girl. I wanted to know how to make her laugh, or smile. I wanted to know how to get her to touch me and hold me. That is a very strong thing; just wanting to know how to do that. And the love of Jesus makes us want to do something we might not choose to do, otherwise.
Walking along the Feather River

Everything he tells us to do is about love. What does it mean to make disciples, except to make them eager to learn from the one who loves them?

The classic pick-up line of Jesus to any of his disciples has always been, “Come, follow me.” Be with me, and spend time with me. Watch me and listen to me. Talk with me. Let’s watch and listen to everything together. Let’s do everything together. This is love, and this is the deepest friendship. Disciples do this together with Jesus.

Baptizing everyone is about claiming them for Jesus and writing his name on them. Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is like being ready to write the name of all the fullness and the totality of God on everyone you meet.

The water is a sign of the saving love of God who can float them safely through the dangers of a fallen world, and wash them clean from the stains of that world, so that they can hold their heads up high to that world and say: “God has made me new and confident to live for a better world.” This is all about love.

Teaching everyone to obey everything that Jesus has commanded you is just the same as not leaving out anything they need to know about living and going with Jesus. It is about sharing everything that Jesus has said and done and how that changes and shapes us.

Even Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead teaches us the secret of being a disciple and going with Jesus. It is the most important commandment of Jesus. We know that the secret of going with Jesus is his invitation to die to ourselves and to rise in his love and power every day. This is also love.

But it is still hard. It can even be dangerous. Peter has spent a lot of time telling us what we should already know, that going with Jesus, in this world, sets us up for being misunderstood, and laughed at, and mocked, and treated unfairly, and downright mistreated. Going with Jesus, in this world, sets us up for suffering and sorrow.

This world is determined to compete with Jesus and rob us of him, if it can. There is a spiritual power that is opposed to God, which Peter compares to a roaring lion. That is the devil, which means the accuser and the enemy. (1 Peter 5:8-9)

Jesus says, “Go, and make disciples of all nations.” By “all nations” he means “everyone in the world”, and (as it applies to us) it means everyone we meet.
Looking into the Feather River

But this is very hard. How can we make learners of everyone, when it is so hard to learn ourselves? How can we make learners of everyone, when they aren’t interested? How can we make learners of everyone when we don’t like them, or when they don’t like us, or when they don’t like what we stand for, or when they see through our misrepresentations of Jesus?

How do we make disciples of everyone (or learners of everyone) when the learners we do have just won’t settle down together and learn from each other? Peter says, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Peter 5:5) But that doesn’t feel very helpful. We don’t find humility very much fun; and it is so hard to get others to appreciate it and play along.

Being people who are committed to going, as Jesus said, instead of staying; being people who are committed to going to everyone, as Jesus said; being people who are committed to making everyone into learners, as Jesus said; being people who are committed to claiming everyone, and to giving them everything that Jesus has given to us, as Jesus said, is hard and messy work, even though it is all about love.

The structure of Jesus’ instructions tells us how to take hold of this hard and messy work. Jesus begins and ends his instructions with grace. Grace holds the instructions of Jesus together from front to back, from top to bottom; like the bread or the lettuce of a sandwich.

The first layer of Jesus’ instructions is his authority: “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The Greek word for this authority is not about Jesus holding a position that gives him the right to give us orders. This word is also translated as “power” and it is not about the ability of Jesus to use his power to make us or obligate us into following his orders. The authority and power of Jesus is the essence of who Jesus is.

Looking into the Feather River
Authority and power are the essence of what is in him. They are his ability to be what we need most. They are his ability, as God and Human, to form a perfect bridge; to come down and be with us, and to hold us close, and to bring us up to live on higher ground in his presence. So he shares our birth and our life, he shoulders our sin and weakness on the cross, he shares death and defeats its fear and power.

There is the advertisement about a “power drink” that asks the question: “Is it in you?” The power and authority of Jesus is “in him”. It is who Jesus is by his nature and by his action. And what is in Jesus is also in us, as he lives within us by faith.

The other layer of the sandwich that holds together the work of Jesus is “his presence.” “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

The power and authority of Jesus is the foundation of the work he calls us to do. The top layer is the presence of Jesus who is with us always. His presence covers us every day.

This is the grace of God in Christ. Going with Jesus requires life as a sort of “grace” sandwich.

The other day I needed to pull up some black locust shoots that had grown surprisingly big while I was gone for a few weeks. They had wicked thorns. I got wounded in the attempt, so I put on my work gloves in order to get the work done.

If you want to do some hard, tricky, messy work, like the work of a metal shop, or cutting roses for a bouquet, you want to wear work gloves. You have to hold the work of Jesus in the gloves of his grace. You have to wear his authority and his presence. You have to work that close. He never intended to send us out any other way.

Walking along the Feather River
There is something we need to know about the presence of Jesus, when he says that he will be with us always. The Greek says that he will be with us “all the days”, until the end of the age.

It’s easy to think of “always” as a unchanging thing. But we really need to have the presence of Jesus matching the challenge of each day as it comes. The easiest days may be our most dangerous because they lull us into forgetfulness. When we think of Jesus being with us “all the days”, it teaches us to count every day, no matter what that day brings.

We have good days, and we have bad days, but we have no days without Jesus. We have no more of Jesus on the good days than we have on the bad days. But we have him with us differently. We have no less of Jesus on the worst day of our life than we have on our best. Jesus is with us, exactly as we need him, “all the days”.

We may think about wasted hours, and wasted days and years; but the hours, and the days, and the years by which we count our time with Jesus are never wasted; no matter what we may think, and no matter what others may tell us.

The Bible is the word of God, through which we can receive the mind of God; the very thoughts of God. There is a thought we need to learn about the end of the age (or the end of the world, as some translations make it). The thought is that there is a structure and purpose in time, as God has designed it and created it.

Long ago, the Jewish rabbis came to think that, from the very beginning, God did not create only one world, but two worlds. They came to believe that, from the very beginning, God created this world (or this universe) and the world (or universe) that is to come.

And these two worlds bear a special relation to each other. The world to come is designed to be built on this world, like ripe fruit is built from a blossom.
Walking along the Feather River

The “end of the age” is almost like the concept of closure where things come together. The end of this world, where there is so much going wrong (where there is so much injustice, and hurt, and anger, and fear, and blindness, and tragedy) is about the righting of wrongs, the healing of hurts, the deflating of anger, the lifting of fear, the opening of eyes.

The author Ernest Hemmingway wrote this: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” But the end of the age which Jesus promises, and which Jesus rules (where Jesus is the king) goes much farther for us. The end of the age is the time and place where no one who comes to Jesus will go un-mended.  The age to come is built on the mending of every broken person in every broken place.

The way to the end of the age is by dying and rising with Jesus. When we die and rise with Jesus there is no breakage that will go unnoticed and unmet. Every broke place will have the glory of Jesus in it.

Every broken place in the creation will be like a jewel or a crown in the world to come. Every life in Christ will wear a crown. Every day in Christ will wear its crown.

Nothing will be wasted. Peter says: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” (1 Peter 5:10)

Sometimes this glory is the power to give comfort to others. The Apostle Paul once put it this way: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) It is the very nature of who God is; to make us strong in the broken places.

East of Live Oak looking toward the Feather River
Even in this world, even now, we see just a bit of this at work. This is the grace that enables us to follow the great commission and command of Jesus. This is the grace we wear when the work is tricky, and hard and messy.

This is how, when the days seem bad, Jesus makes us strong, firm, and steadfast for those days. But Jesus is with us always; all the days. And, as Peter says, “This is the true grace of God.” (1 Peter 5:12) And by “this” he means God gives us the gifts we need for everywhere he sends us, and for everyone we must meet and claim for him, and for every way we seek to teach and help others follow him. This is the true grace of God.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Going with Jesus: Spreading Jesus

Preached on Sunday, November 4, 2012

Scripture readings: Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Peter 4:1-11

My Aunt Joyce belongs to the Schmitz Family of Mason City, Iowa. Somehow (and apparently completely against her nature), when she was a young woman, she came, on an adventure, to southern California, where she met and fell in love with my dad’s brother, Don.

September Going to Seed in Washtucna
But, somehow, her true love has always remained the Schmitz Family of Mason City, Iowa. When my Uncle Don retired, that is where they moved for their golden years; from sunny southern California to northern Iowa.

It is because of my Aunt Joyce that everyone in my family has learned the story of “The Music Man” by heart. “The Music Man” is a Broadway musical written by Meredith Wilson, who also grew up in Mason City. The story of the musical takes place in River City, Iowa, which is really Mason City in disguise.

The character of “The Music Man” is a traveling salesman named Harold Hill, who sells boys’ bands. He comes to a town and pretends to be a band director, even though he can’t read a note of music. He organizes the boys of the town. He orders instruments, uniforms, and music. In River City, he orders the music for Beethoven’s Minuet in G.

Harold pretends to get them started learning how to play their instruments by using a special method of his own invention that he calls “the ‘think’ system”. He explains to the boys, and their parents, that they will be able to learn to play by “thinking” the Minuet in G: and, in the process of all this (of course), he falls in love with Marian the town’s librarian.

Harold Hill is a fraud. He’s a fake, and he doesn’t know the territory, and (in the end) he gets caught. He is put on trial by the mayor, in front of the whole town.

More September Going to Seed
He appears to be doomed, until his love, Marian the librarian, cross-examines him and the townspeople. It turns out that Harold Hill really loves bands and, wherever he peddles his scheme, he always convinces himself that there really is going to be a band. He believes there is a band, until he has to make his inevitable escape.

Marian the librarian gathers the boys from the crowd. They all have their instruments in hand. Marian forces Harold to lead the band, and (sure enough) they manage to play Beethoven’s Minuet in G. They sound horrible; but the parents fall love with it.

And so Harold is saved. And Harold and Marian are sure to live happily ever after.

Harold Hill truly loved Beethoven’s Minuet in G, and the band that would play it. We are Christians, and we are disciples of Jesus, and we are the people who love Jesus, and the music of Jesus, and we love the band that will play it.

This is why we do what Jesus said. We go around everywhere in hopes of making disciples of everyone, baptizing them, and (in the words of Jesus) “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)

Even More September Going to Seed
For now, we are the band that plays the music of Jesus. The aim of Jesus is to get all the people of the earth in the band.

The music of Jesus is everything that Jesus taught, and everything that Jesus did. Everything that Jesus taught and did is a command for us.

Even the cross is a command. For instance, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) And very close to this are Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

Suddenly, I realize that, if I am thinking about what Jesus commanded me, and if I am responsible for teaching others “everything”, including this cross and our poverty of spirit, then, maybe, I am starting in exactly the wrong place. Maybe I ought to start in a happier place.
Late September Wild Asters

When Peter lays the foundation for how we are to meet the evils of this world, he also starts in exactly the same wrong place, as I just did. “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.”

If Jesus’ commandments begin with suffering, it is hard to see how they begin in a happy place. When we are seeking to win others to Jesus and attract them to his music, we may be tempted not to go there. We may be tempted to avoid teaching everything he commanded; at least at first.

But such commandments are not really about suffering at all. They are about love: and, surely, we are deeply interested in love; although not in the thought that love includes a surprising amount of pain and suffering.

I mean that Jesus’ whole plan was to face the worst for the sake of our very best. When our love is most like his, we are willing to do the same. We are willing to fret, and worry, and fear, and become indignant. We are willing to resort (in desperation) to the humblest, quietest, gentlest, most persistent, and possible most annoying ways of getting through to people; or of righting wrongs, or persuading minds, or transforming hearts: when it truly matters to us. We are willing to plead, and cry, and shout, and bear with huge agonies, for the sake of love.

We are not only done with sin (as Peter says), but we are done with all other selfishness. We are done with everything that stands in the way of loving with a sufficiently strong, and transforming, and redemptive love.

Horses Enjoying Whatever Is Going to Seed
There have been times when I wanted to do something other than what I knew Jesus wanted me to do. There have been times when I wanted to have a different kind of spiritual life than the life that comes from the gospel. But the sight of the suffering of Jesus, crucified for me, has essentially stopped me and peeled away the layers of my resistance.

The cross is the saving, redeeming, and rescuing, forgiving, transforming, healing, and empowering love of God. That we should be commanded to love with that kind of love is the most attractive of all the commandments of Jesus. It is pure music. It is surely at the heart of everything we want to teach others.

Teaching others to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us is really nothing else than giving them the total Jesus: Jesus with nothing left out. But we can give the total Jesus to others only if we have received everything from Jesus for ourselves. We can only give all that Jesus commanded to others when we know that he has also commanded it all to us; and when we love all of it, every bit of it: when we love all of Jesus.

So we are all, to some degree, like Harold Hill the Music Man. We are all, to some degree, frauds and fakes. Chances are we will all get caught, sooner or later; or more often than not.

The Process of Attracting Attention
In fact, when Jesus gave his disciples and us this mission to “Go” it comes right on the heels of incredible failure. His own disciples were prone to be fakes. We see that: “When they saw him they worshipped, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

The result of this was that Jesus didn’t split them up and give his orders only to the faithful. He gave his orders to us all.

His orders are not for the special Christians. They are for us all. They have nothing to do with our qualifications. They have everything to do with his qualifications; his authority.

Jesus has “all authority in heaven and on earth.” We claim to have the authority to exempt ourselves, but heaven and earth belong to Jesus, and none of us are off the hook.

If you love Jesus, if you have truly met him, you are an extension of him, for better or for worse. You will have worshiped all of Jesus (in which case you will be able to give all of him, just as he is, to others).

Or you will have held yourself back. You will have doubted; and you will only be able to give a portion of Jesus. You will only be able to teach others about a Jesus who is less than full; a Jesus who is not all that he can be. Doubting just makes being an extension of Jesus into a struggle, for yourself and for others.

Attention Attracted!
Peter tells us about this extension. He tells us that our existence, as an extension of Jesus, is a gift of grace. “Each one should use what ever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 4:10-11)

We do not speak “as if” we were speaking the words of God. We do not serve “as if” God were providing us with his strength. The idea of doing something “as if” God were doing it is only a form of pretending. It is only another form of making the Lord to be less than he truly is.

If you have met Jesus, you are extensions of his grace in this world, and you have gifts, through Jesus, to spread that grace everywhere you go. You may not use those gifts. But (as Peter said) each one of us “should”.

This is how we live out the promise that we will look at next week. Jesus said: “And surely I am with you always.” This is the promise to make us his extensions in this world.

Got One, Lost the Other
If you have met Jesus (as he truly is, and as he fully is) then you are a carrier of Jesus everywhere. You have him, and he has sent you to share him, and to be, with your brothers and sisters in Christ, the extension of Jesus in this world.

Remember that Jesus did not give his mission to you in order for you to do this alone. Jesus gave his orders to all the disciples together; the worshiping and the doubting together, the faithful and the not so faithful.

Jesus did not split up his disciples for the work of following his orders. He has sent us out as a church, as his own body, and we need to stick together, and we need to find every way possible to stick together, in order to be able to teach everything he has commanded.

Jesus has sent us out, and he goes with us to see it through. Jesus has sent us out to fill the earth with himself, with his presence, with everything that he has commanded us. Then we will give the total Jesus to the world, just as he has given his total presence to us.