Monday, February 25, 2013

A New World: Believing Jesus

Preached on Sunday, February 24, 2013
Scripture readings: Isaiah 43:1-2, Mark 6:45-52 

One Sunday morning, a small child was acting up during worship. The parents did their best to calm him but it was losing battle.

At last, the father picked the child up and stomped up the aisle to leave the sanctuary. And just before they disappeared, the child called out to the congregation, “Pray for me! Pray for me!” (“Eculaugh” from Ray Kerley, Note Number 6506)

We see something about prayer in the story we read from the gospel.

Actually it tells us about several great needs that we have as God’s children.

Photos of Walks between the Feather River and Live Oak CA
It tells us that we need to pray: that we need an inner focus, a spiritual contact, or anchor, or foundation to keep us spiritually alive.

It tells us that we need to know that we matter, that we belong to the Lord. We need the certainty that Jesus cares about us when life is not easy.

It tells us that we need to trust, to have faith in the Lord’s power, the Lord’s ability to provide for us and to help us.

Mark says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus walking on the water because they had forgotten about the loaves. What loaves? They had forgotten the five small loaves of barley bread with which Jesus had fed over 5,000 people.

And that reminds us that we have not read the whole story. We need to look back through this sixth chapter of Mark to see all the new experiences that were happening to the disciples, all the ways that Jesus was changing their lives.

What does it mean to be a Christian? It means to be a disciple.

Remember what a disciple is. A disciple is a learner, like a student. A disciple is always learning. But it isn’t just book knowledge (although we do have a Book to learn from).

A disciple is learning about something practical; something for life. A disciple is learning to do something new. A disciple is learning to be something, or somebody, that he or she is not; not in their wildest dreams.

We are learning to follow Jesus. We are learning to be his kind of person. In the late nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies there was a Christian movement among hippy types that was called “The Jesus People”. But this is more than a movement: it is an identity.

And, with Jesus, we are learning something that is completely beyond our ability. Our goal is to be full of love, full of generosity, full of patience, full of the truth, full of faithfulness, full of forgiveness, full of wisdom.

These are qualities that belong to Jesus. Being a disciple means patiently letting Jesus be our Master. It means letting our great one build his character and his personality inside us. Being a disciple means being in situations where Jesus’ personality rubs off on us.

At the place where we read today, Jesus is just beginning to put the disciples through their paces. Jesus is just starting to send them out to represent him. Jesus is making them messengers of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus was making them other people’s contact with the kingdom, the power, and the grace of God. Contact with Jesus makes us into contacts for God.

Who is capable of doing this? So, sometimes, being a disciple, being a Christian, being part of the church (the Body of Christ) seems like real overwhelming work. It is like a job where we don’t always like our job. But it is much more than a job.

After the disciples were sent out to prepare the villages for Jesus, they came back excited and worn out. They had so much to do that they didn’t even have time to eat. They needed to get away. Jesus said, “You need a rest. Let’s have some quiet time together, just you and I. Let’s get a boat and row across the lake to a quiet place.

They were rowing, but they were supposed to be resting too, so they took it easy, and it seems that a lot of people saw them take off and decided to follow them on foot around the lake.

The crowd gradually grew as they jogged through the villages along the lakeshore. When the disciples landed they saw this crowd coming: over 5,000 people. 

What was supposed to be their rest and their time apart with Jesus was denied them. It became the crowd’s time with Jesus.

But Jesus compensated for this by giving his disciples an amazing thing. First he told them to do an impossible thing. “Give these people something to eat.” “Where are we going to find enough bread for sale to feed this crowd? And what would we buy it with?”

So Jesus said, “Give me what you have.” They didn’t have anything at all, but John’s gospel tells us that they found a boy in the crowd who had packed a lunch of five small barley loaves and two dried fish. (John 6:9)

Jesus renewed their spirits by doing the impossible with them. He fed the crowd with those few loaves and fish, and there were more leftovers than there had been food to begin with.

The Gospel of John tells us that the crowd was so amazed that they were sure that Jesus must be the Messiah, the savior King. They tried to make him accept the office of King.

The disciples would have been excited by this too because they thought the same thing as the crowd. There must have been a lot of confusion that afternoon. It was pretty much a mob scene.

Finally it was getting late in the day. The disciples got sent off in the boat. Jesus told them to go to Bethsaida, about six or seven miles kitty corner off from where they were. Jesus told the crowds to go home and he escaped up into the hills.

When Jesus was alone on the hilltop overlooking the lake, he began to pray. He was thinking about his purpose; what he had come to do. He was thinking about a whole world of people who needed him but couldn’t understand him. He was thinking about his disciples, his friends, whom he was teaching to be his partners.

Jesus was making them a part of his purpose, part of his mission. Jesus was making them people who could stand for him. But they didn’t understand him either. They weren’t really listening to him.

Jesus kept on praying from that hill top, where he had a view of the lake, and of the boat miles away, where his friends were struggling. They were rowing against the wind.

By the fourth watch in the night, about three in the morning, they had only gotten half way across, only about three miles, three miles in nine hours of rowing. Jesus prayed and watched and thought of them.

He knew that they felt cheated, and deprived, and angry. And Jesus had sent them out to row against the wind.

Their problem out in that boat might have made them pray, but I don’t think they prayed. They had started out tired. They were frustrated. They were really trying to follow Jesus. And they thought that if they put some effort into it, things were supposed to go their way. They were supposed to be inspired and energized, but I don’t think they were.

It is not hard for us to find ourselves in the same boat. Nothing in this world blows our way.

In this world God himself is a rebel. And he sends us into the wind. And we are rowing against the wind. And it is not fun. It does not make us happy.

Paul, in the eighth chapter of Romans says some beautiful, awesome, mysterious things about prayer. He says that there is something going on inside God, where the Holy Spirit is praying for us, and Jesus, the Son of the Father is praying for us, and this all has to do with our being changed, and growing, and becoming real children of God. (Romans 8:15-16)

Somehow (within the heart of God) the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mulling over their thoughts for us. The Lord is focusing on his desires for you and me. Jesus, on the hillside was doing this. (Romans 8:26-27, 34)

Real, life-giving prayer, the kind of prayer we need, asks to look into the heart of the Lord, to see his thoughts for us. We see that he wants us to be the kind of people who call him Father, just as Jesus taught us to do. Jesus is always praying about how he, and his disciples, and the world all fit together in one mission.

The prayers that help us to be renewed ask how we can play a part in the Lord’s plan for his church and his world. The prayers that keep us spiritually alive are the prayers where we ask the Lord how we can do something and become something that is impossible for us without him.

We need to know that we matter. Their work with Jesus was beginning to make them think that the crowd mattered more than they did, or that the work mattered more than they did, or that being a disciple just meant continually the demands of more work to do.

I knew a fellow pastor who had a saying: “Responsibility goes on and on.” But that saying tempts us to see that responsibility without seeing God’s grace.

Even though the disciples had missed out on that quiet, renewing time with Jesus, Jesus found a way to come to them in the middle of their tired and angry frustration. He came to them as a miracle. He was the answer to a prayer they had not prayed, but he had prayed it.

It almost looked as though Jesus was going to pass them by. Whatever they were thinking, the sight of him made them cry out, and Jesus stopped.

“Take courage! Be of good cheer! It is I. Don’t be afraid!”

I think it is possible for us to let Jesus pass us by, because when I am angry or tired I would rather complain and rage in my heart than pray. When I am afraid, I would rather worry than pray. All this time Jesus wants to tell me about courage and joy and, most of all, he wants to tell me that he is really there.

When it seems impossible, Jesus is there and that is what gives us courage. That is what renews us.

We have to trust. Trust me. Jesus was building a pattern of trust in the lives of his disciples. He was teaching them to have faith. He was giving them a constant experience of testing and deliverance. (Alan Cole, Mark, p. 115)

He would present them with something impossible, and he would do something to help them. They had the feeding of the crowd to look back on. They had many more experiences they could not count.

Mark tells us that their hearts were hardened. They were just too set in their ways to learn very well. They were just too used to thinking like unbelievers, thinking without faith.

They were struggling and cursing under their breath and, all the while, Jesus was watching. Jesus was taking those steps to them across the water. Jesus was thinking of what to say to them when he caught up with them. “Have courage. Don’t be afraid. I am here.” 

Jesus walking on the lake was only doing what God had promised to come and do long ago, in the words of the prophet Isaiah. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2)

It was just one more time they would all look back on and say to themselves. “Wouldn’t it have been so much better, so much easier, if we had only trusted Jesus, and realized who he is, and believed him?”

Monday, February 18, 2013

A New World: On God's Terms

Preached on Sunday, February 17, 2013

Scripture readings: Exodus 32:1-8; Mark 6:1-6

Photos Taken on a Walk:
Between the Feather River and Live Oak, CA 
There is a place in the prophet Isaiah where we hear God talking about his frustration with his own people. God says: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.” (Isaiah 65:2)

We see this where Jesus holds out his hands to the people of his hometown. We also see this going on in the book of Exodus, where the Lord was shaping his people in the desert.

They had been slaves in Egypt for generations and, even though they complained about their slavery, they were also really good at it. They were much more comfortable with slavery than they thought.

They wanted liberty (or so they thought), but they didn’t want to live by faith, and courage, and commitment, which form a sort of short-list of what you need to be free. When the Lord heard their groaning for freedom he gave it to them, on the understanding that it included faith, courage, and commitment.

The problem was that he gave this freedom to them on these terms, which were his own terms. Because he didn’t reduce his freedom to fit their terms or their expectations, he showed that he was much more serious and faithful about their prayers than they were. They didn’t like this about him.

At a moment’s notice, or after forty days and nights of inconvenience, God’s people were ready to trade him in for a god of their own terms and expectations, a god of their own imagination, a god in their own image. And so they made the idol, the picture of the kind of god they wanted. They made the golden calf.

They were scared, and they just couldn’t pretend any longer to want what God wanted. The sign of God’s presence, the pillar of smoke and fire, burned above them. The mountain of God, where Moses had disappeared, was also topped with smoke and fire; and with thunder and the sound of an unearthly trumpet. They were collecting that puzzling food that lay about on the ground every morning. They didn’t know what the stuff was that the God of Moses was giving them to eat, so they called it “manna”, which means “what is it?” They were getting their water from springs that appeared when Moses would strike a rock in a dry place with his staff, so that the water flowed for them.

All this frightened them as much as it helped them. Under slavery they knew what to expect. Under slavery they knew how to manage their masters.

But the God of Moses was a master they could not master. Because they could not master him, they were afraid that he might not take care of them when, and how, and where they wanted. When the God of Moses came to their aid, as he always did in their time of need, they were afraid because they had not managed him into doing it.

They could have decided to be brave, and have faith in this God, and commit their lives to him, but they were too scared of him to do so. They were so scared that they did what their fears demanded. The result was that they did something desperately insane.

They did what no brave person would dare to do. Beneath the cloudy pillar and the fiery mountain of God they built an idol to control him. Idols serve as a kind of magic to attract and focus divine power in manageable ways.

The golden calf was golden. It was an offering designed to attract and buy influence with this divine power, as if this power was a thing that could be bought or influenced.

It was a calf; but not a baby calf. Actually it was a young bull in its prime. In the Hebrew world, it could be a three year old; not a baby. (Genesis 15:9, in Hebrew)

The golden calf was meant to serve as the house, and the point of contact, and the very shape for something strong and potent; a fertile and productive power. It was meant to house and shape the God who brought them out of Egypt.

With the help of this calf, if it worked, they would carry God where they wanted him to take them. The golden calf would need the protection, and attention, and care that only they could give. In this way they could make God manageable.

This is how idols work. But the Lord God, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, was not a divine spiritual power that could be captured or bargained with. So the plan of God’s people backfired on them.

They didn’t want faith, or courage, or commitment, they wanted the safety and dependability of a reliable source of power. But God is not ultimately about power at all. God is about compassion, grace, and love. These are, in some mysterious way, stronger than power.

On Mount Sinai, the fiery mountain, Moses was going to ask the Lord to show him his glory. When the Lord did it, he showed and defined his glory in words; these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

People whose hearts and minds have been shaped by a world of slavery and ownership only understand fear and power. God’s people had been poorly brought up, and the great project of God was to bring them up right. In fact his project was to recreate them for a new world of faith, courage, and commitment; or you could say a new world of compassion, grace, and love. So, on and on, God held out his hands to them: such an obstinate people, a people who found faith so hard.

God, in Christ, did the same with his relatives and neighbors in Nazareth. Jesus, in his old village synagogue, was God holding out his hands to his people; his obstinate people who wanted in their hearts some other relationship than the relationship of faith.

They didn’t want faith. They wanted a king. And they were sure (because they had known Jesus just about all his life) that Jesus didn’t have it in him to be the kind of king they wanted.

It didn’t matter that Jesus was a healer and a teacher of amazing wisdom. They wanted to be free from their Roman slavery, the Roman rule and empire. They wanted a leader who would command an army and drive out the Romans.

They were God’s people and so they were accustomed to talking about faith, and courage, and commitment. They thought that these were their priorities, but they wanted the way of power most of all.

Their real interest was not in compassion, or in grace, or in love. If Jesus was not interested in power, then there was nothing in him to trust. Faith in Jesus was not for them.

Nazareth was a very small town, almost not a town at all. Mark tells us that Jesus laid his hands on a few people in that little town and he healed them. If anybody did anything like that here, it would attract a lot of attention.

Maybe Jesus was accustomed to doing more, even in such small places. But the real issue was not his inability to do any wonderful things there, because he could do wonderful things, even in his hometown. He truly did wonderful things there, if healing people is a wonderful thing, if that was the point of his coming there.

What amazed Jesus was what did not happen in his home town. What amazed Jesus was “their lack of faith.”

The one miracle he most wanted to do, and could not do, was to draw his family and friends and neighbors into faith. Those who knew him best did not put their trust in him.

In the Gospel of Luke we are told of a time when Jesus visited his hometown and preached in their synagogue. Either Mark is giving us a summary of that visit, or else Jesus repeated his invitation to his people more than once.

In the visit as told by Luke, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

Jesus told them that what he was doing with them was the kingdom of God. Jesus and his words and his actions were the kingdom of God in their sight and hearing.

They could see what God wanted to do when they looked at him and listened to him. They could see and understand the freedom of the kingdom of God, as ruled by God in Jesus.

This was clearly a different kind of freedom than they wanted. They had an idol that they worshiped without knowing it. They had a golden calf in their hearts. It had to do with power, not compassion and grace.

In Jesus, God was holding out his hands to them, but they refused because they were an obstinate people. They were pursuing their own imaginations, as Isaiah had said.

They wanted a different kingdom and a different world than God held out to them. They wanted a kingdom and a world in their own image, not in God’s image. Or you could say that they wanted a God in their own image. They wanted a god of their own designing.

They would have put their faith in Jesus if they could be sure that he would want for them what they wanted. They wanted a Jesus in their own image.

The Bible tells us the story of God and his people. It is what we could call a love story, but it is the story of a very stormy love indeed. If we are God’s people, then we are part of this same story. The story of the golden calf and the synagogue in Nazareth apply to us, or else the Bible is not God’s word to us. The Bible gives us the promises of God, but it also gives us his warnings.

Do we want for our selves what we are sure God wants for us? Are we willing to have faith in a God who may want for us something beside what we want for ourselves? Do we want a life on God’s terms, or do we want a God on our terms?

This is where the issue of having faith or not is decided. Faith isn’t a matter of what some Christians say it is; of naming and claiming what we want, or what we think is best.

Praying “in the name of Jesus” is not praying with a magic charm tacked to the end of our prayer. Praying in the name of Jesus means praying what Jesus would pray for.

What would Jesus most want to pray for you just now? What would Jesus’ top ten prayers for you be?

Think of what you want most; what most is on your mind. Now think of what Jesus wants most for you, what most is on his mind.

What if Jesus’ first priority prayer for you runs like this, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me?” (Mark 8:34) What if Jesus’ first prayer for you was for you to pray like this: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” (Matthew 6:10)

The issue of faith is to live and pray in faith, on his terms. You might try this.

There was a Scottish Christian and author named George MacDonald, who lived in the eighteen hundreds. He had the idea that you could begin to learn faith, and you could begin to learn God’s power and God’s reality, by asking what the first thing was that God wanted you to do, and then go and do it.

This never works when you want more options. If you don’t like the first thing God tells you to do, you can’t wave it away and ask God what the second thing might be, or the third. You would spoil the experiment and turn it into a game that God does not play.

For better or for worse, when I am confused about what to do, I ask God what I must do first and then I try to do it. It seems to settle everything.

When my dad proposed marriage to my mom, one of his conditions was that she had to realize that he was set on building race car engines, and he would not give up that dream. Well, he got married and he gave that up. Nine and a half months after the wedding he had a baby son to support, as well as a wife.

He could not be a husband and a father on his own terms. He had to ask what it meant to be a husband and a father on the terms of being a good husband and father.

He made his choice by not worshiping an idol, but by worshiping a calling. He sacrificed a world of race cars for a world of marriage and family. It was not easy for him to give up that older dream.

Without faith, we think we will regret the world we make for ourselves if we leave behind our idols. With faith, we will find a better world; a world of values and relationships that will last.

If we are to be God’s people, our life is the matter of stepping into a new world that works on God’s terms. How will your new world work, if it is going to be God’s new world based on faith, courage, and commitment? How will your new world work if it is going to be God’s new world based on compassion, grace, being slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness? How will your world change? How will you change?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A New World: Only the Lowly

Preached on Sunday, February 10, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 57:14-19; Mark 5:21-43 

Sometimes the perfect prayer can be summed up in one word: Praise! Thanks! Forgive! Help! I have to confess that my most common prayer is: Help!
Photos of Walking around the Feather River
Near Live Oak, California

This past week I have been crying for help in three areas of my life and work. I have had three great fears. Fear brings me down. It lays me low.

And over the course of this week, as I have been crying for help with my three fears, I have realized that I could have avoided one of them. I could have prevented that one fear.

So I am repentant or contrite. I want to turn around and amend my ways; especially I want to amend and change my ways around that one avoidable thing that, now, might not be in my power to fix.

Even if that one avoidable fear is beyond repair I know one thing: that the Lord is with me. The prophet Isaiah tells me so. He tells me that it may not seem true but it is true. The Lord says this through the mouth and the pen of Isaiah: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15) God may seem to be removed beyond my world of fears and guilt, but he is not.

I like living next door to the church, here. It has a high and holy prayed in feeling. I often go there to find the proper setting to be lowly and repentant.

The first church I served, on the Oregon coast, felt the same way and, once, when I was praying there, by myself, I saw something that told me this was true. There was a very large myrtle wood cross on the wall in the front of the sanctuary, and there was a mark on that cross about the height of my outreached hand. The mark was shaped like a hand, as if the oils from the skin of a human hand had touched that cross at that one spot many, many times.

My predecessor had served that congregation for over twenty years, and he had died of cancer still serving as their pastor. I knew (from the mark on the cross) that Mickey Moffitt had prayed with his hand placed there many, many times. It became a high and holy place, all the more because it was the place where a man brought low by cancer, and by the pain and weakness of his sickness, had prayed, for years, for help.

What I do in Washtucna, is walk out my door, across the driveway, into the church where I lie face down before the cross and make myself as lowly as I can. I really want to do that.

Of course, you don’t need to be in a church to do that. You can do that at home and it is just the same.

When our heart, and mind, and body move as one, it is a great help to become lowly in every way. And the Lord is there with the lowly.

The man with the dying child, and the woman who was always bleeding, were lowly: one quite suddenly, the other over long years of experience. They both came to Jesus full of fear. And they both “fell at Jesus’ feet”. They fell on their knees, or they fell on their faces (which is the deepest and lowliest kneeling of all).

Jesus walked with the man back to his home; back to his dying child. He sought the daughter out.

On the way, Jesus felt power go out from him to heal someone who had touched him. But everyone was touching him, and only one person in the crowd knew what it meant to reach out to Jesus and be healed by him. Jesus sought her out by stopping, and waiting, and making the frightened father wait, and standing his ground until she came out into the open.

The woman had a kind of bleeding that made her the physical symbol of spiritual uncleanness (symbol of sin), even though she had done nothing wrong, or nothing to deserve this. She was treated as if she was contagious, and she had learned, over the course of twelve years, to avoid touching others and being touched.

Those who knew her avoided her and always held a latent fear of her. Her slightest contact brought outrage, and anger from others. Those who were touched would have to go home, and bath, and be considered unclean themselves, and unable to touch or be touched until the following day.

Because everyone’s attention was focused on Jesus, they didn’t notice this bloody woman brushing up against them in her desire for Jesus. If she came out into the open, even though she was healed, they would all be mad at her, and they would still have to go home and wash, and be unclean themselves until tomorrow.

It was a terrible way to have to live. One can only imagine what her family life was like. Her family would have been ashamed of her, and her children would have been constantly embarrassed by her.

Even when she touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak from behind, it was still as if she was far from him, because she was still in hiding. Jesus forced her to come near by calling her out of hiding. He called her out as his way of saying, “Don’t be afraid!”

She thought her lowliness would put a distance between her and Jesus, as it had between her and everyone else. Twelve years of suffering had taught her this.

But she was wrong. It was because she was lowly that Jesus had come her way. There were strange patterns woven between the woman and the ruler of the synagogue, even though they moved in different worlds; twelve years of shame and twelve years of hope. In some way Jesus had brought the two together into one story.

It was because she was lowly that Jesus was really with her, to care for her, and to call her his daughter. (Mark 5:34) She didn’t need to hide any more.

Why did Jesus call her his daughter? I think it was because Jesus was the father of her faith. The power that healed her was not entirely due to her faith. It was the power of Jesus that went from him to her, when she touched him. Faith is not a matter of having the grit and determination to think something so hard that you make it so. Faith is the faithfulness of God, in Jesus, reaching out to you.

I think faith is powerless. The only thing that faith can do is be honest. Faith is a confession that we are not in control, but that God is. Faith is an honest admission of our true lowliness in the face of our need, and seeing that God has the power to give us what we truly need, as God sees it.

The first thing that Jesus gave the ruler of the synagogue was the evidence that he would stop for every lowly cry for help. The ruler was one of the people who would have looked down on the woman and avoided her. He was an important man who was not accustomed to waiting for others. The ruler was desperate with fear and Jesus stopped to help someone else; someone he would never have touched.

Jesus stopped, in fact, even after he had helped her. He knew that the person who touched him was healed, but his work with was not done. There was something needed that was every bit as important as the long, long delayed healing of the bleeding woman. The woman had to be taken out of her fear. Jesus had to stop for her. He had to call her out, into his presence, even while a little girl died.

In the judgment of her people, the girl wasn’t going to be little much longer. She was twelve. Therefore, in her time and place, she was only a year or two away from marriage.

Already, her marriage was very much on her family’s mind. There was great hope, and joy, and fulfillment ahead. Plans were being made. It was a time of growing promise and pride.

The bleeding woman was healed of a great hopelessness that was years in the making. The girl’s sickness and death suddenly shattered the hopes of her parents. She was on the brink of becoming a woman, but she was also her “daddy’s little girl”.

Jesus seemed not to care about this when he stopped, and stopped, and waited in the crowd. It made no sense to anyone who was there. His disciples didn’t know what to make of Jesus’ delay.

When Jesus got to the home of the grieving family he took the parents with him into the room where the girl lay. He held her hand and spoke to the girl: “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41) Mark shows us the emotional life of Jesus more than any of the other gospels yet, even here, Mark is shy about the depth of feeling in Jesus’ words.

“Talitha koum!” is the Aramaic language. It is the real language of Jesus behind the Greek New Testament.

“Talitha koum” is full of the broken hearts of the father and mother because “Talitha” really means “lamb”. Jesus is saying, “Little Lamb; get up!”

She was her father’s and mother’s little lamb. You see how Jesus, with all his strange delays and waiting, knew the depth of the meaning of that child’s life in her family. From somewhere beyond this world she heard the voice of Jesus call her back with the same pet name that only her father and mother used.

As the girl grew toward her wedding, her parents had grown in their hope and pride. Now the proud parents had become only lowly parents, fearful parents. Jesus knew the secret words of love in their lowliness. He knew their thoughts.

He was closest to them in their lowliest place. They found who Jesus really is on their knees and on their faces. So it is with each one of us.

The idea of the Lord being with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit is much more than an idea. It is the very spiritual identity of God, but the Bible tells us of a God who is not content to be limited only to what is spiritual.

God left the high and holy place of heaven in order to join a human race than can only really know itself through lowliness and contriteness. He went lower still, to become a servant of the lowly and the contrite. God has made himself to be low, so that we can be certain that he truly belongs to us.

God became the wearer of a robe, the hem of which could be touched by a woman whose slightest touch could make him seem unclean. God gave himself a hand to take the hand of death itself, in the form of a little girl who had died. He gave himself lips to call her his little lamb while her parents wept at his side.

God became a man who entered a house full of mourners and told them to stop. He was the God who spoke to Isaiah and promised that he would “create praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.” (Isaiah 57:19)

In fact he entered a whole world living in fear and in mourning, so that he could offer himself for us and give us a new life. He would come into our world and die for the sin of the world on the cross, in order to say “peace, peace, to those far and near, and I will heal them.” (Isaiah 57:19)

God walked this world in Jesus, and the gospels tell us that, even though he died and rose from the dead, he still has wounded hands and feet. His side is still scarred by the point of a spear. (Luke 24:39; John 20:27) In his heart he still carries his cross, just as he carries us. Yet with all these scars and wounds, he is full of life and he gives us life.

He still has hands and, one day, he will touch us with those hands. He became lowly to be with us when we are brought low.

The Lord’s Supper is about the presence of this God who gave himself to us in Jesus. He promises us his presence in the lowliness of bread and wine (such little, ordinary things) to show us that, even now, even though he lives in the high and holy place, he also lives with us, and in us, by grace.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A New World: A Seed in the Earth

Preached on Sunday, February 3, 2013 

Photos between Live Oak California and the Feather River
Scripture readings: Ezekiel 47:1-12; Mark 4:21-29 

Have you ever seen an upside down and backwards river? My first experience seeing an upside down and backwards river was when I was about eight years old.

We were living in southern California at the time, and a bunch of dads took their Indian Guides kids on an outing to the Mohave Desert. We were the Comanche Tribe.

There was a park with a lot of rock outcroppings to run around in. There was a sort of Mystery House where you could find that the laws of gravity did not work as normal. And there was the Mohave River. It was upside down and backwards.

The Mohave River starts in the mountains east of Los Angeles and it flows to the east, away from the ocean. That is the backwards part. It ends in the middle of the desert, in a salt lake.

The upside down part is the fact that the Mohave River flows mostly underground; under the desert sand. We went to see the river. We could see where it was; because, where it was, lots of things grew.

“Where the river flowed, life abounded,” as Ezekiel said. There was plenty of grass, and plants, and trees; all in a meandering line across the desert. But you couldn’t see any water.

The one place along the backwards and upside down river where you could see the water was a strange place, where someone had built a fish farm for raising trout, right in the middle of the desert. The fish farm was set in the trees that grew on top of the river. The owners pumped the water up, out of the ground, into pools for their fish. That is where I caught my first fish. It was a rainbow trout.

In the stories that Jesus told about planting seeds there was a source of life that worked out of sight, underground. Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God, moving in mysterious ways. Jesus was telling his friends, and us, that we are all involved in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and this kingdom has a secret power within it to begin small and to grow until it becomes a huge harvest; a new life and a new world; a new heaven and earth.

Huge crowds were following Jesus and, instead of turning them into an army and giving them commands, Jesus was sitting in a boat off the shore of the lake, and telling them stories. Instead of Jesus, riding at the head of an army, being the seed of the kingdom, it was Jesus, telling stories, that was the seed.

Nothing Jesus ever did bore any resemblance to the work of a king for the Kingdom of God. The biggest battle Jesus ever fought was the battle of the cross, and that looked more like a defeat. That looked like the end of the kingdom.

God becoming a man (whom no one knew what to do with, and no one still knows what to do with him) was the light that was being brought into the dark room of this world. God’s power was like the seed in a granary that they scooped out with a bowl to put it into their bag to sow it in the ground and wait, as the days, the weeks, and the months passed.

They, and we, have been sowing this seed for centuries now. There have been little harvests; tantalizing harvests; signs of the real harvest to come. The real harvest has yet not come. We are still waiting for it.

Sometimes everything we say and do, for the love of Jesus, and for his church, and for his kingdom, seems so small, so inadequate, so unnoticed, so unappreciated. I remember, when I was a little kid, making a muscle pop out on my arm, and showing my muscle to my dad, and he would take his thumb and forefinger and squeeze it back into place. In the face of all the trends of this world, in the face of all the impossible odds, I feel like that little boy.

Jesus says: “I am your light. I am your seed. Hold up the light. Plant the seed in the ground. Wait. Trust me.”

In farming, when you do your seeding, you don’t know for sure what kind of harvest you will get. There is only one thing you can know for sure about seeding. You know that, if you don’t do it, there will be no harvest at all.

The author G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I love that saying. That is why I sing and play the ukulele.

That is why I plant a garden. It seems to me that I must be a worse gardener now than I was ten years ago. It’s been so long since I had a really good garden. But I’m going to plant a garden, this spring, anyway; because it’s worth doing, even if it seems to be done badly.

Planning for youth group, the group leaders all know that, whatever we plan, and whatever we prepare, we can never know how it will turn out. We plan a game and the kids turn it into a completely different game.

After worship, when anyone happens to share with me what they got out of my sermon, the chances are that I can’t match what they claim to have heard with anything I thought I said. I didn’t plant the seed. Jesus planted it. Jesus planted himself in their hearing.

This is a good thing. The seed and the light are really Jesus. They have nothing to do with me. When Jesus said to his people, “You are the light of the world,” he knew he was telling them the truth because he planned to come and live in them, as he does in us. And Jesus says, of himself, “I am the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14; John 8:12) We are the light of the world only because he is the real light, he is the lamp that has been brought into the dark room of our world.

We plant seeds, and there are seeds planted in us. Do you have loves in your life that nourish you, that feed you, that heal you, that give you rest? There is a power for growing and there is a light in the darkness, in that love. It is a river of life. “Where it flows, life abounds.”

There is another way in which that love is like the river in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. “Where the river flows, everything shall live.” “Where the river flows, life abounds” (Ezekiel 47:9; NIV and “The Message”)

The river, in the vision, flows from the Temple. It flows from the presence of God. One of the names of Jesus is Immanuel (which means, “God with us”). (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23) Jesus is the temple and the presence of God.

We have a river in the desert that has no other source than Jesus. It is not an upside down river, all invisible and hidden (although, actually, all rivers have an underground element). Through prayer, and worship, and the partnership of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the river flows and there is life; life abounds.

This is going on in every person who lives in relationship with Jesus. The warning of Jesus, in these stories, is that, since he is the precious seed, we need to bring our biggest measure to him; our biggest cup, our biggest bucket, our biggest truck, to the granary.

Jesus tells us to dig deep into his seed, and we will receive. If we are afraid to dig deep we might as well not do it at all.

We are invited to talk to Jesus and ask him questions all the time. The first disciples did this. The ones who continue to do this will know the mind of Jesus.

Earlier in Mark’s fourth chapter, the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to explain a very complicated and puzzling story, because they wanted to come into the secret. They wanted to dig deep. Jesus said, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.” (Mark 4:11)

They had come to Jesus, person to person. They had come inside in a way that the others hadn’t. They had come near to ask, and listen, and understand.

Often I feel as if I don’t understand anything, so I come to Jesus. I ask him questions. I spend time listening. It pays off to dig deep with Jesus.

There is a warning. We see it in the short story of the lamp. Don’t bring in a lighted lamp, and try to hide it. The lamp in Jesus’ story is a first century, Middle Easter lamp. It is like a cup filled with olive oil, with a wick and a flame. A lighted lamp is a burning fire.

Jesus is not afraid of telling stories where things happen that don’t make sense. His alternatives to setting the lamp on a lampstand are crazy. They don’t make sense.

Who would put a lighted lamp under a measuring bowl? The flame would go out and how would you relight it? In the ancient world it takes a bit of trouble to light a flame.

Who would hide a lighted lamp under a bed? That would start a fire! There was not much to burn in an ancient house in the Middle East. Even their beds were more like mats, or mattresses, or futons, spread on the floor, or folded up in a corner.

My family was friends with another family that owned a small business. For some reason they lost their business. They lost almost everything. They wound up moving to a small, rickety, old house in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

They had a couple of sons. One of them was my age. The first time we went up to visit them in their new home I went to the sons’ bedroom. I saw that they didn’t even have real beds anymore. They just had mattresses on the floor. I said, “Oh you’re sleeping Japanese style,” and they laughed.

Most of the people listening to Jesus were living on the margin, and even a mattress-like bed on the floor was expensive. It would take a lot of time and energy to make a new one. You would never put a flame under your bed, unless you were crazy or afraid.

Once you know him, it is crazy to be afraid of Jesus. It is a very risky thing.

Yet, you might be crazy and afraid of Jesus. You might be afraid of what he will say or what he will want from you. You might be shy about taking Jesus with you into your life, and into your relationships, and into you problems, and into whatever new and strange territory you’re traveling in. No matter what the reason, it makes no sense to hide Jesus, or to hide from him.

It’s dangerous to put Jesus away. You can’t smother Jesus, but you can snuff out the lamp of Jesus in your room. If you do that, you can lose your way.

Sometimes our lives are like the river of Ezekiel. We travel the river and we can watch it change, and grow, and widen, and deepen. We see the life on the banks growing around us.

Sometimes our lives are more like the Mohave River. It seems as though our way is taking us somewhere upside down, and backwards, and underground.

Sometimes our lives are like the farmer who sows the seed; and he sleeps, and he gets up to work, and the days pass, and he waits, and he waits. He waits. Sometimes our lives are like the dark room into which the burning lamp has come, but daylight hasn’t come.

It is especially at such times that these stories of Jesus are for us. We do not know what Jesus has given us, in all its glory, before that glory comes.

We only know (if we will remember) that Jesus has given us our beginning. He has given us himself, in the form of small things.

He tells us these stories to teach us to trust him in these little things. We keep the fire burning, and we keep on planting seeds. We keep on living, and loving, and giving thanks, and trusting, and serving. We keep on keeping on.

He lives in these little things, as he lives in us. This is his promise. Wherever Jesus flows, life abounds. He will bring us, at last, to the harvest.