Monday, January 26, 2015

A New Kingdom - Trust under Fire

Preached on Sunday, January 25, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 91; Matthew 4:1-11

In My Garden: January 26, 2015
My first real thinking about the Devil goes way back to the time when I was a real swinger. I was about six years old, and I was playing on the swing set in our back yard with my friend Johnny.
Johnny asked me if I believed in the Devil. I said that I didn’t know but I would ask my mom. I went into the house and yelled, “Mommy, do we believe in the Devil.” She said, “No, we don’t.” So I went back outside and told Johnny, “No, I don’t believe in the Devil.” And Johnny said, “Um, then you’re going to hell!”
I believe that Johnny was wrong about me going to hell if I didn’t believe in the Devil. At that age, I already had a deeply felt love for Jesus and a deeply felt sense of Jesus’ love for me. That would have kept me safe.
In the end, it did keep me safe. But my ignorance of the Devil turned out to be dangerous. My discovery of the reality of the Devil was one of the scariest things that ever happened to me. I was ambushed by him when I didn’t even believe in him. I was seventeen at the time. But that’s another story.
By Devil I don’t mean a character with horns, and bat wings, and a red cape, and a pitchfork. The devil is not really like the pictures of him in old books or in modern movies. The Devil is a spirit, and he doesn’t have to look like anything or sound like anything.
The devil is the chief of the fallen angels. Devils are creatures like the good angels, and like us. They are at war with God because they hate the truth that God is so much more than they are (and so much greater than they are).
In a long, long story they got us humans to join their rebellion against sharing life with the God who is the source of all life. They got us to join their war of independence against a God on whom we must depend; a God whose love is inescapable; a God from whom there is no refuge, although he is the greatest refuge of all.
In the Garden of Eden, the Devil and his minions got us to cut the ties that really were an essential part of us. We cut off part of what we must be in order to live as the creatures of love and trust that we were created to be.
From Adam and Eve we have inherited a nature made in the image of God. Yet we have also inherited a nature that vandalizes, mutilates, and wounds itself and others.
The Devil sacrificed his wholeness for his independence and he, and his fellow devils, work with all their might to keep us away from the ties of life. They fight everything that threatens to lead us back to a life with God which they have rejected for themselves.
It’s hard for us to fight against this because half of our hearts are on the enemy’s side. Even when we are on Jesus’ side we still have to fight against ourselves. The enemy is within, even when the Devil is no where about. We really don’t even need the Devil in order to be tempted. We have all the resources we need for temptation inside us: in our minds, in our hearts, and in some of our other parts.
We were created for love: to be loved and to give love. This is part of what we are as creatures created in the image of God: for God is love. In the Garden of Eden, the Devil tempted the first humans to doubt the fact that they were beloved.
They were tempted to think that God was holding something back from them, so that they had the right to take what God denied them: the knowledge of good and evil. Really this means the knowledge of what will benefit us and what will hurt us; what will bless us and what will curse us.
Eating the knowledge of good and evil meant that Adam and Eve wouldn’t have to rely on a God who was holding out on them, who didn’t really love them in spite of all he said. If they weren’t sincerely beloved, then they needed to look out for number one, and number one wasn’t God any more.
If they had trusted that they were beloved, they would have trusted God, who defined who they were by loving them. Their trust would be a way of making God their beloved. But they didn’t choose that, and so they mutilated human nature and deformed it into a life that didn’t feel or live like a beloved life. This was a great loss.
We live in a world of conflict because we live in a world of people who do not know that they and everyone else are beloved. We see this between races and ethnic groups. We see this conflict between nations and religions. We see this conflict in communities, and families, and churches.
In Jesus, God came into this conflict in order to create a new world of beloved lives living in a beloved world. And so, at the Jordan River, Jesus stood in the place of humans who needed to repent, who needed to turn their lives around to God’s love and purpose.
Jesus entered the waters of baptism and began his journey to the cross, and he heard his Father say the words that all human beings need to hear, “You are my Son, my Daughter, whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” (Paraphrase of Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11)
Then the Holy Spirit of God led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1) The Greek word that is often translated as “tempted” can, just as well, be translated as “tested”.
The reason this matters is that we often misunderstand what temptation is. When we are tempted to compromise, when we are tempted to get what we want even though it means hurting those who know us and trust us, we think that the desire is only working in one direction. We feel as though all the weight of what we are going through is pushing us to say “yes” to what we are supposed to say “no”.
But a test can work two ways. A test can be failed, and a test can be passed. Martin Luther said that temptations were like birds. He said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying around your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your beard.”
When I was in college and when I was waiting to be ordained, after seminary, I worked in a cannery. This work tested me. I worked under a metal roof in summers when the temperatures rose above one hundred degrees. I worked with the retorts (the giant pressure cookers) that cooked loads of cans. This made it even hotter. I sometimes worked twelve or even fourteen hours a day, six and a half days a week.
It was a test. Sometimes I hated it. Sometimes I loved it. I did my work well. I was co-manager, which meant that I still did all my own work, plus I had to make sure that the other employees did all their work as well. I passed the test.
In the town where I served my first church there was a guy about my age named Allen. He wasn’t in the church. But he came to me a lot, to talk. He was messing up his life like crazy.
One shining moment he got a job with a roofer. I congratulated him with all my heart, but he quit after a week. “You have no idea,” he said, “of what it is like to work up on a roof all day long in the hot sun.” This was on the Oregon coast.
I told him I did too know. I told him about my work in the cannery. I told him that he needed to take some test like being a roofer and pass that test. He needed to be able to do what was hard.
In the desert, Jesus did what was hard for him and impossible for us. Jesus didn’t need to do any of this for us, except that by doing it for us he was being true to himself.
Jesus took hunger, and thirst, and desire, and weariness, and pain, and the persuasive voices telling him to take the easy way. He didn’t listen to the voices, or to his own misery, or to his own desires. He won the test.
Yet the test wasn’t over. It was a test that lasted all his life in this world, not just in the desert. The Lord’s test included the cross. It brought us the forgiveness of grace, but it also gave to him the completeness that we need to find in him. In Jesus we find a God who knows us from the inside. He has been tested just as we are, but without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) And so he went all the way in the hardest things where we fall short.
When we are weak, he is still strong for us. He can be strong in us, if we learn to let him. He is strong enough, even when we fail, to call us beloved in such a way that we must believe him and let him in.
How was Jesus tested for us? He was tested in ways that we cannot be tested because we aren’t Jesus. We can’t turn stones into bread. We can’t throw ourselves off buildings and live. We can’t rule the world. Jesus could do all those things. He was tested according to what he could do.
Like Jesus, we are tested by what we can do. We are tempted to do what we can get away with. We do it because we can. Jesus teaches us to not make decisions based on the simple fact that we do it because we can, or because we can get away with it.
Jesus was tempted to jump off the temple that was full of people who were waiting for the Messiah. They were waiting for the right person to make an impression on them. Jesus was tempted to win by impressing people, not by treating them as beloved. We are tempted to not treat others as beloved, but as objects to be won and used for our self fulfillment.
Jesus was tempted to gain the world by worshiping the Devil. You realize this compromise would save Jesus from the right kind of savior. There would be no cross to make us new. There would be no cross to create a new heaven and earth. The devil would still have us, and he would also have beaten God. Jesus would win the world that was his by right, but he would rule it without the sacrifice that comes from true love. We would never truly be the beloved.
This was not an easy choice; not even for Jesus. More than once, Jesus was tempted by his desire to not die on the cross. The night before his death he prayed, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup (this cross) be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
And so we would never have known what it meant to be beloved. We would live in a world like ours that was condemned to never change: a world where power and wealth make right, a world not ruled by love.
And so we would rule our lives and our choices without love because love can be hard. Jesus was tempted to see the plan of love (the plan of the cross) as being too hard.
How do we pass the test? Jesus met each test with words from the scriptures. They all happen to come from close together in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament (chapters six and eight). Maybe this tells us we don’t need to know much in order to know what we need.
All of the words and the stories from the scriptures are about us being made to love God and to be loved by God, or else they tell us what happens when we don’t respond to love. They tell us that the greatest thing in life is to love God and to know God’s worth and goodness. In this way, the Bible is inspired for the purpose of telling us who God is and who we are and the story of his long, long faithful love.
The Bible is a miracle. It is like a magic book, but there are no magic words in it. Its inspiration is meant to tell us the secret of being beloved. That is the magic. That is how we meet the test.
To be beloved is to know that who you are and how you live matters to God, to the people who know and love you, and to the whole world.
The scriptures quoted by Jesus told him that. They tell us the same thing. It matters what you choose to do and to be.
The testing of Jesus gives us some warnings. Jesus was tested or tempted all his life. We never graduate from being tested and tempted.
Jesus was tempted to use good things in self serving ways. Bread is good, but Jesus had gone into the desert to meet a test and not to eat. Jesus would eat bread in the future. He would even go on to make lots of bread out of practically nothing, when the time was right.
Passing our test does not mean believing that the good things in life are bad, or that God doesn’t want us to have them. Passing our test simply means believing that the good things in life are made for a love, and a joy, and a relationship that lasts. That relationship is what counts. It’s the best thing in a world full of good things.
Jesus was tested in the most inconvenient times and places, when he was least up to it. Our temptations come the same way. The Devil does not play fair. The part of us that is still in rebellion against the inescapable love of God does not play fair.
The words from Psalm Ninety One were used by the devil to tempt Jesus. We will find that we are tempted even by the scriptures. This happens because of our appetite for self serving. Our appetite tricks us into the misuse of holy things: the scriptures, prayer, the church, and even God himself.
Jesus was tempted to think that the words of scripture were magic words to get gifts from God. He was tempted to think that if he used certain words, in a certain way, he would be blessed. He was being tempted to use God’s word in order to use God for himself and for his own causes. We can be tempted the same way.
Go back to Psalm Ninety One: “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12) These words really are about Jesus. Jesus is the Son who always lives at the side of the Father. He truly is the one for whom this is true, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1)
The truth is that, if anyone was ever safe, Jesus was safe. It is true, in the end, that nothing hurt Jesus. Nothing defeated him. He was whipped and he felt it. Nails were driven into his hands and feet and he felt them. Jesus died on the cross just as anyone who dies a painful death. But Jesus rules. Jesus is the victor. Jesus has victory and peace to share with us, for we are his beloved and he is ours, and we are following Jesus.
Just because Jesus was hungry, and thirsty, and misunderstood, and hated, and crucified doesn’t mean that Jesus was ever anything but safe and sheltered. So are we. We are most likely to fail the test when we fail to believe that we are just as beloved (and that others are just as beloved) as Jesus is.

God will take just as good care of us as the everlasting Father took care of his everlasting Son. The cross and the empty grave of Jesus is the guarantee of that: of that sheltering love, of that refuge we find in God.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A New Kingdom - The Partnership Restored

Preached on Sunday, January 18, 2015

Scripture readings: Numbers 11:16-18, 24-30; Matthew 3:1-17

I must have been five years old, the first time my family went camping together. It was in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My sister Kathie would have been about three, and my sister Nanci was not going to be born for a few more years.
After that, we camped for a week or two almost every summer. We always slept in a tent, because my Dad said that it wasn’t really camping unless you slept in a tent.
We carried our water (for drinking, and cooking, and washing dishes, and washing ourselves) in buckets that we filled at a faucet in whatever campground we used. Carrying water became my job fairly early on.
The buckets were heavy. The handles pinched my little hands. I didn’t mind it much because we all had our jobs; much more than we did at home.
Photos taken at Desert Aire, WA, December 2014
I liked to help putting up the tent. My help was probably more trouble than it was worth, but it made me feel important and necessary. I was a collaborator. I was a kind of partner.
I believe the Bible teaches us that this is what we are created for: to be partners with each other and even partners with God.
The God who can do anything without any help at all created us and made us his partners. Adam and Eve were going to be partners in God’s creation by working the earth and caring for it. (Genesis 2:15)
Who knows how that partnership would have grown, if they had stayed committed to it? That partnership was part of God’s image in us.
In a mysterious way it is an image of our partnership with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We can see that in the story of Jesus’ baptism. The Son gets wet. The Spirit comes down. The Father praises his Son. God himself is a kind of partnership that we describe when we say that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) God is one, and God is togetherness.
In some strange way, in the original human sin, we tried to be God in the place of God, and so we broke the togetherness. We broke the partnership. The image of partnership was not completely destroyed, but it became dysfunctional. It stopped working right.
We see the dysfunction in the injuries we do to the earth in our original partnership made in the Garden of Eden, because of the separation that sin makes between us and God. I see our bad partnership in caring for the earth when I drive on the freeways through Los Angeles to visit my relatives down there.
We see the dysfunction of the partnership portion of our nature in all our human partnerships. We see it in marriages, in families, in communities, and in government.
We can even see it in the church, because we don’t stop being sinners when we start being God’s partners again. The church always has sin in it, but the love of God is stronger than our sins.
In the Old Testament, God shared himself, in the form of the Holy Spirit, to recreate a partnership with his people, even though they continued to be sinners. We see this in the people called prophets. Moses was given the gift of the Holy Spirit to help him be partners with God in order to bring God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and take them to the freedom of the Promised Land.
The story we read from the Book of Numbers shows us how Moses needed human partners in order to be a good partner with God. God shared Moses’ gift of the Holy Spirit with seventy other members of God’s people. There was some confusion in the way this happened and so Moses said, “I wish that all of the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” (Numbers 11:29)
What God wanted to do, in order to make a new kingdom, was somehow guessed at (and wished for) by Moses. God would make a new kingdom, a new creation, by sharing his Holy Spirit with everyone who came to him, with everyone he called to himself. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” (Joel 2:28; Isaiah 4:2-6)
John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophet-partners of God. He was the bridge into the New Testament. He was a partner with God and he would serve as God’s partner by equipping God himself, who came into our world in Jesus.
John didn’t know what he was doing. He knew only that he didn’t deserve to do it. Yet God brought him into this world in order to do what none of us deserve to do; to be partners with God and partners of the kingdom of God. John was given the gift of helping make that kingdom happen and bring us to God, in Christ.
In Christ (in Jesus) the plan of God and the guess and the wish of Moses came true. All of God’s people became prophets. All of us who meet the Lord Jesus (who is God who has come into our world as a human being) receive the Holy Spirit. (See Joel 2:28)
As John the Baptist said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11) When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, Peter explained it by referring to the word of the prophet Joel this way, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18) (God started the last days when he came to earth in Jesus, because he changed the way the world works. He changed the way he deals with sin.)
The Holy Spirit is the presence and the power of God. In the partnership of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (who always work together) the Holy Spirit holds us in the presence of Jesus, the Son. The Spirit holds us in the presence of the Father. The Holy Spirit safely holds within us the presence of all that God is.
We become prophets: partners with God. We speak for him and work for him; His words and his work become real in our world through the growth and the change of our character, and our lives, and our service. The love of God who recreates us as his partners through the Holy Spirit, enables us to live and act and follow him in such a way that shows God’s love for the world and all the people in it.
At his baptism, Jesus said that righteousness was at work in the way that it happened: in the way that he made John do it. Righteousness means everything working right as it should. A righteous car will be all that it is specified to be, or (even better yet) all that you have souped it up to be.
For a human to be righteous means for that person to work right toward God, toward others, toward this world, and toward himself or herself. Righteousness means that our relationships with God, and with others, and with this world, and with our selves are wholesome, healthy, faithful, solid, and right. It means that all our partnerships are in working order. This would be a huge and welcome change in this world.
Jesus said that this strange partnership, in which a human baptizes God, is what the new creation is based on. It is based on God identifying himself with us. In Jesus, God bends his knee to us in love.
Our partnership is based on God taking on the role of being a creature like us, to offer himself as a human being to God. He did this in a way that we have all failed to achieve. In his baptism, he showed the humility, the repentance, the change of heart, and the new beginning that come so hard to us.
His baptism was part of great scheme to restore us to fellowship with God, with others, with our world, and with ourselves. On the cross he would pay the price of the consequences of the separation and the injury that come from sin in all our partnerships.
Sin takes us outside of God who is the source of all life. And so sin takes us into death. God came down in Jesus and identified himself with us on the cross. On the cross he took our separation on himself. He took our death on himself. He paid the price and took the consequences in order to give us a new birth into himself; into life.
He died for us. Then he rose from the dead to give us the life we could not achieve for ourselves. He gave us life as the man who conquered death because he identified with us.
In our baptism we have become identified with the one who identifies with us. Just as what we did became a part of him, so what he has done has become a part of us and he has given us life.
Just as he has given life to us, as the beginning of his plan to give life to the world, we are now part of that same plan to give life to the world. We are called to be his prophets, his collaborators, his co-conspirators: his partners.
The place where God puts us, and the people around us, are the mission fields of our partnership with God. We are called to help things work right. Just as God put others first, including us, so we are called to put others first. He identified with others and so must we.
The Lord’s Supper is a reminder of this, to keep us on track. Here is the place where all that he is and all that he has done feeds us and quenches our thirst. Here we receive Christ by faith and we go out carrying the bread of life within ourselves.
In a sense we become the bread of life for the world because that living bread is living in us. We carry the bread of life into a world that he loved so much that he identified himself with it.
We carry the bread of life into a world for which he poured out his blood. So, for us, in a sense, the whole world is our communion cup. Going out into the world is our way of being with him. As we serve Jesus, in this world, we see what he loved and died for and our thirst is satisfied.

This is a very different way of seeing the world. This is a very different way of living in this world. It only comes from joining a new partnership with God.