Monday, February 23, 2015

A New Kingdom - Storm Art

Preached on Sunday, February 22, 2015 
Scripture readings: Psalm 69:1-21; Matthew 14:22-36

God is an artist. We are privileged to live in the sort of place where anyone who believes in him can see this clearly every day. We can watch his handiwork unfolding and we can see how he is never done.
Priest Rapids Lake, Columbia River
Desert Aire WA: February 2015
He is the painter who is never done with his painting and never leaves it alone. He is always blending his colors in a new way. This isn’t because he doesn’t love what he has already done, but it’s because he loves it so much.
God is also a sculptor. God is still carving this valley. How long has he been at it? He uses strange tools: mostly soft tools; such an odd thing for a sculptor. God uses the wind and the rain. God uses fires underground. God uses the river. God uses time. And here we are.
God uses storms to make sudden changes to his work of art. Even when those changes are sudden they may last forever.
It’s easy to see that this valley is a work of art. It can be much harder to see that each and every human being is a work of art: a work in process, a work of God.
The name Peter means “rock”: good material for sculpting. I think Jesus was joking when he took a fisherman named Simon and renamed Peter. A rock is strong, tough, and stable, and Peter wasn’t that, at all.
Of course Peter was physically strong. He was a commercial fisherman. He worked using his whole body to maneuver his boats, to haul in nets full of fish, and he lived in the days when everything was hard work.
He was physically strong, but he was unstable. He was constantly changing. You never knew what he might say or do next. Peter ran fast and slow. Peter ran hot and cold. Peter was brave and afraid. Peter was faithful and doubting.
It may be that Peter’s changeability never completely changed. There is an ancient legend about Peter’s last days. It was during the time when the emperor Nero began a huge persecution of the Christians in Rome. Nero loved to crucify them because they worshiped Jesus the crucified.
Peter was in Rome and he tried to escape from that horrible death. In the story, during his escape from the city, Peter met the risen Jesus. Jesus was walking into the city as Peter was walking away. Peter asked Jesus where he was going. Jesus looked at Peter and said, “I’m going into Rome to be crucified again.”
Hearing this, Peter plucked up his courage. He went back into Rome where he continued to serve his church until he was caught, and arrested, and crucified. So Peter finished his life with fear and courage, doubt and faith. He was Peter to the last.
There’s a story about the artist and sculptor Michelangelo. When he had finished his famous sculpture of Moses, someone asked how he had done it. He said, “I simply chipped away everything that was not Moses.”
The storm on the Lake of Galilee was like a soft chisel that Jesus used to chip away a bit of whatever wasn’t Peter, so that Peter could see himself better. Jesus used the storm to chip away a bit of what wasn’t Peter so that we can see ourselves better, in him. The poet George Herbert says this about the Lord: that “Storms are the triumph of his art.” (George Herbert, “The Bag”)
It’s not a bad thing to say that Jesus sent his disciples into a storm. There are storms. There are going to be big, nasty storms.
The only way for a world to not have storms is for that world to not have air, or a sun to warm that air. A world without storms would be a world without life.
Jesus sent them out into reality, out into the real world, out into life. Of course he sent them into a storm.
Jesus sends his disciples into storms. Some people claim that when you listen to the Lord and do what he says, you will have smooth sailing. But that was never true of the disciples.
They did as Jesus told them to do. They did it even though it made very little sense. Was Jesus going to walk around along the shore and meet them on the other side?
And they worked hard to do what Jesus told them. This put them in danger. This exhausted them. And they missed Jesus.
They rowed and they rowed against the wind, and they didn’t turn back. That was faith. When you have faith, you still have storms, and those storms are everything for you that a storm can be for anybody.
When Jesus has a purpose for you, things can still go badly. When you follow the calling of Jesus, things can be hard and joyless.
There was an amazing Christian woman who, many years ago, was my Sunday school teacher. Years later, I remember her standing up in church in order to give a testimony about joy. What she said was this: “You know me. If I don’t get joy out of doing something, you won’t find me doing it for long.”
The fact is that, as amazing as she was, if you did anything with her, you had to do it her way or she wouldn’t do it for long. Her testimony about her own joy wasn’t good Christian advice. But she was a good example of how many Christians are tempted to think. Jesus doesn’t send us into smooth sailing.
Another fact about the storm is that Jesus didn’t send a single disciple alone into the storm. Jesus sent a boatload of disciples into the storm.
There was a time in my life when I tried to be a solo Christian; a private Christian. There is no such creature in the Bible. The only solo, private Christian in the Bible was Adam, and God saw that it wasn’t good. (Genesis 2:18) The disciples worked together and sweated together. They even failed together, and they were the church of Christ.
The story of Peter walking on water and almost drowning had to be a shared experience. His friends never forgot it, and one of them put it into writing so that Peter teaches us about what it is like to be a Christian today. This is how Jesus arranged it. This is how he designed the life of those who follow him.
There is a saying that religion is what the individual does with his or her own solitude. This is convenient and a lot of people seem to believe it. I think they believe it because it is easier that way.
When we live out our faith with other people so many things can go wrong. We tell ourselves that most of these surely can’t be our fault. We blame others for what we say and do. We say that we are not really our true selves because of them, but this is not true. Belonging inescapably to others who are not our own choice of companions is precisely the perfect storm that either shows who we are, or allows God to chip away everything that is not truly ourselves.
This is why what we call the church, the body of Christ, is formed of people who are not members of a club but members of the Body of Jesus. In this kind of membership we are bound together like we are bound to Christ; by great, solemn, everlasting promises. If we are not bound to each other as seriously as we are bound to Christ what have we learned from him?
Peter had learned a lot from Jesus. He had learned wonderful things and he wanted to imitate them. Walking on water was one of those wonderful things that Peter wanted to imitate. I don’t think he understood that faithfulness was the truly wonderful thing; more wonderful than walking on water.
Faithfulness was the reason why Jesus came to them in the storm. Peter did a better job imitating the walk on water than he did the faithfulness of Jesus. Faith involves faithfulness. That is why Peter sank.
How can we claim to follow Jesus when we don’t let him send us into some sweaty boatload of disciples rowing against the wind? How can we know who we truly are or who Jesus truly is, unless we let him define the terms of faithfulness that he set for his disciples in the gospel?
It was because they shared the boat together in the storm and the darkness, it was because they saw Peter walk (and nearly drown) and be rescued, that they were able to bow down and say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:33) “Storms are the triumph of his art.”
 The storm teaches us that the Lord never sends us beyond his reach. The Lord never sends us beyond his help.
Some people will say that if you doubt the Lord then the Lord will not work in your life. They say that if you have doubts the Lord will not answer your prayers. This is not true. The Lord came to them when they were afraid of the storm. Even when they were afraid of Jesus and doubted who and what he was, he still came to them. He said “Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” (Matthew 14:27) When Peter doubted and sank, Jesus saved him.
This is what happens when you are afraid and when you have doubts. Listen for that voice. Wait for him to come. Trust that he will work. The faithfulness of Jesus is greater and stronger than your doubts.
The disciples were of little faith all through the gospels and what did Jesus do? He took them with him everywhere and showed them wonderful things. They saw people touching the hem of his cloak and being healed. That’s what happened when they doubted. Jesus always warned his friends about what they might miss because of doubting, but he was always better than his warnings.
This really is the secret of faith. Faith is the proper use of your eyes. Faith is looking at the faithful Jesus, and not at the storm. Peter knew more about Jesus than we do, by experience. Peter had seen much more of Jesus than we ever have. But experience and the knowledge that comes from experience are not enough. They don’t make you immune from doubt.
Seeing is not believing. Looking is believing. Peter should have kept on looking at Jesus. Looking would have served as faith.
When Peter sank under the waves of the storm it was a hand like his own hand that grabbed him and lifted him up. It wasn’t only the stormy water of the lake that Jesus crossed to help them. He crossed over from heaven to earth and became human to help and to save them and us.
I think I have told you the story of Psalm 69 and its connection to the time I drowned. To make a long story short, I drowned on my senior class “Senior Skip Day”. Our class took the school bus up to a lake in the foothills, and I drowned.
I wasn’t breathing. I was purple when they got me out of the water. When I got home at the end of the day, I opened one of my Bibles.  (It was really my Dad’s old Sunday School Bible.) It opened straight to these words in Psalm 69: “Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. (Psalm 69:1-2)
The way that Bible opened was a sign. It was a small and clear sign that God was there with me in my room, and in the Bible on my lap. It told me that he was there when I was underwater and couldn’t get to the surface. It told me that it was his small, still voice that told me to trust him when taking one more breath would mean death. He could make me live when I should have died. He could even bring me back when I had left this world. I could trust him.
The truth is: I don’t always trust him, but he is always better to me than I am to him. He is that faithful.
The most interesting thing about this Psalm is that it is about two people at the same time. The Psalm is about David being surrounded by enemies. It’s also about Jesus being surrounded by enemies. Jesus lived out the words of this Psalm when he was dying for the sins of the world on the cross.
When Jesus drove out the “money changers” (the currency exchange officers) from the Temple in Jerusalem, his disciples looked back and remembered this Psalm and the words: “zeal for your house consumes me.” (Psalm 69:9; see John 2:17)
The Temple was the place where people came into the presence of God. Because of the cross, Jesus is now the place where people come into the presence of God. On the cross, Jesus was consumed with our sufferings and sins. His zeal for opening the way to the Father is what consumed him on the cross.
On the cross the guards gave Jesus vinegar to drink. (Matthew 27:48, The Psalm says: “They…gave me vinegar for my thirst.” He came to cure our hunger and thirst. He was hungry and thirsty for us, in our place.
In the story of the storm where Peter nearly drowned, Jesus’ hand was the hand of God saving him when Peter yelled for help. In this Psalm Jesus is also the drowning man crying for a saving hand.
Jesus became human in order to cry out and reach out for the hand of God. God, in Jesus, cried for the help that only God can give.
We ask for help, but we don’t even ask for help very well. Our cries for help, our cries for God, are full of pride and full of blame. Even our hand reaching out for another hand is half full of ourselves. In Jesus, God reaches out for salvation and for rescue on our behalf. In Jesus God does what we cannot do. When we are under water, in whatever our storm may be, Jesus does our reaching with us. He helps us do our reaching out, with a degree of humility and a whole heartedness that we can never match.
Christ is God reaching out his hand to those in need. Christ is Peter reaching up to the hand of God for us. He does this on the cross.

The Psalm is like a bridge on which we meet ourselves and God, in Christ. The cross is also the bridge. Christ is the bridge, the bridge of hands holding on to each other. This is God’s word about storms, and about faith, and about us, and about how God makes us his storm art.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A New Kingdom - Fruitfulness

Preached on Sunday, February 15, 2015

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 4:1-4; Matthew 13:1-23

I did most of my growing up in a small farming town. I went to school with a number of farm kids, and I did some farm work when I was young. That was all about orchards.
Pictures Around Sutter Buttes
Near Live Oak CA: February 2014
I didn’t really know much, but I knew enough about it to know what I would grow, if I were a farmer; and I had an idea, looking around me, what farms were better than others. Some were good because they were fancy. Some were good because they were big. Some were good because they were well kept and carefully managed. You could sort of tell by looking at them.
I didn’t get to know anything about wheat farming until I was an adult. I got that knowledge from being a pastor in wheat country. I learned that wheat farmers had a pretty accurate notion of how good, or not so good, their neighbors’ farms were. I got to the point where I could look at a field, and size-up one or two things about it.
So I can size up the farms and the farmers in Matthew chapter 13. I don’t think they were very good farmers. They were sloppy, and wasteful, and a little bit crazy. Even in ancient times, good farmers were smarter this.
The farming parables are dangerous as sources of agricultural advice. Jesus must have known this and he must have meant it that way. Jesus was pretty good at shaking people up, when he wanted to, and this is what he is doing here. The first farmer is a sloppy farmer, who wastes good seed in stupid places.
My first harvest in wheat country taught me about this. I was invited to spend a day riding with a farmer in his combine, while he harvested his fields in the Sky Rocket Hills near Waitsburg. They are called the Sky Rocket Hills because they seem to shoot straight up into the sky. But they have good soil and they produce well.
We stopped at midday and the farmer’s wife came out with their young kids with lunch. We ate in the shade under the wheat truck. The kids laughed and played in the pile of wheat that the combine had dumped in the bed of the truck.
When we were done eating, it was time for the kids to go home. The farmer reminded his kids to empty the wheat out of their shoes and back into the truck. The lesson was this: you don’t waste wheat. You don’t waste seed.
The farmer in the parable is wasteful, because he seeds the path. This is not unavoidable. You carry your bag of seed tied around your shoulder and you reach in and toss out the seed in a kind of waving motion. There were paths between the fields. You could walk in the path and toss the seed out away from the path, into the field.
Families owned their fields for generations. Good farmers would be proactive in weedy areas, and they would weed again after the grain started to grow.
If the ground was solid rock, with only a thin layer of topsoil you would take your chances, or your grandfather would have planted something else in the worst spots long ago. Sometimes you do just take your chances, because there is only one sure thing in farming: you won’t have a harvest if you don’t sow the seed.
In the farm of the kingdom of God the farmer is God. The farmer is also Jesus, who is God come down to earth as a human.
On God’s side of this story there is a promise that God makes to us. The promise is solemnly serious and full of laughter. The seed of the kingdom of God goes everywhere and it is meant for absolutely everyone: the hard, the tough, the shallow, the barren, the prickly, the messy, the interfering, the noxious, the jungle-hearted and weed infested: whatever any of this means, the seed goes everywhere for everyone, with no exceptions.
Everyone listening to Jesus knew something about farming. They were all shocked by this story, or at least they were all surprised that God would work this way: that God would be essentially wasteful.
This is what grace is. Grace is a love so free and extravagant that it is beautiful: like a graceful dancer. Grace is a love that is ridiculously full of mercy and forgiveness, and it is absurdly patient: as if it refused to have any conditions or strings attached.
Each piece of ground in the story represents a person. But none of them is specific enough for us to claim that we know some people who simply don’t fit the categories. Whatever you may find to be wrong with someone, whatever way you try to draw a circle to exclude anyone as a target for God’s kingdom and God’s grace, the intent of this story is to silence you and make you stop. The story tells you to willingly become an extravagant seeder because that is what the kingdom of God is like.
In Jesus we see the face of a wastefully gracious God. Jesus never excluded anyone from his time and energy. People interrupted him and his work all the time, and Jesus always stopped to give them his attention.
He denounced the Pharisees and the self-righteous hypocrites eloquently; but he never told them to go away and leave him alone, and they never did. The disciples tried to make people go away, and Jesus always stopped them from doing that.
I don’t think we should ever see anyone as a waste of our time and effort. This is also true of our time and effort as a church, as a mission of Jesus. I believe there is always a kind and loving way to do every thing that really and truly and deeply needs to be done.
We do need to address what truly needs to be done. We do also need to think about whom it might be that we have left on the outside of our own wasteful grace.
The story of the farmer and the soils gives us words of caution. It asks: What kind of ground are you?
The stories of Jesus give us room to play. He doesn’t tell us what the crop will be. The seed is the message of the kingdom, but that raises other questions. Is the message of the kingdom a matter of words? If we bear a larger crop than others does that mean we will do more talking about the kingdom than they do?
The kingdom of God is not primarily a matter of words. The kingdom is about what God does. It means that he rules.
He rules in Jesus because, in Jesus, he restores the world. In Jesus, God recreates people in his image, so that they resemble Jesus. People die to themselves because Jesus came to be a servant and die for them on the cross. They rise to a new life because Jesus made his dying into a new life, in the resurrection.
When Jesus told these stories, he hadn’t done all these things yet, but he had come down from heaven to do these things for everyone who heard him. The seed of the cross and the resurrection was standing right in front of them telling them these stories.
When we hear words about the story of Jesus (the good news) and when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for us, and when we get just enough understanding to make us open our hearts to him and surrender to him, then it stops being a matter of words of someone words. The living Jesus is planted in us. The work of Jesus gets planted in us.
It is not a matter of words. But Jesus used words to communicate what he was doing. We use words to communicate what God has done for us in Christ. We use words to explain what God wants us to become. We use words so others can meet Jesus for themselves and find a surprising new life because of him. But making it all real is never just a matter of words.
The crop of the kingdom of God is surely a field as big as the whole world and as long as time and eternity. It is a field full of the living Jesus, living and speaking in everyone who has the seed in them. Jesus talks about the kingdom making us into children (Matthew18:3), into cross carriers (Matthew 16:24), into servants (Matthew 20:26-28). That is one way of describing the crop that Jesus wants to grow in us.
Look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters five through seven. This tells us about a crop that Jesus wants to grow in us. The crop is about humility, handling grief, being meek or responsive in God’s hands. The crop is about being merciful to others and about making peace happen.
The story of Jesus about the farmer and the soils asks you and me to look at ourselves and see what kind of ground we are. What kind of ground are you?
Every seed has a tiny plant within it. God gave you the seed and the plant of the kingdom of God, without asking you if you wanted it or what you intended to do with all that extravagant seed. But, one way or another, the soils do something with the seed or they don’t do anything at all. What do you do with that?
What is it that keeps the crop small? Are you hard or trampled on like the path? Are you a mess of weeds? Are you something in between? What stands in the way, or where are you hiding from the changes and the new life of the kingdom of God?
Everybody who was listening to Jesus knew something about farming. One thing they knew was that farming takes time. Wheat has its seasons within its given year. Orchards take many years of seasons. There are signs of promise or danger in every season. At least there are signs that remind you that you have to wait and watch, and be ready for whatever the season requires of you.
There is special work to be done for every season in the piece of ground that is your life. You are a work in process. But you need to know that you have been seeded. What is your season and what is the work for that season?
I only worked in one wheat harvest. It was an old farm. The farmer told me stories about it. One was that there once were big patches of alkali salt on parts of that farm, long ago. Nothing grew on those pieces of ground. The farmer’s grandfather responded by plowing powdered lime into that ground year after year. Eighty years or so later it was good ground, as good and productive as any on the farm.
The ground of our life may have been desert ground. But the story tells us that Jesus’ seed is a powerful, miraculous seed. I have read that, in Jesus time, normal harvests around the Mediterranean would bring seven, eight, or nine times the amount of grain that was seeded.
Modern hybrid wheat might yield what Jesus said: thirty, or sixty, or maybe even a hundred times what was sown in the field. But, in Jesus’ time, such a yield would be a miracle. It would not be normal in any way.
What Jesus gives you is not normal. What Jesus gives you is the seed of some miracle. You might not even be able to imagine, yet, what that miracle is.
Jesus said (in his interpretation of the story) that understanding is the ingredient that makes a harvest possible. In this story the Greek word for understanding comes from a root word that means putting things together: like adding two plus two and finding that they equal four.
You can’t understand what Jesus wants unless you add to it Jesus himself, and what Jesus gives. Put those together and ask how you will respond.

Your life is ground in which Jesus has planted the seeds that contain what he has done for you and for the whole world. His cross and his resurrection are in the seed that is in you and they have the power to bear great fruit, if you will understand and respond.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A New Kingdom - Our Essential Identity

Preached on Sunday, Februrary 8, 2015

Scripture readings: Matthew 5:1-20; Exodus 19:1-8

Great crowds came to Jesus from all over the Middle East. When Jesus saw them, he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the crowds said, “Hmm that is so very interesting!”
Pictures Near Desert Aire WA: February 2015
Of course we don’t know if they said that. Maybe they said, “That’s so not what I came to hear.” Yes, I think a lot of them probably said or thought something like that.
Some of them probably came to hear talk of miracles, and wonders, and signs. Jesus was famous as a healer. He was a wonder worker. People came to be healed or to see others healed. If healing happened they would become rich and abundant in spirit. That would be their blessing.
Some of the crowd probably came to hear a call to arms. Jesus was a potential revolutionary. He talked about a new kingdom. The crowds came looking for clues about the coming revolution against the Romans. They wanted Jesus to pour out upon their people the warrior spirit. They had been poor in spirit long enough. It was time for that to change.
Some people in the crowd would have remembered so many words from their scriptures that stood behind the words of Jesus. For one thing there was the psalm that said, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:6) Maybe these people understood Jesus.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases the blessing words about the poor in spirit like this, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (Matthew 5:2)
There are people who find this all very interesting, until it happens to them. It’s interesting until it becomes personal. Nobody sets out wanting to be poor in spirit. Nobody sets out wanting to come to the end of their rope.
There was an old poster in my college days that said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” It’s actually a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the poster didn’t have his picture on it. The poster had the picture of a cute little kitten hanging onto the knot at the end of a rope: hanging on for dear life.
Hanging on can work, but not always. In fact, the world does not usually protect the person at the end of their rope.
The next blessing is confusing in the same way as the first. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3) There are people who comfort those who mourn, but these comforters aren’t always around. Time leads us into comfort of a sort, but it doesn’t take away our loss: not in this world. Loss hurts.
We can say that the Lord is our comforter, and this is true, but this is just as strange as it is true. One part of the strangeness is that Jesus, who is God in the flesh (God as a human being), wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. (John 11:35) There is something about such deep losses as death that makes even God weep. Even when God comforts us, he doesn’t stop us from weeping. At least this is true in the world, as we know it.
The world as we know it is probably the key. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So there is something about heaven going on here.
When we read the gospels about the kingdom that Jesus is talking about we find Matthew doing another strange thing with the word heaven. He uses the word “heaven” as a substitute for the word “God”. Where Jesus, in Matthew, speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he speaks about the kingdom of God in Mark and Luke. (Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43)
Matthew wrote his gospel in the Holy Land, for the Jewish church. For his intended readers, saying the word “heaven” was a reverential way of saying “God”. Heaven is where the reality of God is strongest and clearest even though “the whole earth is the Lord’s”. (Exodus 19:5)
In God’s universe, as the Bible teaches us, God’s rule works in different ways in heaven and on earth. But heaven and earth interlock. They are interconnected. The Lord’s Prayer gives us a clue. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The kingdom is coming from heaven to earth. That was, and is, the plan.
The blessings of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, are not about the way the world works, as we know it. The blessings are about the way that heaven works, but heaven is coming to earth when the Lord’s plan to restore the world is done. Jesus taught us to pray for this.
Jesus calls you and me to be a breed of prophets who live like the world to come. The world to come is the world that we are promised in these blessings. It’s the world we live for now. When we live the blessings of Jesus we live in two worlds at the same time. This is not easy, but it is our calling.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” (Matthew 5:5) he was saying, “You need to be meek.” Here you see that what Jesus says is not meant to be interesting: it is meant to be personal. This is hard, this is a challenge.
The word “blessed” here means the gift of happiness, or the gift of joy that will come from life with God. And he means that he will bring a new world where we will be at home and happy, if we are meek.
Jesus is really telling us to be like him, because he is that strange thing called meekness. At the end of chapter eleven in Matthew, in the King James Version, Jesus said, “I am meek and lowly of heart.” Our more modern translation puts it like this, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” (Matthew 11:29)
Meekness is word that requires more than one word to define it. It means perfect responsiveness. Meekness is gentle because it means being gentle toward God; being yielding and soft in God’s hand. It means being tame toward God’s direction of our life.
It could mean a well trained horse. It could mean a war horse who would perfectly respond to its rider in battle. It would charge, or stand, or retreat, or turn to the right or the left exactly on command every time. It would be broken from its wildness, but never broken in its spirit.
Moses was meek when he stood up to Pharaoh, and even to his own people. (Numbers 2:3) Jesus, driving the money changers from the Temple, was meek. They responded to everything in exactly the right way, according to plan.
The world as we know it does not always reward the people who seek to live in this world with a perfect responsiveness to the call of Jesus. When we share the responses of Jesus, the world might even persecute us the way it persecuted the prophets who came before us.
The world might seem to work against us. (Matthew 5:12) We respond like Jesus anyway because we are like prophets showing, in our words and our lives, what Jesus intends the world to be.
In the Old Testament, the Lord told his people that they were called to be a kingdom of priests. Just as the priests of Israel were called to make offerings and sacrifices for the people of Israel, so the whole people of Israel were called to be a kingdom of priests for the world. (Exodus 19:5-6)
In Israel, the high priest wore a golden plate on his chest, over his heart, with jewels that were carved with the names of God’s people. (Exodus 28:29) The plate of gold and jewels was a sign of what it meant to carry the people on your heart. Because God called them all to be priests, Israel, as a whole, was called from all the nations to carry the names of all people and nations upon their hearts.
That is what we are called to do. We are all called to be like priests. (1 Peter 2:9) We are called to carry all people and all nations upon our heart.
Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and to be the light of the world. It is his calling for us to be a blessing to this world. It is his way of calling us to be priests for the whole world: to carry all people upon our heart, like Jesus did on the cross.
Jesus was like a priest offering himself as a sacrifice for us, and for our sins. We are called to follow him. Our offering for all people and for all nations is to live out the blessings of his Sermon on the Mount.
Salt preserves the food from decay. Light gives growth to all living things, and light helps us to find our way. This is our offering to the world. If we are poor in spirit, if we mourn in hope, if we are as meek and responsive as Jesus, if we do all these things, then we preserve whatever good we find in this world, and we shine with life-giving light. We are life-preservers and life-givers for others.
How do we bring salt and light to our families and to our neighbors? How do we bring salt and light to our community and to our world? How will we bring mercy and peace?
There is something in what we call sin that loves to fight, that loves to defeat others, that loves to judge and condemn. There are plenty of people who seem to find a way to keep all of God’s commandments and still keep their love of fighting, and defeating, and judging, and condemning. But they are wrong.
Jesus simply tells us to do better than that. He tells us to find a better way of being righteous. He tells us to create mercy and peace in our world. He tells us to create mercy and peace in the lives we share with others.
The crowds went to Jesus to see great things. On that mountain where they gathered, Jesus called them to do something different. Jesus called them to see and to do the essential things.
Jesus calls us to do the essential things. Salt and light are essential. Our following Jesus is not about seeing and doing great things, but about seeing what is essential, and doing that.

More than anything else, Jesus is essential, and we are called to be essential by receiving him, and following him. We become essential by being Christ in fellowship and partnership with him. We become essential when we learn to live and work faithfully together in the way we know he will bless. We become essential when we make the kingdom that is coming real to the people around us and real to world as we know it.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A New Kingdom - Invasion of Light

Preached on Sunday, February 1, 2015

Scripture readings:  Isaiah 8:21-9:7; Matthew 4:12-25

There are the old football cheers. “Push ‘em back. Push ‘em back, way back.” “Hit ‘em again. Hit ‘em again, harder, harder!”
Photos around Desert Aire and Mattawa WA: 2015
These remind us that football is a glorified, ceremonious fight; a big ritual battle. Sometimes I ask boys on high school football teams what they like most about the game: they almost always say it’s hitting the other team.
God’s people often found themselves involved in a big fight. In the Old Testament, they did it with swords, and arrows, and spears. Sometimes this was because God told them to fight. They lived in a dangerous world, a world of force, and it had to be done. The Bible is full of the language of battle.
Life can be a battle. It can be a battle against pain, illness, disability. It can be a battle to keep going in the face of a negative environment, people you may work with, neighbors, even family. Life can be a battle against an evil in this world: injustice, or corruption, or apathy. Life can be a battle against your self: against anger, bitterness, temptations, addictions, depression, envy, fear, mental illness.
Life can be a battle for something: for truth, for country, for integrity, for faithfulness, for love, for a cause and a calling that come from God.
There are moral, ethical, emotional, and spiritual battles. Here there may be no hitting. There may be no blood shed; but the word of God, in the Bible, still uses the language of battle. There is the armor of God in the New Testament: the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith to ward off the flaming arrows of the evil one, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-20)
God’s people, in the days when Jesus walked this earth, wanted a fight. Thanks to Rome, they were a conquered and occupied country. They were ruled by the Herod family who reported to the Roman emperor in return for his support. They were gouged by tax collectors from their own people who betrayed them to the Romans for the money.
God’s people generally wanted to fight all of this. They wanted a revolution and they wanted a hero (called the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one) to lead it. God promised to make a new world that would be his kingdom. The hero would be the king of this kingdom.
The predictions about this, in the Bible, use a lot of the language of battle. God’s people understood this battle language to mean that the hero would be a leader of their armies fighting to the death to win a kingdom.  God’s people would shed blood, and win their independence, and then they would go on to win the whole world for God and for themselves.
This is what they thought John the Baptist had meant, when he preached the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2) Now John was in prison. John seemed to fail.
Suddenly, as soon as John the Baptist was gone, someone new started going from town to town using his words. Jesus was saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17) God’s people began to look for the evidence that Jesus would hit hard for them.
Matthew, writing his gospel, was inspired to take words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to describe the revolution of Jesus. Matthew and Isaiah said that it would be like the invasion of light into darkness. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1-2) Light is not battle language.
John the Baptist had used the language of battle. He had said that “the axe is already at the foot of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
It’s historically true that a fire was coming. God’s people would start the battle they longed for, and their country would be destroyed as a result of it. This would come about thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus. It would come soon enough.
They had a lust for battle in their hearts, even while they listened to Jesus. They felt trapped by a dark world of power and force, and they saw no reason why they shouldn’t fight the darkness of power and force by dishing out more of the same on their enemies. Their ambition was to give their enemies darkness in order to win the light.
Jesus became a disappointment to them, because he insisted on giving them just the opposite of what they were looking for. He even insisted that they must completely turn around and change what they were looking for.
This helps us understand what repentance is about. We think being repentant means hating ourselves, but that isn’t repentance at all. God loves us and if we hate ourselves then we are disobeying God and saddening God.
The Old Testament Hebrew word for repentance means doing an “about face”. It means making a u-turn.
Repentance can be a much tighter situation than a u-turn. It can be more like backing up. When I was fourteen, in order to get a certificate for doing farm work, I took a weekend class at school where you learned, among other things, how to back up a tractor with a trailer hitched to it.
That was never easy. If you ever see me trying to do it, please stop me. Still I have this picture of repentance. If you are pulling a load of stuff, repentance is very hard.
I took some accounting classes, and I hated making mistakes because it meant being ready and willing to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Repentance can mean having to go back and start all over.
After my Baci (my Polish grandma) had her stroke, she was stuck in a wheelchair for the next twenty years. Having a paralyzed arm made using a wheelchair difficult. She solved the difficulty by using her one good leg to push herself backward. For the rest of her life, she went forward by backing up. Repentance can mean having to go forward by backing up, all the time.
In the New Testament Greek language repentance becomes tighter yet. It means to be new. Get a new mind, new from the inside, new inside and out. Get recreated. Repentance is a miracle of conversion.
In the end, repentance is something so radical that it requires a power that is greater than your own. It comes like a light to the darkness.
God’s people believed that they had to be ready for a fight. They believed that their Messiah, their conquering hero, would come with an axe in his hand and get the fruitless trees out of the orchard. They watched Jesus to see how he handled his axe on those who were fruitless in the people of God.
When Jesus called for God’s people to repent, he took the opposite direction from where they wanted to go. The Bible tells us that Jesus made a whip when he drove the money changers (the currency exchange) from the Temple, but the Bible never tells us that he hit anyone with it. The only people he raised his voice against were the people who didn’t believe in grace and forgiveness.
Jesus didn’t hit. He healed. Jesus didn’t denounce. He taught. Or, when he denounced someone, he still taught them. He prayed for them.
Jesus served his own people. He also served anyone who came to him, whether they were his people or not. The crowds who came to him included everyone. Actually Jesus was ready to accept anyone as one of his people. This made God’s people mad.
The axe of Jesus came like light in the darkness. It wasn’t a laser or a light saber. It cut nobody. It reached out to people who were hassled by devils, or in pain, or paralyzed, or sick. The light taught the truth.
The light proclaimed the good news of the kingdom. In the culture of the ancient Mediterranean, proclaiming good news was a special sort of proclamation. It was a message of triumph. In the ancient world proclaiming good news was a formal thing that was done after a battle or a war was won. An official messenger was sent to the towns and cities of a kingdom to say that the kingdom had won the battle.
In Isaiah, in the section about the light, we are shown people celebrating the victory and burning the weapons of the armies of darkness. But we don’t see the battle. We only see the victory. And then we see the victor.
We see the baby who was to be born. The birth of the baby was the victory. The baby (and the man who the baby grew up to be) are the victory and the victor. The baby and the man are the good news.
When Jesus said the kingdom was near, it was because he was near. The kingdom was the presence of the king doing his work where it was needed. The king was standing right in front of them.
Jesus was the victory of God at his very birth. The victory of the cross and the resurrection were near. The kingdom was near because King Jesus was doing his work all the way to the cross.
Darkness vanished and light appeared when Jesus met you, when Jesus touched you, when Jesus called you. In Jesus you met the light that shines in the darkness.
In a way, Jesus is the axe that cuts you down by loving you, revealing his victory to you, teaching you, healing you. When I was a kid, I loved Jesus and his cross, but I loved other things too, and Jesus had to separate me from my other loves.
I had to lose before I could gain. I had to surrender before I could accept. I found that his suffering and death on the cross, for me and for my sins, was the axe that cut everything false away. Jesus is my axe of light, my axe of love.
Often my life is a battle, but Jesus is like the dawn in the darkness. No one understands this until the dawn reaches them. It makes all the difference in the world to see the dawn.
Jesus was a disappointment to many, many of God’s own people. It didn’t look like he was doing the hard hitting and the fighting that was needed to prepare them for battle and revolution.
What Jesus did was harder and much more revolutionary than they wanted, only they didn’t see it. Jesus was, and is, the revolution. He came into our lost humanness as a new baby. He came into our battles as a voice, and a light, and a healing touch. He came into our battles by dying on the cross and rising from the dead for each one of us, and to call us to follow him and spread his light in the world.
Then we will be like him. We will be like light: the light of the world that shines in darkness. We will bring good news. We will be teachers. We will be healers. We will not hit. We will love.

Jesus doesn’t make us new by making the world around us better. He changes the world by changing us, one person at a time. His weapon is intimacy and grace. Jesus’ weapon is his very self living in us and changing us with an invasion of light.