Monday, March 23, 2015

A New Kingdom - It comes with Birth Pains

Preached on Sunday March 22, 2015

Scripture readings: 2 Peter 3:3-16; Matthew 24:4-31, 36-44

Various Unrelated Photos that Are Signs or Warnings
There is a friend of mine who is a faithful church elder and a great Christian and he’s lots of fun. He takes Christian fellowship, and the Christian virtues, and prayer, and the Bible absolutely seriously. He takes the truth of the return of Jesus very seriously, but he doesn’t take all the talk and the books about the return of Jesus seriously. More than once David has said to me, “What the Bible tells us is that our side wins.” I have to agree with him.

I’ve been re-reading bits of the first systematic plan of the return of Christ that I read when I was a young Christian. It is the book “The Late Great Planet Earth” and its author is Hal Lindsey. The book and the author were famous. I devoured all his published books when I was in college. I confess that I loved his ability to put so many complicated details into a comprehensive and comprehensible form.

But at the same time I began to read other similar books full of comprehensible and very detailed plans. I found that the plans were different: sometimes only in little ways, sometimes in bigger ways.

So about forty years ago, I prayerfully and studiously decided that simple was best. I believe that we have made Jesus’ answers about his coming, and the rest of what people call Bible prophesy, more complicated than it is meant to be. I believe that this is because the experts, and the people who love the experts, read so much into all of it.
The disciples asked Jesus two questions. One was about the destruction of the temple. The other question was about the coming of Jesus in glory, which will be the end of the age of fallenness: the end of the age of rebellion, and darkness, and suffering. About the coming of Jesus in glory, the disciples wanted to know the signs. They wanted Jesus to give them, in advance, some sort of warning signals, or attention signals, to give them a heads up so that they would be ready for him.

Jesus gave them a long answer. Most of his long answer is really more about what their mission and purpose should be, while they waited for him to come in glory.

It’s about our mission and purpose too, while we wait for him to return, no matter what happens in the meantime. Jesus’ answer included some details that would be clear to anyone living in the Holy Land in the first century. And that’s our problem. We’re not first century people. That is our main handicap in understanding Jesus’ answer.
But think about this. When the question turned to signs, Jesus gave them only one sign of his coming. I mean, the question was about a sign and he only mentions one sign by name. He only uses the word “sign” to describe one single thing. This is what he says: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24:30:31) That’s the only sign of his coming, according to the simple words of Jesus.

Notice that, according to Jesus, we will all be there when that happens. When everyone sees Jesus coming, and when everyone hears the trumpet call, then all who love and trust and wait for Jesus (whether in heaven or on the earth, whether living or dead) will be gathered together to join with Jesus when he returns to change the world.
Paul wrote about his confidence of being caught up with Jesus, if Jesus came during Paul’s lifetime: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

When the Lord comes with lots of noise and glory; that’s when the dead will rise and that’s when we who are living on this earth will meet him. Paul wrote about himself and his friends, “we who are alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)

The Lord’s plan is simple. It’s all one big thing. The world is what it is and what it will be until Jesus comes. It will be what it is, but going from bad to worse until he comes. Jesus said, “Don’t be deceived. Don’t be alarmed.” That is because, in this world, as Jesus describes it, we need to beware of the dangerous and deceitful thought that says, “It can’t get any worse.”

The coming of Jesus and our being caught up with him to join him in his return to change the world will be one, single, great event. The people of Jesus, living and dead will all be part of the great victory dance: dancing with Jesus in the end zone with the whole world looking on and taking it all in. Notice that Jesus and Paul agree and they make this very basic and simple.

I tell you. I love to make things complicated. Some of you are learning about this. I do it because that is when I tell myself that I finally understand everything. But then I get all wound up and crazy and that doesn’t do any good. Then I get tired and I end up leaving lots of things untended and undone; just like Jesus tells us not to do. So I like to keep Jesus and his coming simple. It’s beautiful.

For some reason the multiplication of signs and details make the other versions sound very knowledgeable and convincing. If it takes so much study and so many brain cells to spell out the plan we are tempted to think it must be right. When I was reading these books (in 1971 through about 1973) I knew of quite a few guys who were planning to go to seminary, but the timing of the plan in “The Late Great Planet Earth” clearly suggested to a lot of us that Jesus was coming forty years after the founding of the nation of Israel, which happened in 1948. That would set Jesus’ return at 1988. Subtract seven years from that for the rapture, if the rapture happened before Jesus returns and not during his return (the way Hal Lindsey and many others teach), and that would make 1981 the end of our time as Christians on this earth.

At least a couple of these guys decided that it wasn’t worth it, spending so much time preparing for the ministry, when there would be so little time left to serve in the ministry. So they gave up their sense of calling, and maybe they were right to do so. Maybe the Lord wanted them to serve him another way.

Jesus didn’t call anything else a sign: only his actual appearance. He said that no one knows when it will happen, except his Father. It’s as if God is very humble, and childlike, and loves surprises. He even likes to surprise himself and to be surprised by himself.
In the Trinity, the Son is a servant and a servant is willing to be surprised. It’s the job of a servant to never be surprised by surprises. In the life that the Son gives to us, we are servants. It’s not a bad thing to be surprised. And God enjoys it so much, so why don’t we just let him do it that way?

There was the question about the destruction of the temple. I believe there is a relatively simple way to look at this: a simple way with a long answer that I will give you now.

It has a relationship with the idea of birth pains. How many birth pains does it take to birth a baby? Do you think a mother has ever successfully counted her birth pains? I wonder: how many birth pains should it take for God to complete his purpose for this world; before he makes a new world?

Peter, in his second letter, said that people will make fun of how long it takes. They will use the delay as an excuse for not believing.
The destruction of the temple is something oddly like a birth pain, especially if we expand it slightly to apply to all the desecrations of the temple: every crisis that made the Temple unholy. Jesus only hinted at the destruction of the temple, but he did talk about a strange thing from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, called the “abomination of desolation”. (Daniel 9:27) Eugene Peterson calls this the “monster of desecration”.

For us, the shedding of blood in a church would desecrate it. That church would have to be rededicated, or re-consecrated, or re-blessed. Desecration makes the holy unholy.
The Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt for the first time when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon and Persia. A couple hundred years later, the Greeks conquered the Holy Land, and one of the Greek kings decided to make the Jews into Greeks, and he decided to make them worship the Greek gods.

This king’s name was Antiochus, and he actually claimed to be the incarnation of Zeus, the king of the gods. He conquered Jerusalem in 167 BC and set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple. The statue looked a lot like Antiochus. Antiochus tried to make the Jews sacrifice pigs on the altar of Zeus. The Jews rebelled and rededicated the Temple and, after a lot of fighting, they beat the Greeks. The abomination of desolation was undone.

The Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, and the victorious Roman general Pompey insisted on going inside the holy of holies, the inner room that represented the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter that room (and only one day a year on top of that) without making it unholy, so there would have been the need to rededicate the desecration and the desolation of the Temple after that.

When the Jewish radicals rebelled against the Romans and started the war that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, again, they started their rebellion by killing the high priest, who was too friendly to the Romans. That was in the year 66 AD.
They killed him inside the temple. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about this and he called it the abomination that makes desolate. The holy place had been made unholy again. The Temple had to be reconsecrated.

The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. They took their military standards that held the image of the divine Caesar into the remains of the temple, and they offered sacrifices to Caesar there: worshipping a man as a god in the Temple. This time the Temple was not reconsecrated.

In the second century, the Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city. The emperor Hadrian had his people build a temple dedicated to Jupiter, the king of the gods, on the Temple Mount. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the temple of Jupiter was torn down, and the Temple Mount was used as a dump. When the Muslim’s invaded they hauled the trash away and built the Dome of the Rock.

Between the prophet Daniel and the disciples, the Temple had been desecrated, more than once, by humans who claimed to be stronger than the God whose Temple stood in Jerusalem. Since then, this has happened on the site of the Temple quite a number of times. Each time it has happened, it has caused someone, somewhere, great distress and anguish. Many times it has happened in war and with a staggering destruction of life, and hope, and beauty.

These are all birth pains. In our fallen world it takes a long, long labor of birth pains before the time for a new world comes. And yet, Jesus says, “Keep watch!” (Matthew 24:42)

It’s very simple. There is harassment, persecution, evil, lovelessness, danger, injustice, cruelty, violence, humans setting up humans and governments higher than God, and it goes on and it gets worse, until Jesus comes, for all the world to see and hear. Then Jesus will bring the new world.
Jesus’ warning about the abomination tells us that the church will be around to see people and governments setting themselves up in the place of God many times. The lesson about getting away from the places where people are playing God is that, no matter what outrages are committed in this world, if we listen to Jesus, if we are faithful to him, we will get through it. He will take care of us, and we (and the church) will survive to stand and see him come in glory to make the earth new.

Each birth pain is outrageous. Each one hurts. Each one may hurt millions and tens of millions of people, and more. Jesus says: “Don’t be alarmed. Don’t panic! Don’t act like it’s the end of the world.”

I remember my dad telling me many times: it’s not the end of the world.
To avoid being alarmed, when Jesus warns us against being alarmed, Christians seem to have created the ability to combine two strange substances: joy and calculation. Christians live in a state of joyful calculation so much of the time. I believe this comes from reading too much into what is relatively simple. Some people count earthquakes, and wars, and calculate their increase, or their rate of acceleration, in order to create a sign that Jesus is on the threshold.

When Jesus said not to be alarmed at the birth pains, we manage to make our calculations into a sign, even though Jesus didn’t say that the elements of our calculation were a sign. We claim we are not alarmed, but we make our joyful calculations, and so we get around the warnings of Jesus.

I recently heard about some cases, in the Pacific northwest, where school kids have been told not to wear crosses to school. We are living in America, where we have freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We have the right to resist, and go to court, and have our representatives make laws to remedy stuff like this. But I sense outrage and not love in this.
It can be done in love and it should be done in love. Where cross wearers are outraged they are not acting like Christians. They are showing alarm at the birth pains just as Jesus told us not to do.

Jesus said, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) Jesus warns us not to be deceived. (Matthew 24:4) But here is a case where the world is deceiving us and making us not the people who stand firmly in the love of Jesus. And then, again, it also proves that we have not really stopped being alarmed. We have only disguised our alarm.

Sometimes Christians will talk about being taken up to be with Jesus before the trouble gets too tough. But why should any Christian want that? Why except for the fact that we don’t want to get hurt. We don’t want to suffer.

Some of the families of the Egyptian Christians whose relatives were recently killed in Libya were thankful for one of the things that the ISIS executioners did. The people who recorded the execution did not mute the shouts of the Christians, about to be killed, praising the name of Jesus. Their families at home were thankful for this.

That is real Christianity. What we call “The Great Tribulation” will be a great honor. Paul would agree, because this is what he wrote to his friends in Philippi, “It has been granted to you, on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29)

Remember, this was on behalf of Christ, who suffered for our sins on the cross. His suffering is our salvation. It also “leaves us with an example that we should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21) Of course it is a gift to suffer for Jesus.

I don’t think I’ve made this too complicated. But I’ve said more than enough for now.
We live in a world full of birth pains. Those pains have been going on for a long time. It is a long, long labor. It is not a labor for one child, but for a whole new world where everyone will be there by patience, and by repentance, and by endurance. It will be a safe world at last, shaped by the timing of the Father, and by the servanthood, and the cross, and the resurrection of the Son.

Don’t be alarmed. Don’t grow less in love. Don’t let your love grow cold. Don’t be deceived into losing your Jesus-way of thinking. Don’t lose your Jesus-say of responding to the world, and to others, in patience and love.

Keep reading Jesus’ long answer to the end and see the simple way he wants you to be ready. Be ready to wait. Be ready to put what Jesus gives you to good use. Be ready to live in a world that doesn’t love you and makes it hard for you. And especially be ready to care for the people who seem to count the least, because those are the people whom Jesus calls his brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A New Kingdom - How Small Can You Get?

Preached on Sunday, March 15, 2015

Scripture reading: Psalm 8; Matthew 18:1-14

There is so much I don’t know about life. Years ago there was a mother who had recently given birth. She came to church the following Sunday with that baby in her arms. She came up to me and introduced me to her new child. I said, “It’s so amazing. It’s so tiny.”
Columbia River at Desert Aire: March 2017
Did you notice my mistake? Without thinking, I had used the word “it” to describe her baby. It was not an “it”, she was a “she”. It wasn’t going to be the last time I that I have made that mistake; there is so much I don’t know about life.
The little child in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew was an “it”. It’s written in Greek. Greek has masculine nouns, feminine nouns, and neutral nouns. In Greek, “little child” is a neutral noun. It’s an “it”.
Ancient Greek culture didn’t really respect children. They tried to train the childlikeness out of children as soon as possible. And Greek culture and its influences around the ancient world were very keen on supporting the superiority of boys and men over girls and women.
If Jesus had wanted to make a special point about humility and littleness, he might very well have chosen a little girl to stand in the middle of the disciples who were obsessed with greatness. Even if he had, we wouldn’t know it. Since the gospels were all written in Greek there is no way of knowing what gender of “it” the child was.
For the Jews, who were the people of Jesus, the first born son, or the oldest son mattered a lot. Little children, in general didn’t matter so much. They were an expense until they were old enough to work, or until the boys were old enough to fight (Psalm 127:4-5). It was even better when they got married, especially because the girls would leave home when they married. Jesus saw them all in a different way.
Jesus believes in humility. He believes that a little child is the clearest example of humility. He believes that humility and childlikeness are necessities. So Jesus tells us to be childlike and to be faithful to those who are childlike. Be careful about them. Handle them responsibly.
But remember some more of the gospel. Jesus talked about caring for the people he called, “the least of these my brethren.” (Matthew 25:31-46) Here, in the story of Jesus and the child, Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” In the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said that when we help the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger or alien, those without adequate clothing, the sick and those in prison: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
My yard, Desert Aire: March 2015
There was a connection for Jesus between “the least of these” and “the little ones”. Jesus said that his little ones can get lost. When I was about six, I got lost in a department store. There are far worse ways for little ones to be lost. But that’s not what Jesus was talking about. The little ones who were these lost sheep were people who had wandered away from Jesus. Their lives were separated from the good shepherd. 
Jesus used the same story about the one sheep lost from the flock on more than one occasion. He used this story to tell why he spent so much time with the traitor tax collectors and other sinners. The lost sheep was a lost grown up. The lost sheep was a sinner. (Luke 15:1-7)
The little ones may be lost grownups. Jesus says, “See to it that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
There may be people whom we look down on, and we give them up as lost. These are the little ones of Jesus, just as much as any child. What would Jesus say, and what would Jesus do, if we looked down on one of his lost little ones and gave up searching for them?
“These little ones” and “the least of these brothers of mine” seem to have something in common. Jesus sees their importance. Jesus identifies himself directly with both of them.
Think about what heaven is. It’s the place where God is at the center. The way we know what heaven will be like is by watching and listening to Jesus and what he cares about.
If we want heaven we will want Jesus. Will Jesus ever believe that we want him if we don’t want all those “little ones” and “the least of these brothers of mine”? He said they were his personal representatives. “What you do to them you do to me.” How can you honestly say you even like someone if you don’t like their friends?
Dinosaurs in Vantage WA: March 2015
We think this story about Jesus and the little child is a nice story. It’s a heart warming story. We think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be a little bit more childlike?” And it’s fine to think like this if it’s OK to not take Jesus completely seriously.
But if you take Jesus seriously you realize that he is not being the gentle Jesus here. Jesus is being the scary Jesus. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Never! Scary!
Yet Jesus with the child was also the gentle Jesus. The disciples had been boasting and bragging to each other about being better than each other, and Jesus didn’t put them down or scold them. Jesus just answered their question. Jesus was someone you could ask anything, and he would give you a surprising answer: a child’s answer.
Jesus was gentle enough to take a little child by the hand and put that little child in the middle of a huddle of big men and that child would stand there, and not be afraid, because Jesus had put him there. The little child knew that he or she could trust Jesus wherever he put them. The child knew that Jesus would stay there with them and be their real friend.
Jesus said childlikeness meant humility. We see that humility in the child in the center of the disciples. We see that humility in the child’s security. A well-loved and well cared for child is not afraid of most things. Loving parents have to pray for the wisdom to know how much fearlessness they want their child to keep.
When I was four or five, I knew that I was supposed to be afraid of sticking something in an electric wall socket. What I didn’t know was that I needed to be afraid of experimenting to see how close I could get a metal coat hanger to that wall socket without getting killed. So humility is brave.
Humility loves doing things for others. Kids love making gifts for their parents, and grandparents, and other people.
Humility loves grace. Humility likes being helped and cared for. Jesus wants us to give this kind of grace to others. This is what he wanted his disciples to do for each other. It’s Jesus’ rule for his people. He wants us to give grace to others so that they might imagine being God’s children.
Grace is his rule for us. Grace is what he gives to us. Grace is how we belong to him. Grace is how he wants the world to find him through us.
Jesus told us to be childlike, but not to be childish. I think childishness is something that children learn from grown-ups.
Humility is not about thinking how small you are. It’s easy to misunderstand this. Big things (when they get too big) make grownups feel small. When you are feeling especially small grace changes how you feel. The help of a parent, or a spouse, or a friend, or a little child helps you to stop feeling small. That is humility.
Little children don’t feel small when a parent helps them. We don’t feel small anymore, when the Lord helps us.
Humility is like being a geometric point. Remember what you learned in high school. A geometric point is not truly small. It simply has no dimension at all. There’s no use studying the size of a point, and (in all humility) there’s no use in thinking about your size at all.
The little child was humble, and so he saw how big the disciples were, and how big Jesus was. In that house full of grownup men, only Jesus could look at the child and see how huge that little child was. If the disciples could change and be humble, they would also see how that little child was truly a giant: the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
When was the last time you sat on a lawn and saw that it was really a vast jungle of trees (even when it had just been mown)? Remember seeing all the animals running so fast through that jungle.
Suddenly you became a person in that jungle, wandering among the trees and discovering the new wild creatures that roam there. Humility sees the whole world like that. Humility enables you to see what others don’t see, and to do what others can’t imagine doing.
Psalm Eight tells us about a way of seeing that comes from humility. It tells you that you can look at the sky by day or by night. You can see the sun, and the moon, and the stars. You can see that they have glory. They have a message and a meaning that pushes in on you. Then you look at a baby. You hear his or her baby talk, and it is just as full of the glory of God as the sky above you.
The Psalm tells us that God sees babies as one of his greatest defenses against the evils of this world. “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.” (Psalm 8:2) Babies look and sound like giants to God.
The writer of the Psalm realized he was making a mistake when he thought that humans didn’t count much when compared to the size of the universe. I think it must have been the babies who told him so. They told him that humans were crowned with the glory and honor of God.
The Hebrew words in this phrase, “You have made him a little lower than the angels”, or “the heavenly beings”, has an odd tradition. The simplest translation would say, “You have made him a little lower than God.” Perhaps some of the early translators were too humble about human nature to translate this Psalm in such a daring way. And angels seem godlike to us poor humans. The Psalm actually says the daring think; that the Lord has made humans “a little lower than God.”
The Psalm tells us that we are crowned with the glory and honor of God. This means that God has made human being in his image. Even though we have lost a lot of the wisdom, and goodness, and ability that we had before we rebelled against God; that image of God tells us that, if we are to rule the natural world around us, we are to rule it for God, and not for our selves.
This is humility: to rule our lives and our world for God and not for ourselves. God has seen us as though we were much bigger than we are; and God has been glad to share his work with us. God has been glad to make us more than we seem to be. Humility loves to give grace and gifts to others, and this is what God is like. If we become like children we will see how to do this work with God.
This Psalm contains a kind of prophecy about Jesus. (Hebrews 2:5-9) Jesus became small for our sake. He became human. He became one of those babies who were full of the praise of God in order to beat the foe and to silence the enemy and the avenger.
He became one of us, and he became smaller yet; to die unjustly, as a criminal, on a cross. He worked hard to put himself into a great gift to us. He wore a crown of thorns in order to give us a new crown as his rescued and recovering children.
In Jesus, we see God. In Jesus we see that God does not really care about being bigger than us. He cares about giving us big gifts. If we remember this, we will stop being childish and start being childlike, because there are always more gifts to look forward to.

We will become children like Jesus and the very least of his brethren will seem huge to us. The needs of others and the needs of this world will also look huge, but they will not scare us, because Jesus has taught us to be childlike. We will trust Jesus. We will trust that Jesus will always give us grace and, he will always be with us. We don’t have to fear what will happen if we become like a little child.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A New Kingdom - Chilling with Jesus

Preached Sunday, March 8, 2015

Scripture readings: Exodus 30:11-16; Matthew 17:22-27

It is said that the gospels never show us Jesus and the disciples on a laundry day. These verses in Matthew are about as close as it comes to showing us a laundry day with Jesus. It’s as strange as if the gospels told us that Jesus woke up one morning and nothing much happened.
Saddle Mountain, North of Desert Aire-Mattawa WA
February 2015
There were no crowds. Most of the disciples weren’t even there. It was just Jesus and Peter. There was a question asked but there was no controversy or debate. There was a miracle that day, but we never see it happen. Nothing in these paragraphs serves as a famous memory verse. It was the kind of day when Jesus pretty much said, “Let’s not upset anyone today. Let’s not even go out.” So it was a day for Peter to chill with Jesus.
But how can I just leave it at that? How can I just let the lesson be a day for chilling with Jesus?
It was a tax day. That could have been annoying.
Every Jewish male, twenty years old or older, paid the Temple tax once a year. Exodus chapter thirty tells us about that tax. It was a half shekel, the equivalent of two drachmas. It was two days’ pay for the average working man.
Some people resented this tax. It was a tax for the support of the sanctuary: the Temple. But the Temple was fabulously wealthy and it didn’t need that money for its support.
Priests and their assistants didn’t have to pay it. Rabbis didn’t have to pay it. Jesus was, technically, a rabbi. It was a tax Jesus didn’t have to pay. The man who asked Peter whether Jesus paid knew exactly what he was doing by asking that question. It was sort of a snide, quiet insult to Jesus and to Peter. It was as if Jesus didn’t deserve to be considered a rabbi.
Jesus had become infamous for opposing the leaders of the Temple. He opposed how they used (or misused) the Temple. Jesus had spoken of the Temple as temporary. The Temple was something that Jesus had come to replace. The new Temple was going to be Jesus. (John 2:19, Matthew 26:61) Jesus had predicted that he was going to Jerusalem and to the Temple, and the result was that he would be killed there, and rise from the dead.
It was supposed to be a laundry day and Peter was chilling with Jesus. The taxman’s question disturbed Peter and threatened to make it into a different kind of day.
The great danger that Jesus spoke of and that Peter feared (the death of Jesus) may have only been a few days or weeks away. There was this storm brewing in Peter’s mind, and Jesus read his mind.
Jesus said to Peter, “Peter, if it’s the money you’re worried about, don’t worry, chill out. Take a hook and a line and throw it in the lake. The first fish you catch will have a coin in its mouth. That will be enough to pay for you and for me.”
Jesus said to Peter, “Peter, if you are worried about supporting a Temple that has fallen from what God intended and has become a den of thieves; don’t worry, chill out. The Temple is actually the house of my Father the king, and I am the king’s son, and you are with me. Neither you nor I need to pay the Temple anything. Let’s just do it because we are free. Let’s do it because I am the king’s son and you are with me. Let’s do it for love and not fight any battles today. Let’s just chill out today.”
When I was a teenager, my hangout in school was the science room. I was really a history geek but there were no other history geeks and so I managed to be a science geek. In study hall I usually sat at the smart boys’ table.
In our school, the geeks formed an invisible kingdom. But that never seemed to matter. The kingdom of the school that really mattered (as a visible kingdom) was ruled by the athletes and the cheerleaders. There were a few kids who lived in both kingdoms, but I wasn’t one of those kids.
There were one or two kids firmly in the sports kingdom who were my friends, especially a guy named Chris. We didn’t do a whole lot of stuff together; because Chris was always doing sports stuff. But we would sit, and talk, and joke, and even drive around together. When we did that, I wasn’t just a geek. For a while, we both planned to go to Humboldt State College and study forestry, and I wasn’t going to be a geek any more.
It was as if Chris was saying, “Dennis, you’re with me.” It seemed like this was going to set me free.
Jesus was a rabbi and he didn’t have to pay the tax. Peter knew that Jesus was the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16) and didn’t have to pay the tax. Jesus said to Peter, “You’re with me. You’re exempt. You’re going to be free from now on, because you’re with me.”
There is so much out there, and so much that you are in the middle of, and so much to worry about and make decisions about. There’s so much to argue about, and to argue for. There’s so much to fear, or to get angry about. There are reasons to be dissatisfied. It’s all important, and it will all have its day.
But sometimes there is nothing more important than to have a laundry day with Jesus. There is nothing more important than to make it your priority to chill out and hear Jesus.
Hear what Jesus wants to say, “You are with me. That makes you the king’s son. That makes you the king’s daughter. You are free.”
Jesus wants to tell you that he loves you and that you are his friend. Take some time not to fear, and not to judge, and not to argue, and not to blame, and not to worry, and not to play at strategies and battles in your head (or in fact). Let it rest! Chill out with Jesus.
The coin for the tax (the coin in the fish) was an odd thing. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Exodus, the coin is called one root word that means ransom and atonement. Sometimes it is translated as redemption.
In order to have a share in the count of the people of Israel, in order to have a share in the sanctuary (which was the place where you could find God dwelling with you), it was required to pay this small coin that stood for ransom, redemption, and atonement.
It was the price of freedom. It was the price of being one with the Lord. It was the price for being his friend. The Temple tax (in some strange way) stood for this.
It was a tiny token of a something huge. It was like a small piece of bread or a small sip from a cup standing for the cross and for everything that Christ is, and everything that Christ has done, and everything that Christ promises. It was a tiny token of a huge ransom that God came into our world to pay for us to rescue us from sin.
Sin is the struggle for independence and superiority that separates us from God, and from others, and from our true self. Sin is like a shadow self that follows us everywhere; and life shrivels and wilts in that shadow. Sin in the human heart is what makes our beautiful world into the place of fear, and violence, and dishonesty, and injustice that it is. The servanthood of Jesus, the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus from the power of death is the great price that ransoms us from this struggle, this shadow, and this darkness in the world.
The ransom, the redemption, the atonement, for Peter (and for us), was something that Jesus promised to take care of. Jesus hid the gift in a fish’s mouth.
Peter’s whole life had been about fish. The truth is that the fish came to stand for Jesus and the gift was to be found in him. The early Christians understood the story this way. Peter found the price of his own freedom in a fish, just as he found it in Christ who died as a ransom for the freedom of the whole world on the cross.

Jesus says, “You’re with me. I’ve paid for that.” The most important thing you will ever do is to stop, and be quiet with Jesus: chill out, and listen to him say, “You’re with me. I’ve paid for that.”

Monday, March 2, 2015

A New Kingdom - Making the Invisible Visible

Preached on Sunday, March 1, 2015
Scripture readings: Psalm 27; Matthew 17:1-13
Today we sang “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” I like that song a lot. There is one funny thing about it though. That is the fact that Jesus never shines in any of the gospels, except for here; in what we call the transfiguration, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke repeat it in their gospels.
Saddle Mountain
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: February 2015
The gospels call Jesus light, but he only shines for the disciples (and for us) right here; in the transfiguration. He didn’t shine during what the gospels tell us about his birth. He didn’t shine when he rose from the dead on Easter Dawn. He didn’t shine when he rose into heaven.
(There are times, after that, when Jesus shines, but that is another story.)
I’ve just taken the long way around of saying that what we read here is truly exceptional, even for Jesus. And this is simply more evidence of how common the gospels are; how down to earth and unexcitable they are.
The gospels are full of miracles, but they never go wild and crazy about them. They are very reserved in the way they report them.
The gospels are calm and careful in the way they lead us to Jesus. And that is a lesson for us, in the way we come to Jesus, in our own lives, and in the way we bring others to him. It’s important to be calm and careful.
We do have a miracle here: a miracle of seeing or a miracle of showing. We call it the transfiguration, and that is an awfully fancy word. The Greek word for what happened is the root of our word “metamorphosis”. That is another very fancy word.
Metamorphosis means transformation. Metamorphosis is what happens when a caterpillar spins a cocoon around itself and changes into a butterfly. It’s the normal thing to say that the caterpillar and the butterfly are stages of development. Yet it may be a more wonderful thing to say that the caterpillar and the butterfly are really the same. Maybe the butterfly lives in the caterpillar and the caterpillar lives in the butterfly.
What the disciples saw on the mountain was not Jesus moving into a later and more advanced stage of his development. For one thing he changed right back again into the normal Jesus, as his friends had always known him.
The voice from the cloud of light should tell us if this is a new Jesus, but it doesn’t. The voice says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (17:5)
These are basically the same words that came from heaven the moment Jesus was baptized, at the beginning of his ministry. (Matthew 3:17) The Jesus who was shining bright as the sun was the same old Jesus his disciples had always known. In fact the Jesus who was bright as the sun was the same Jesus who was the baby in Bethlehem, and the boy asking questions in the Temple. The shining Jesus was the same Jesus who hung dying on the cross, and was buried in the tomb, and rose from the dead. They were seeing the same Jesus who will return to earth when this universe is finished and a new heaven and a new earth are made. When the light faded from his face, the disciples saw the same Jesus as all of that.
The light they had never seen before drew attention to what was always right there in front of them, all the time.
The voice from the cloud of light said a few more words, “Listen to him.” It said “listen to him” because sometimes they didn’t, and they needed to know who it was that they were not listening to. They were not listening to someone whose face was really brighter than the sun, even when they didn’t see the light.
The miracle of seeing, which lasted no more than a few minutes, helped them know how to live in the presence of the unseen. The presence of the unseen is about faith. Paul says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) And the Letter to the Hebrews says (in the King James Version), “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
The New International Version says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Most modern translations have something similar to that; making faith a matter of inner assurance and confidence instead of something substantial and objective. This is because modern people, who make the modern translations, have trouble with the concept of faith being more than an attitude and more than a way of thinking.
Faith is not an attitude. Faith is not a way of thinking or even of seeing things. Faith is a strange way of knowing something even when you cannot properly do justice to it in words. Peter and the other two disciples saw Jesus clearly and either they didn’t know what to say or else (in Peter’s case) they could only think of very silly things to say.
Faith is a form of belonging. Faith is being connected to a reality that is beyond you, a reality that you cannot see with your eyes.
Faith is the rule of the unseen. When you trust Jesus, what you say and do (and even what you think) changes, because the invisible rules you. The world around you doesn’t see Jesus, but they see and experience, through you, the Jesus to whom you are connected. When faith is at work in you, it produces the substance and the evidence of Jesus.
The voice from the cloud said, “Listen to him.” When you listen to Jesus you make the invisible visible.
The church is a group of people who are learning to make their connection with Jesus visible. They do this by learning to change the way they connect with others.
We practice this connection on each other (like mutual guinea pigs) because we trust that we all understand that we are involved in the same experiment. We trust that we are all committed to that experiment. We need other people in order to practice our connection with Jesus. So the church makes perfect sense, even when the church is sinful and foolish.
In the sixteenth Chapter of Matthew, Jesus asked the disciples to describe his identity in their own words, and in their own voice. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17)
By “flesh and blood” Jesus meant that Peter’s understanding of who Jesus really was didn’t come from his own figuring it out. It didn’t even come from some place in Peter’s heart. It came from God. There is a leap of inspiration that is not our own leap.
We may talk about a leap of faith, but usually we are pushed. It is like being a child who is afraid of the water and who has a father or mother who will not accept your fear. They put you in the water, and they make you do things you are afraid to do because you don’t really believe that your body can float on top of the water. Swimming is something you simply have to do. At least you have to try.
Even though faith has to be a kind of decision we make and stick to; even though faith may be the hardest choice we make; even if we make it kicking and screaming; faith usually comes down to being a kind of necessity. Faith may be a choice; but real faith, in the end, turns out to be the only choice.
Faith always comes from some action, or from the memories of some action, like of the time your father or mother taught you to swim. Faith is being connected to something or someone beside yourself.
One way or another, for better or for worse, that connection has shaped you. It shaped, and may continue to shape, the person you are. It is the work of the connection, the work of the unseen. The connection has transfigured you, and made the caterpillar into a butterfly. The connection has made the invisible visible.
Another example of being ruled by the unseen is one that I know nothing about, personally. It is how a mother-to-be is ruled and shaped by the unseen life within her. When things are the way they should be, a personal relationship begins with that baby within. It is not entirely unseen, of course, but it is a relationship that goes far beyond what you can see.
I imagine that faith, hope, and love go into it. I imagine that a woman’s emotions and personality adapt to accept this coming new person before that person becomes visible.
The first funeral I ever performed was for a premature, stillborn baby. I could see the depth of the loss of an invisible but real connection. I could see that the mother, the father, the brother, and the sister didn’t know how to understand their loss or put it into words, because that relationship had been mostly invisible.
Love itself is an unseen thing. You have to choose to make love seen, and visible, and felt, and heard. Love, in many ways, is an unseen thing that changes your priorities, and your direction in life. It changes who you are, even though it goes unseen. It is the rule under which you live. It’s true that love, like faith, is also a leap, but it is also a push.
The transfiguration only lasted for a few moments, and that is all that was needed. But it was needed. It was given to the disciples because they would need the experience of a shining Jesus to hold them steady and hold them together when they began to experience terrible things.
Jesus had begun to show disturbing changes in what he told them about his mission. Jesus had begun to hammer his disciples with the thought that they were going to Jerusalem where he would be arrested, and mistreated, and killed, and rise from the dead.
The disciples were beginning to be afraid. And then this moment or two of Jesus (as they had never seen him before) made a strange statement to their fear. For a brief moment they saw that Jesus was truly someone who could talk about being crucified, and dying, and rising from the dead. The moment quickly passed, but the memory of seeing the un-seeable glory of Jesus did not leave them.
The memory of this stayed with them all their lives. It was part of the wonder of seeing Jesus again, when he had risen from the dead with the wounds of the nails in his hands and feet. As they held Jesus in their arms, they also saw, in their memory, the glory of who Jesus is.
Of course he had been able to rise from the dead. Of course he was able to die as a ransom for their sins. They saw how everything that Jesus promised was able to come true. They saw how Jesus was the one who could meet the evil, and violence, and injustice of this world and overcome it. He could offer them a new world and a new life.
The transfiguration was a gift to help his friends through their own way to the cross, and to the risen Jesus, and beyond. The transfiguration was the gift of what we sometimes call a “mountaintop experience”. (I do believe that this is where the phrase comes from.) The friends of Jesus saw something that is normally unseen, and for the rest of their lives they were ruled by it.
We have to know that being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus, means living under the rule and influence of the unseen.
Sometimes it makes us do things that seem silly to everyone else. We do some funny things together in this place. We talk to someone with our eyes closed, and with our hands folded or raised. We sing odd songs together.
We do even sillier things. We stop what we are doing to help other people. We forgive those who do us wrong. We are patient, and hopeful, and surprisingly peaceful.
Aren’t we? Aren’t we Christians famous for not judging others? Aren’t we famous for praying for all people, even in the government?
All of this is related to a reality that we have experienced: or we are supposed to have experienced it. All our strange words and actions are related to a reality that we cannot make others see, but we are called to make that reality known, with the help of the unseen. Our prayer is to make the invisible into something visible to others.
We know the Jesus who shines. We are the work projects of the Holy Spirit of God.
There is some mountain top in our lives where we have met this Jesus and received this Spirit and heard the voice of this Father telling us to listen. And we take the road down from the mountaintop, into the ordinary world of everything that we can see and touch; where there is so much confusion, and anger, and guilt, and doubt. But we go down this road under the rule of having seen the un-seeable.
There are doubts on this road. There are fears. There is injustice and evil. There is weakness, and pain, and loss, and grief. There are people who need us, and they need to know Jesus through us. There is hard work to do. There are crosses to carry.
There is fellowship and partnership with others. There is oneness, and there are wonders. There is singing and joy. There is fun and play. There is hope and life. There is love. And there is heaven and the resurrection. And Jesus will take us there.

Faith is not truly blind. The transfiguration tells us about the power and rule of the unseen. It tells us about a reality that is hard to put into words, but it is a reality that we can experience for ourselves. It’s a reality that changes us. It connects us to the living God in Christ. Faith teaches us to live for the purpose of making the invisible visible to the world.