Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Know God - Who?

Preached on Sunday, April 26, 2015

Scripture readings: Job 42:1-6; Acts 17:16-34

A little girl was drawing a picture in class. All the kids had their crayons out and they were drawing or thinking about what to draw. The teacher was going from desk to desk, looking at the children’s work.
When she got to the little girl, the teacher asked what she was drawing. The little girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “Nobody knows what God looks like.” And the little girl answered, “They will when I’m finished.”
This is what Paul promised to give to the Athenians: a picture of God. Of course it’s not a picture about what God would look like if you came into God’s presence face to face. In fact the writers of the Bible seem to deliberately avoid saying very much about this.
The Gospel of John is very clear about this. John wrote: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)
Paul told the Athenians the same thing. He told them that God is nothing like any image that any human could make. The images that the Greeks made of their gods (out of gold, or silver, or stone) made them out to be like strong and beautiful humans. Paul said that God is nothing like that. (Acts 17:29)
Yet Paul found the strangest way to say this. He told them that our own identity as God’s offspring should tell us that no image, or statue, or picture could possibly tell us who God is.
My family has some old family photographs and letters going back to the 1850’s and 1860’s. Honestly, the images don’t tell you much about who they are. For one thing, people didn’t smile for the camera one hundred and fifty years ago. It’s the letters that tell you who they are.
We have a bunch of those old letters. Years ago I gave myself the job of deciphering them as well as I could. Their old handwriting wasn’t bad, but it was difficult. It was so different from modern penmanship. That made it hard to read. It took me hours, and days, and weeks to figure them out.
Some of these letters were written to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and to tell loved ones about how life was going far, far away. Some of the letters came from the Civil War, and they describe horrendous things, and angry things, and sad things, and funny things, side by side. These people were writing to loved ones about what they were doing, and seeing, and hearing. More than that, they were writing about how they were doing it, and how they were seeing and hearing it.
After weeks of working with these letters, I suddenly knew these people: at least a little bit, but very vividly. It didn’t matter whether I had a picture of them or not. I wrote a poem about this experience of knowing them.

You grew upon me as I thought of you.
You crept close quietly before I knew
That thought might reach so far.
This paper key
Unlocked your century;
And you (as you once were) to partial view
Appeared behind the door you held ajar. ("The Old Letter" by Dennis Evans)

Paul was going to speak to the Areopagus Council of Athens (the council of religions and morals) about God. It was as if he were delivering a letter to them from God. It was a letter to loved ones who were not really so far away, but acted as though they were. Paul’s message was a letter from God to his estranged and unreconciled offspring.
The message told of what God had done and what God was doing. The message told of the relationship that God had begun with us, and how that relationship was going, and what God wanted it to be, and how God was now going to make it work. If the Athenians were willing to take the time and listen to the message, if they were willing to live inside of the message instead of judging it, then they might meet the God of the message and know this God.
To tell where the Athenians (and all the rest of the Greeks and Romans) were at… would take a long time. Luke mentioned the Epicureans and Stoics, and these were two of the most popular philosophies of that time.
The Epicureans believed that everything was more or less an accident produced by a collision of atoms. Every human was an accident that will come to an end. They saw the gods as living in complete unawareness of this universe and everything in it, and that was why the gods were happy. Humans, the Epicureans taught, could be happy if they imitated the gods by avoiding getting caught up in the troubles of this world as much as possible, until they died and ceased to exist.
The Stoics believed that there was a kind of order and reason behind everything. There was a plan and a will for everything, but there was no personality behind the order of things. The Stoics believed that the individual existence of things and people were temporary and that, when a person dies, they sort of disappear and blend in with the reason or the wisdom behind everything. Until that happened, the important thing was to do one’s duty and to carry out one’s responsibilities, even when that became difficult or fatal, and not to worry about it; not to take it personally, until one merges and disappears back into the oneness of wisdom.
In Athens, there was more than one altar dedicated to “An Unknown God”. There had been a plague in Athens, centuries before Christ, and the people of Athens had tried to stop the plague by offering sacrifices to their gods.
The sacrifices were peace offerings, made so that the gods would be pleased and stop the plague. They had lots and lots of gods, and they offered sacrifices to all of them, but nothing worked.
So the people of Athens decided there must be at least one god that they had missed (a god whose name and identity they didn’t know) so they offered a sacrifice to the unknown god, and the plague stopped. Paul told the people of Athens that their ancestors had been right, in some way. There was a god they didn’t know, but they needed to know him. Paul would make that god known.
Instead of lots of gods running their little shows, Paul told them that they could know a God who created everything and held everything together. This is the God who is the Lord of heaven and earth. This was a way of saying that there is a structure, and an order, and a plan to things. There is a direction and a goal to which we are all going. To truly know God means knowing this.
Paul said that we live inside this order of things, and that we also belong to this order, and that we also belong to the God who made us, who made the world and everything in it. (Acts 17:24)
The gods of the Greeks ate the sacrifices offered to them. They were warmed by the clothing that was put on their statues in their temples, although some of them didn’t wear very much clothing.
The God Paul knew didn’t need anything from us. The God Paul knew made everything for us; and it pleased God to do this.
If the people of Athens could know God as Paul did, they would have known him as the God spoken of, centuries later, by the great old English preacher Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon wrote: “The Lord loves you not to-day, Christian, because of anything you are doing, or being, or saying, or thinking, but he loves you still, because his great heart is full of love, and it runneth over to you.”
Instead of us building a place for God, God has built a house for us with a ceiling that is billions and billions of light years high. There is a message in this house of the universe we live in. If we truly lived in this house with all our heart we would know God much better than we do even now.
Paul told the people of Athens that they should have known something about his God if they took their own poets seriously. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” “We are his offspring.”
We don’t know God until we know that God has made us for relationship with him and with each other. God has made us all from one human, and we cannot know God until we know that we are all related to each other. We belong to everyone, and everyone belongs to us. We have the same needs. We share the same design, because God has made us in his image.
We also don’t know God unless we know that something has gone wrong. The times and places where our nations grow and wither away tells us about God’s rule of the nations but also that there is conflict between humans. It tells us that we have been made for harmony, but also it tells us that we experience and contribute to the disharmony.
Paul spoke of history and the conditions of the nations helping us to “seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” But the words “perhaps reach out for him” imply a sort of bungling on our part: not doing very well with what God gives us. Our reaching out, for God and for the truth, misses the mark.
Paul told the Athenians that they had been living through the last days of long ages of ignorance about God, but now that time was ending. We can see that we are still living in such times of ignorance.
All this tells us that we can’t know God until we realize that we are ignorant. We are bungling in spite of everything that God has done for us. Paul uses the word “repent” and repent includes the thought of needing a new mind. Repentance carries the message that we are responsible to God, and God is the only one who can give us that new mind, and heart, and soul, and life.
The thing inside us that thinks and feels and knows; the thing inside us that motivates us and that makes our choices; the thing that is us: this thing needs to be replaced and made new. This is sin at work in us and we need to be rescued from this old mess.
Paul says that we cannot know God unless we meet the man who rose from the dead, and he meant the man who died on the cross and rose from the dead. He meant Jesus.
Paul says that we cannot know God unless we know him in Jesus. We cannot live in the world as God meant it to be unless we know God in Jesus.
Paul says that we, and the whole world, must pass through the choice of Jesus. There must be a meeting between Jesus and us in which what Jesus has done has been given to us.
Paul said that God “will judge the world with justice though the man he has appointed.” (Acts 17:31) Justice doesn’t always mean punishment and condemnation. Justice also means setting things right: making things right. Justice means restoring and remaking what was injured and broken.
When we trust in the one who died for us and who rose from the dead, then we get the saving justice of God. We are made right. We are remade and become a new creation.
Working through Jesus, God makes us right with him. God makes us right with the world, and right with everyone, and even right with ourselves. This is how we know God. This is the God we must know.
Why does God insist on being known? Why is it so important?
What would you be like, if you didn’t want to know the people who have loved you? And what would you be like if you didn’t want to love the people who loved you?
A little child has an instinct for loving their parents even though they know and understand very little about them. That instinct for love is beautiful. It is tragic when that instinct is damaged or lost.
Adolescents and teenagers often struggle with the love of their parents, and they struggle with knowing and understanding their parents. We don’t always outgrow this struggle. But it is a wonderful thing to grow up and both understand and love your parents. It really is the only way to grow up whole and complete.
I will tell you that, a few years before he died, my dad apologized to me for something. He said to me, “Son, I’m sorry for the way I treated you when you were a kid.” I told him, “I think you did the best you knew how to do. I think you tried to do your best.”
I need to tell you that my dad never abused me physically. The problem was that he could be very unfriendly to me and made me feel that I couldn’t please him.
One of the things he changed, even before he made that strange apology, was that he began to tell me that he loved me. I was in my forties before I ever heard him say that. I never got used to it, but it was a good thing to hear. It was a sign of a deep change in my dad.
I am still having new experiences of understanding my dad better, even after he has passed away. Sometimes I am ashamed when I think of how I was able to misinterpret him, even when he was trying to make up with me. Sometimes I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. I never knew him well enough, and I am the poorer for that.
We need to know God. We need to know God much better. Our life comes from God. Our capacity to love and to be loved comes from God. If we are never willing to know him and love him (if we never choose to know God and love God), then we will never have truly lived. Then we will have chosen to live outside of real life.
Even if, at present, we are dealing with an unknown god, there should be a yearning to know and to love that it would be dangerous for us to ignore. What do people make of themselves when they don’t seek to know and love?
Job said, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6) That’s the shame that can push us through the door into life; the door into life with God and with the man who rose from the dead.

We have this high calling to the life that comes from knowing and loving God. The real God wants you to know that he knows you and that he loves you. You have been created by a God who has made you so that you could know and love, and so that you could enjoy being known and loved, and you will never be happy until you do it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Becoming Paradise People

Preached on Sunday, April 19, 2015

Scripture readings: Revelation 21:1-7, 9-14 & 22:1-5; Luke 23:32-43

A couple Photos Around My Yard: March 2015
There was a young pastor who had just completed seminary and he found himself officiating at his first funeral. His congregation was in a small farming town with lots of orchards, and he wanted to relate his words to his new community. As he stood by the grave, this is what he said: “What we lay to rest in this place is only the shell of the one we knew so well. We have the shell, but the nut has gone.”
Jesus said this to the criminal being crucified beside him: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NIV)
That criminal had to be surprised by what Jesus said, and even confused. He would have been surprised and confused and somehow comforted by the grace and the love that he found in Jesus’ words. He knew that he didn’t deserve anything that he heard and found in Jesus.
He could also have been surprised and confused by the words “today” and “paradise” going side by side.
The Jews commonly believed that, in the period between one’s death and the resurrection, the soul lived in a state of waiting: waiting for God to work, waiting for the resurrection to come, waiting for paradise.
The Jewish people have never come to a single idea about what happens to a person immediately after death. Christians have sometimes come to similar different conclusions: waiting or arriving, or a little bit of both.
What shocked and confused the sorry criminal was that Jesus seemed to say that they were not going to be resurrected into paradise someday in the future. There would be no waiting for the great things to begin. They were going to die their way into paradise today.
The sorry criminal who asked Jesus to remember him was surprised and confused when Jesus put the words “today” and “paradise” together, because Jesus was giving him more and better than he had asked for: more than he dared to hope for, more than he dared to believe.
I believe that this is how God works. I trust that, in Christ, God gives us more and better than we dare, more than we hope, more than we believe, and more than we ask. This is typical of the God revealed in the Bible.
The word paradise is not a common Bible word, but it is a common Bible thing. It belongs to a whole group of words that mean “garden”. Especially the word paradise meant the king’s garden. The paradise was the place where the king could simply be himself with his family and his friends. Paradises were places of peace, and friendship, and intimacy.
There was just such a garden at the beginning of the Bible. That paradise was called Eden. In the cool of the day, the Lord would walk in Eden with his children and friends, Adam and Eve.
There is also a paradise at the end of the Bible. It is called “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ.” It is the garden of the marriage between God and his people. It’s the place of peace, friendship, and intimacy. It’s the place where God is simply himself and his people are simply themselves, with no pretensions, with no illusions, and with nothing in between. It’s the place to be at home with the King. Paradise is another word for home.
Church Yard: March 2015
In the ancient world, a paradise was one of the nicest of the king’s living spaces, but it wasn’t just nice to look at. It was a fruitful garden. It had trees, and fruit, and water. It had nourishment and beauty.
Eden was designed to be home, and also a place of nourishment and beauty. It was designed to be the ideal home place of the human race, where we would share our home with God. Or was it the other way around? Didn’t Eden belong to God?
The New Jerusalem also belongs to God. It is designed to be the ideal home place of the human race: the human race reborn in Jesus. In Jesus we find ourselves in the garden of nourishment and beauty. In Christ we belong to the home place of forgiveness and grace. We belong to the home place of healing and the wiping away of tears, the place where death stops and life is received.
Paul talks about our being at home in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, in the fifth chapter. It starts out this way: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (5:1) And then he says, beginning in verse six: “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (5:6-9)
Photos Taken around White Bluffs, Columbia River
March 2015
Now home may be the place where we sleep but, much more than that, home is the place where we live; where we are truly and fully ourselves and alive. Paul uses the idea of being at home in the body to describe being physically alive in this world. When our bodies are healthy and well we are at home in them, and we are truly and fully ourselves in our bodies.
And then Paul says that we can be away from our bodies and at home with the Lord. This means that, when we are not alive physically in this world, we are living with God. We are at home, and truly and fully ourselves.
To be at home in the body is a fruitful and beautiful place to be. To be at home with the Lord, away from the body, is also a fruitful and beautiful place to be. It is like paradise.
The Book of Revelation shows paradise coming from heaven to earth, at a future time when the judgment of God has come, and the living and the dead are brought together in the resurrection, and heaven and earth are made new. Paradise is described as a city, and it is described as a garden, and it is described as the Bride of Christ, the Bride of the Lamb.
In the Old Testament, God’s people, in the form of Israel, were described as the Lord’s bride. (Isaiah 54:5-7 and Hosea 2:19) In the New Testament, God’s people, in the form of the church, are described as the Lord’s bride. (Matthew 22:2-14 and Ephesians 5:32)
So, in some way, paradise is not a place. Paradise it is a network of people who are enjoying the presence of God together, and enjoying each other as the children of God.
We are talking about things beyond our understanding; but if God is beyond our understanding, and if he loves us, and wants to share himself with us, then God will have to take us to a place, or an experience, beyond our understanding.
I mean who can understand “streets of gold as clear as crystal”? And how could we ever really want such a thing?
Our ability to understand the joys of heaven is like the ability of a four-year-old child to understand the joy and glory of a honeymoon. A four-year-old went to a cousin’s wedding and, at the reception, he heard all the talk and the jokes about the honeymoon, and he was confused by what he heard. He wondered what it was all about. So he asked his Dad.
His Dad carefully did his best. He said, “Son, when you grow up, if you get married, your honeymoon will be one of the happiest times of your life.” “Will I be able to take my toy dinosaurs along?” “Uh…no…you probably won’t take your dinosaurs on your honeymoon. But you’ll still have a great time.” “Then can my friend Jeffery come with me on my honeymoon?” “No, Jeffery won’t come.” “Then I don’t know if I want to go on a honeymoon, Daddy. It doesn’t sound like much fun to me.” (“1001 More Humorous Illustrations”, Michael Hodgin, #566)
To say that paradise, in heaven and in the resurrection, is the best of all homes is comforting because it enables us to imagine heaven as being full of comfortable things; but gold, and jewels, and blazing light, and thrones, and crowns are not comfortable things at all. It’s just the opposite!
It doesn’t mean that heaven is full of metal, and gems, and uncomfortable chairs and hats. It means that paradise is full of glory. We can use the most priceless things in the world to describe glory, but that doesn’t mean that those priceless things are the glory.
Remember that paradise is us in the presence of God. Paradise is a relationship. Paradise is a network of people and God. It is the gathering of all God’s people who have ever lived or ever will live. In Revelation, John tells us that we will shine with the glory of God.
Imagine glory being the clothing of God. Think of what it’s like for a little girl to dress in her mother’s dress, or for a boy to wear his dad’s boots: to be dressed in their parent’s glory. They shine with their parents’ glory.
Or think of a small child singing in a Christmas program, or riding a two-wheeler for the first time, with their mom and dad watching. They are shining. They are all in their glory, but there is nothing egotistical, or proud, or unnatural about that glory. They are full of glory because their parents are full of pleasure in them. It is priceless. It is all gold, and jewels, and thrones, and crowns, and so much more.
That is glory. That is what the gold, and the jewels, and the thrones, and the crowns are about.
A lot of our life, in the present, is about the process of learning. We learn what our limits are. We learn what we can do and cannot do. Or (as we get older) we learn what we can’t do anymore. Life is a lot about learning to avoid what doesn’t give other people pleasure, but paradise is different.
A toddler walks because someone who loves them is holding out arms of love and strength to them, and beaming with pride and joy. Glory, for us, will be a life of what we can do because we see the pleasure that God takes in us and in what we do, because we see him there reaching out to us. That is glory.
There are walls around the paradise at the end of the Bible. I really don’t like walls except as places to put bookshelves. Otherwise, walls are not comfortable except as shelter. In paradise we won’t need shelter.
Then there is privacy. Walls are comfortable because they give us privacy but, in so many ways, we need privacy because we need to shut other people out. Walls keep others from seeing and knowing too much. We have reasons for wanting to do this. Maybe in paradise we will be so changed that there will be no reason for us to shut other people out.
Sometimes I have thought that the walls around paradise, in the Book of Revelation were about safety, but the gates of the city are always open, so safety is not the issue. We will be completely safe, beyond our comprehension. The glory of paradise is that there will be no more fear. There will be nothing to fear.
The enemies outside the walls are not to be feared any more. The enemies at the end of the Book of Revelation will not come in the open gates, no matter how wide open they are, no matter how long they are open. And so the enemies must not want to come in. But for us the walls are about coming in.
For us, a lot of life is about going out, letting go, leaving behind. But paradise is about coming in. It’s about people and pleasures coming together instead of pulling apart. Paradise is about hellos and not goodbyes. Paradise is that kind of good home place.
The sorry criminal on the right side of Jesus looked his own life in the face. He saw himself from the point of view of his own cross.
He firmly believed that he deserved to die there. He was getting what he deserved. That is what he said. It was right and fitting: a horrible thought.
Then he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He didn’t mean, “Think about me once in a while.” The word “remember,” in the Bible means to take action about something. To remember the Sabbath meant to make the Sabbath happen. For us it means to make a day of rest and worship happen. The thief was saying, “Act upon me. Deal with me. Take up my case.”
The criminal knew that his own cross was his proper fate. His life had been the sort of life that deserved that sort of death. He saw himself as he was. There was nothing he could do about it.
Then he looked at Jesus, and Jesus seemed like a king to him, even dying there on the cross. He saw glory.
Maybe Jesus would look at him and see that something else was right for him; and Jesus could do something about it. After all, didn’t he just hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing?”
Where evil, and sin, and suffering, and punishment, and death seemed the strongest, the sorry soul heard the message of forgiveness. He put his trust in Jesus because of that forgiveness. He also put his trust in Jesus because something told him that Jesus had the power to do something about his life and deal with it, even while he died on the cross.
Sunset, Desert Aire-Mattawa, WA: March 2015
Forgiveness begins for us at the cross. Heaven also begins for us at the cross. In that way, we can say that forgiveness and heaven have begun, for us, today. They have begun for us now, on the cross.
Jesus said as much. Jesus looked at the thief and Jesus saw that paradise, today, was the right place for that sorry soul. Here, beside him, was a person who would thrive on grace. Here was someone who would love to come in and come home, at last and forever, and hear Jesus say, “Well done! I am pleased with you.”

That is glory. That is paradise. That is what we find in Jesus.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A New Kingdom - The Spreading of Jesus

Preached on Sunday, April 12, 2015 

Scripture readings: Psalm 47:1-9; Matthew 28:16-20

If you were in charge of everything, everywhere, and had the power to do whatever you like with it, what would you do?
Saddle Mountains, Hanford Reach: February 2015
Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:18-19) This means that Jesus is in charge of everything, everywhere, and that he has the power to do whatever he likes with it: and what he likes is sending you and me into his world.
This didn’t make any more sense two thousand years ago than it does now. There was too much wrong with the world. It needed setting right. What needed setting right was that, as it stood, might made right. There was no justice for the weak. The world placed no value on humility, or kindness, or gentleness. There was no compassion for those in need. The Romans ruled their world and laughed at the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Jesus.
The world was full of conquered peoples and Roman crosses. The disciples were hated and threatened by the rulers of their own people. They were completely outnumbered, and they had no refuge and no allies.
The world was against them and the world was too big for them. Naturally, since all power in heaven and earth was in his hands, Jesus decided to overcome this world by sending his outnumbered and overwhelmed people (including us) into it, and spreading us through it. In the world according to Jesus, that was the change the world needed.
That’s where we come in. That’s what we’re here for.
In the Gospel of John Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) It was true the moment he said it. Jesus overcame the world by dying on the cross for the sins of the world, and by rising from the dead. Jesus overcame the world by defeating the power of sin and death. Jesus has not finished overcoming the world, but that was the beginning of it.
It is by going into the world that we show how Jesus has overcome it, and that he has all power in heaven and on earth to do what he likes.
Jesus was being very clear about this. He can’t mean anything else. Think about this and it will also become clear how the disciples thought about it. It will become clear why, when they saw Jesus in Galilee, some of them worshiped him and others doubted him.
Jesus said, “Make disciples of all nations.” In our own small way, we are focused on all nations. In our own small way we help support a mission to one of the most dangerous parts of the world for Christians and for sharing the gospel. We support missionaries who serve in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
Long ago I felt that God was calling me to be a missionary as well as a pastor. I thought about going to Thailand or to Latin America. I never made it. I had a rocky enough road merely to be ordained to the ministry, and none of my early inquiries into the mission field panned out.
When I was ordained it was when I felt called by God to a small town on the south coast of Oregon. It was lumber town, a rough town, truly a lawless town. All the people in our congregation knew this. It was unlike any place I had ever lived.
One day I confessed to an elder of the church that I felt I had failed by not being a missionary. The elder looked me in the eye and said, “Dennis, you are a missionary.” The truth is that I was a missionary, and I am a missionary, and so are you.
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” I could have made disciples of all nations by simply staying in my home town and taking it seriously. My home town had Hispanics, Portuguese, Filipinos, Japanese, and East Indians (including plenty of Hindus and Sikhs, and one or two Muslim families). My home town had Okies and Arkies too, and I used to be able to speak their language.
The disciples were born and raised in the land called “Galilee of the Gentiles”. “of the Gentiles” means “of the nations”. That means that Galilee was like my home town. In the case of Galilee, it was “of the nations” because it was full of Jews, and Syrians, and Greeks, and Romans, and many other groups.
We know that we live Grant County of the Nations. There are many nations around us here. And so we find we live in a place that fits exactly with what Jesus had in mind. How could any disciple possibly complain about this?
There are other kinds of nations as well. There are people who work for the government and there are people who pay taxes to pay the salaries of those who work for the government (of course the people who work for the government pay the same taxes). There are farmers, and engineers, and teachers, and school staff. There are golfers, and fishers, and boaters, and swimmers. There are the retired people, and the not retired, and the half-tired people. There are the well-to-do and the not-so-to-do. There are young and old. We can make disciples of all nations because the nations have come to us.
Think about the opportunities. Think about how much you have in common with the first disciples: that small group that looked at a world full of people who seemed so unapproachable and so different from them. Like them, you have the chance to become something new that you have never been before: something that Jesus wants you to be.
Have you ever found, as I have, that being who you are makes it very hard to be, whole-heartedly, what Jesus wants you to be? This is hard for us, even when we think that our identity as disciples of Jesus is precious to us.
The disciples thought of themselves as being disciples. But they also had a heritage in the form of an identity. They represented an ancient cause and an exceptional nation. They were very proud of who they were and what they stood for.
Jesus was calling them to cross over the line of their own identity because there was no other way to help other people cross over the line of their own identities. To belong to Jesus calls us to belong to a whole new world, and to a whole new purpose and way of life.
This did not come easily. Jesus called them (and he calls us) to be thankful people, and that means valuing what he has given us and what he has made us to be in the past. But Jesus also called them (just as he also calls us) to be willing to become something completely unfamiliar.
We are called to become something that we have never been before. You know that life itself requires this of us. Sometimes becoming what you have never been before has been wonderful.
Other times life may seem to call us to become something less than what we were before. That scares us.
Jesus always calls us to be something different in the sense of becoming something more than what we were before. This also scares us. This is part of following Jesus. It has always been this way.
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is a traditional English pattern for translating this verse, but that means that the English language has changed somehow. It would be better, in modern English speaking and thinking, to say, “Go and disciple all nations.”
Disciple can be used as a noun. Here it is used as a verb. Here disciple is not an identity we put on. It’s a process we go through. Disciple, as a verb, is an evolving relationship. It’s a teaching and learning relationship. It’s a connection with others, but most of all it’s a connection with Jesus.
A pastor told a story about a member of his congregation who always tried to have a constructive attitude toward what was going on in his life. But he also wanted to be honest. When this member was asked how he was doing, he wouldn’t say that he was doing fine, unless he was really doing fine and felt good about it.
When things were difficult, this member learned to answer like this. If you asked him, “How are you doing?” he would answer, “I’m learning and growing.” I’m learning and growing.
This is the answer of any true disciple. We are always learning and growing. To disciple other people means introducing them to a life full of learning and growing. In particular it means learning and growing to be like Jesus.
Jesus related to others by the thousands. He served others by the thousands. He healed and fed others by the thousands. Jesus discipled twelve men.
There were other disciples beside the twelve. Jesus had friends. They were disciples as well, and they learned from him. He loved them and they loved him back. But Jesus concentrated most of his time on the twelve.
How did Jesus disciple his twelve? He said, “Come with me.” He fished with them. He ate with them. He boated with them. He walked with them. He sat in their houses. He sat on hillsides with them. He grilled meals with them on the beach. He talked about farming and gardening with them. He talked with them about food, and wine, and birds, and flowers, and families, and marriages. We can all do that.
Gerald Sittser writes, “Christians bartered in the same markets, drew water from the same wells….The church thus attracted outsiders through natural networks.” (In “Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyr to Modern Missionaries” Intervarsity Press, p. 57) Bob Moll writes, “The Christians’ message was received in these private settings where people offered one-on-one friendship, care, and support.” (“What Your Body Knows about God”; Intervarsity Press, p. 75)
Discipling is about learning. Matthew thought enough about what Jesus said about “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” to have put together whole chapters of the teachings of Jesus in his gospel. There are five long collections of what Jesus taught that can be found in the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount is one of these.
Being a disciple is about being a learner. It is also related to the idea of discipline. There is the idea of practice and mastery of what we learn. There is also the idea of a frame of mind and an inner life that changes along with what you are learning.
In the discipline of geology you learn to look at the countryside you drive through and you can often read the story of how that land was formed. In the discipline of Jesus, you look at the world, and the people around you, and you can often read the story of how Jesus loves them and the purpose that Jesus may have for them.
The learning of a disciple and the changing life of a disciple is not a matter of learning facts or being consumed by the facts. Jesus said, “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher and the servant like his master.” (Matthew 10:25) Being a disciple is not about knowledge, it is about relationship. For the Christian, being a disciple means being like Jesus, and it means looking for ways to make others into disciples of Jesus.
When we disciple others, the aim is not to make them like us. It is not about making them listen to the music we like, or using the jargon we use, or enjoying going off on our favorite holy tangents. We better not want other disciples to aim at being like us, because we should know that we are not enough like Jesus yet.
Being a disciple means being like Jesus; not too much like us. Being a disciple means being merciful and forgiving. It means being brave, and thankful, and taking joy in what is worthy of joy. It means being patient. It means putting others first. Being a disciple means not making life to be all about a list of information and rules on a checklist, but about the heart. Being a disciple is not about building walls but opening doors.
Jesus had shown authority before: the authority to forgive sins, the authority to heal and to cast out devils, the authority to teach the will of God in a new way. At the end of Matthew, something new had happened in order for Jesus to say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Jesus had died for the sins of the world on the cross, and he had risen from the dead. Jesus was the conqueror of sin and death. I believe that is the special authority with which Jesus sent his disciples out.
Dying to sin and rising from death are the form of authority that he entrusts to us. We have our own crosses to carry. We have to die to ourselves. We have to rise with Jesus above the deadly and destructive things that come out in us. When we have a disciple-making relationship with others, our authority is seen, at its best, when others can see the greatest things of Jesus at work in us. Others have to see us die to ourselves and rise above ourselves through the love, and the grace, and the power of Jesus.
Being a disciple is about relationships, and that is why we cannot be disciples on our own. That is also why Jesus never called people to follow him in solitary lives.
Being a disciple is about relationships and so there is the discipline of fellowship. There is the discipline of commitment between Christians.
There is a holy discipline in the family, where you are bound by holy promises and by relationships that cannot be taken lightly. It’s like the discipline of parent and child. These relationships define who you are, and you can never live as if they were not a part of you.
As Christians we can never live as if the brothers and sisters we have in Christ are not a part of us. They are always part of us, and we will be side by side with them in heaven. Such relationships are mostly beyond the imagination and the motivation of this world.
The family and the church are fertile fields for crosses and empty tombs. Holy relationships require lots of dying to ourselves and rising from the dead. This is how we receive the authority to disciple others. This is how we love Jesus, and his world, and the people around us.
There is power in this. It is never a power in the sense of strength. It is power in weakness. It is the power to be vulnerable. This is hard to learn.
This authority, when it is real, has no room for pride, because it’s usually born from humiliation or desperation. It is also born from a love that will not be stopped. This authority for making disciples has its roots in the authority that Jesus won by his dying and rising.

It is part of the reason why we can trust the promise of Jesus to be with us always. We can go and make disciples who are not like us, but like Jesus, because we are people who are never alone. In all of the dyings and risings of life, Jesus is God with us.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A New Kingdom - Living the Miracle

Preached on Resurrection Sunday, Easter, April 5, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 118; Matthew 28:1-10

The resurrection of Jesus is a miracle. If you have met the risen and living Jesus, and if Jesus has greeted you and claimed you, that means your life is based upon a miracle.
March Flowers in Yard and Field
Desert Aire-Mattawa: 2015
It is the miracle that has defeated sin and evil. It is the miracle that has defeated death. Your life is based on a miracle that made the earth shake twice: once with its epicenter at the cross, the other with its epicenter at the empty tomb.
Jesus made the earth shake. Jesus didn’t need his angel to roll back the stone door of the tomb to let him out. The angel rolled back the stone to show the disciples what the Lord had done.
What Jesus did not do was to pass on into a spiritual, heavenly world. The spiritual, heavenly world is part of what Jesus is up to. Heaven is the throne. Heaven is headquarters, for now. What Jesus passed on to was a state being alive and being on the loose in our world.
The disciples held Jesus’ feet. It’s important to notice that Jesus still has feet that you can hold in your hands; although that is unlikely to happen very soon. Jesus is alive and walking.
In the Book of Revelation, the one who sits on the throne says, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) God came in Jesus for the purpose of making make all things new. Jesus makes all things a new kind of new. He makes all things especially alive and transformed.
The cross and the resurrection are the beginning of a new world in which there will be no sin or evil, and there will be no death.
We should say, here, that the word “sin” is a Bible word. The main New Testament word for sin is a Greek archery word. It means missing the mark. It means over shooting and undershooting and shooting off to one side or the other.
The first humans, at the start, missed the mark of what they were created for. They went behind God’s back in order to make themselves into something they weren’t created to be in the first place. Humans were created to live by faith in God, in harmony with God: wanting the same thing as God, working for the same thing as God.
In order to do that, we were not created for independence. We were created to be free agents only in the sense of being faithful, trusting, loving agents and partners with God. Because we tried to make ourselves into independent agents, in charge of our own agenda, we’ve never been able to be what we were created to be. It’s part of our spiritual genetics.
As satisfying as so many things in life can be, there is so much we don’t get right. At least life is like eating a bowl of wonderful soup and finding part of a great, big, dead fly floating in it, and this makes us wonder what happened to the other part of the fly.
Martin Luther said that sin made us like a drunken man riding a horse. The drunken man falls off on the right side of the horse. Then he gets back on the horse determined not to do that again. And so, next time, he falls off on the left side of the horse.
A single life where this happens simply creates hurt, and injury, and grief. Our prejudice in our own favor disqualifies us from measuring the amount and the seriousness of that hurt. It’s no good making the excuse that at least you haven’t caused as much harm as certain other people.
My first church was on the Oregon coast. There were always a lot of hitchhikers.
One day I picked up a couple of guys in their twenties. While I was driving with them, I shared a little bit about Jesus as our savior. I shared that we all needed something that only God could do to change our hearts and take away the sin that separates us from God and from each other.
They insisted that they were not sinners. At least they insisted that they weren’t bad people.
Their example for this was that they had never done anything really bad. They had never killed anyone, for example. I thought this was an interesting thing for them to say; especially because they were hitchhikers riding with me in my car. 
What matters is that we cause things that cannot be cured. At our best, we can apologize. We can try to make restitution. But we can’t undo the harm.  We can’t turn back the clock. We can only hope for forgiveness, and grace, and a new, stronger love.
But not everyone wants grace. Some people love anger, and revenge, and destruction. Some people love getting what they want even at the expense of the happiness of others. Some people find their happiness by ignoring what is going on and pretending it doesn’t exist. Each one of us has a share of these motives working in us.
We tell ourselves that this is not really us. At least it’s not us at our best. But it’s not normal for us to be at our best.
We see these forces at work in other people’s families. We see these forces at work in our own families. We see it in the world. Sin is what makes the world into the beautiful and beloved horror that the news makes it out to be. The truth is that we all play a part of this world as it is.
God’s response to all of this, God’s response to us, and to our human race, and to our world, is the cross and the resurrection. The cross and the resurrection are a double miracle, in which God deals with sin and death, and makes all things new.
The cross and the resurrection have to go together. They are like two sides of the same coin.
The cross is about the forgiveness of sins. In the Old Testament, there were animals sacrificed on an altar. Their blood was shed as a symbol of their life being poured out in the place of the person for whom the sacrifice was being made. It recognized the costliness of the harm done by sin. It recognized that something must happen. Something must be done.
It recognized that sin, at its core, was costly and deadly. Since human sin goes on and on, so the sacrifices for sin, in the Old Testament law, had to be repeated over, and over, and over again.
The cross is about God himself becoming human in Jesus and paying the costly price for the deadliness of the sins of the world and the deadlines of the sins of each one of us. Because God is infinite, and eternal, and without sin, he is qualified to offer himself as a sacrifice that is capable of creating a source of forgiveness that is infinite, and eternal, and perfect.
The resurrection is the victory of God. It is the power of God that overcomes sin and death. If there was no resurrection there would be forgiveness without power. There would be forgiveness without change. There would be forgiveness without victory or a new life.
There are people whom we forgive again, and again, and again, and again. It seems we are being asked to give to some people an infinite and eternal forgiveness.
But that is hard for us, because we are not God. Our forgiveness doesn’t have the power to change other people’s lives, unless that power comes through us from God who died on the cross, in Christ, for the sins of the world.
The cross without the resurrection has no power except the power of sympathy or empathy. Sympathy means feeling for the pain of others. Empathy means feeling with the pain of others. Sympathy and empathy have the power to influence others, but not to heal them or change them. Sympathy and empathy are a lot like grief.
As I have gotten older, I have learned a little bit about grief. I find that there is a sort of fellowship of grievers. There is a brotherhood and sisterhood of grievers. They possess a powerful gift for giving comfort to those who are living through times of great grief. Their power comes very much from the gift of remembering their own grief. Another part of their power to comfort comes from knowing that they don’t have the power to take away the grief of another person.
But people who know the risen and living Jesus have something extra. They know someone who has defeated and conquered sin and death. Jesus makes himself known as someone who is more than a spirit or a ghost. Jesus is stronger than the griefs and losses of this world, and he rose from the dead as a promise to undo what grieves us.
This Jesus is able to give his comfort to the brotherhood and sisterhood of grievers. Grief is still hard and long, but there is something stronger because the victorious Jesus is there.
You find the victorious Jesus when the cross and the resurrection come together. This is what the disciples found. The angel put the two together. “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28:5-6)
The disciples came to the tomb of Jesus as grievers. They left the tomb as people of the resurrection. There is a huge difference.
Putting the cross and the resurrection together gives us a power that we need every day, and it doesn’t go away. Paul the Apostle wrote this. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
The one who sits on the throne (and Jesus sits on that throne) says: “Behold I make all things new.” Jesus starts this with you and me. But it’s not just for you and me. For one thing, it started long ago. We are only the latest link in God’s preparation for a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21:1) But, more than that, this new creation is for our neighbors. It’s for our world.
It’s hard for us to grasp the meaning of sin and death in our world, or even in our lives. It may be even harder for our neighbors and for the world to understand. But your neighbors and this world we live in have you to help them. How do the forgiveness and the victory of God work in you?
Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid. Go, and tell.” (Matthew 28:10) He sent his resurrection friends to Galilee. That means that he sent them home, to begin at home: to see him and meet with him at home. Then he would teach them how to look beyond home.
We know what’s coming. At least the Gospel of Matthew knows what’s coming. The truth is that we are called to a mission. We are sent on a mission: to make disciples.
Disciples are learners. Disciples are classmates in the school of Jesus. We are learning and following together. Being classmates is a partnership.
Built into the system of being classmates is the fact that you don’t choose your classmates. Our lives are usually shaped by associations we don’t choose, or by associations we choose without knowing what they will turn into. Jesus always chose who would be put together and they didn’t always like it.
The great point is that Matthew knows what Jesus is going to do with his disciples. He is going to require them to see him, and meet with him, and get his strategy.
We are called to live in the miracle of the cross and the resurrection. We are called to meet the Jesus who will deal with our need for forgiveness and our need for the strength that comes from his presence that never leaves us.

We are called to find the strategy of Jesus for us in this world. Jesus has a strategy for how you are to go into the world for him, for how you are to be a neighbor for him. Following Jesus is a matter of what he will give you, but it is much more a matter of what you will give to others because Jesus is with you to the end of the world. That comes along with living in the miracle.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A New Kingdom - A Fundamental Happiness

Preached on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 22:1, 16-31; Matthew 21:1-17

One of the silvery haired couples who came to worship every Sunday was famous for sitting together, holding hands in church. Another church person came up to them and told the wife how wonderful it was that they were still so much in love that they never let go of each other’s hand. The wife answered: “Love has nothing to do with it. I hold Henry’s hand to keep him from cracking his knuckles.”
Cherry Orchard, Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: March 2015
It looked like such a strong show of affection, that day when the crowds welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. It’s hard to know what to think about it.
If we didn’t know what was going to happen next, we’d probably think that this was the happiest and most exciting stage in Jesus’ ministry. Knowing the end of the story, we realize that the most joyful things were yet to come, but also that the most horrible things were to come first.
We know that this is what is called “Palm Sunday” and that by this Friday all the cheering and singing was going to change. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” was going to change to, “Crucify him! Kill him! Die, Jesus, die!”
We can take the lesson of fickleness to heart. We are more fickle than we know.
None of the people who welcomed Jesus with such joy really knew what his coming to the city was about. They welcomed a prophet. They welcomed a king who would through out the Romans.
They got something much more than they expected, and also much different. Maybe some of them decided that they didn’t like it and maybe they turned on Jesus.
Some of the people didn’t know who Jesus was at all. They had to listen to the words of the songs. They had to question the people around them. Who could tell how they would make up their minds?
Young Apple Orchard on Trellises, Desert Aire/Mattawa
March 2015
The disciples themselves barely grasped who Jesus was and what had come to do. But they would cheer whatever he did. And there were crowds of disciples besides the famous twelve. There were surely thousands there who loved Jesus and put their hopes on him.
There were also great crowds of people who thought they knew who Jesus was and what he represented, and they feared and hated him for it. We don’t see them much in the Palm Sunday crowd, except that we see them in the Temple.
To them, Jesus was dangerous: dangerous to Israel’s peace with the Romans, dangerous to God’s law as defined by the rabbis, dangerous to the Temple-based economy of Jerusalem. They feared Jesus because the taught the people about the duty to forgive, and to make peace, and to love one’s enemy, and to consider the whole world your neighbor. They hated Jesus because he claimed to have the authority over the Temple. They hated Jesus because he claimed to have the authority to teach these things because he was one with God.
When Jesus stood up for the children who sang his praises; he quoted from a verse in Psalm Eight which says, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.” This psalm is about little ones praising God. In claiming the Psalm, Jesus claimed that this praise was for him.
Yes, Jesus was clearly dangerous. The ones who hated and feared Jesus were the heart and core of the crowd that shouted “Crucify him!”
Do you think it seems strange to say that Jesus must have smiled during this parade? Of course he did stop to weep. The gospels tell us that he did this once, not for himself but for the city that welcomed him. You can find that in the Gospel of Luke. (Luke 19:41-44)
Surely the people in the parade sound happy. They wouldn’t have sounded like that if Jesus had done much weeping. Children wouldn’t have sung to Jesus if he was weeping, or angry.
When he knocked over the tables at the currency exchange and the cages and pens of sacrificial animals and yelled at the people who ran them, I tell you he must have done it with a joyful anger if it was followed by children singing. Children don’t play in the yards of weeping people or angry people. The children knew that the rulers of the Temple were mad at them for singing, and they knew that Jesus enjoyed what they were doing, and (to their mind) the approval of Jesus was what mattered most.
The Bible never says that Jesus smiled, but he did tell funny stories (like the one about the farmer who let weeds grow up in his fields in order to protect the harvest, which you never do, if you know what you’re doing), and so Jesus must have known how to smile. Children were not afraid of him, and so he must have known how to smile.
Jesus knew about the cross and about his coming death. He had tried to warn his friends but he found them too afraid to listen to him. Jesus knew about the secret crowd that was frowning down on his parade from their widows and doorways.
Jesus knew that the joy that surrounded him and the fanfare that he was deliberately encouraging would provoke the angry crowd to action. The happy crowd, without realizing it, were welcoming Jesus to his funeral.
It must have been hard for Jesus to avoid thinking about this. But the only sign of distress on Jesus’ part was that sudden burst of tears that Luke tells us about: tears for the people and not for himself.
When Jesus stood up for the children, he was defending their capacity to enjoy, and celebrate, and praise. They were happy and Jesus wanted to enjoy their happiness no matter what was going to happen next. He didn’t want them to stop.
This is what the king was like who came to town on a donkey’s back, with singing and not with a rattle of swords, and not with the heavy, solemn choir music of the Temple. Jesus had serious business coming up, and yet he was still capable of joy. He was committed to keeping a merry heart.
As his cross drew nearer, the natural human feelings that Jesus came to earth to share with us show themselves. Anger and anguish come out; but they don’t take him over. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was so tormented that he sweated blood (Luke 22:44); but, when the troops came to arrest him, he talked them into leaving his friends alone. (John 18:8) Anger and anguish never took over Jesus.
I picture Jesus entering Jerusalem smiling and laughing and, when the people blessed him, he blessed them right back.
The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews says a mysterious thing about the joy of Jesus. In the twelfth chapter of Hebrews the author described “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.” And the reason for this was so that we “will not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)
Even the Twenty Second Psalm (that begins with the words that predict the agony and the torment of the cross) turns into joy. “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.” (Psalm 22:22) The agony did not take over the joy.
Jesus, on the cross, shouldered our sins and the sins of the world. Jesus absorbed into himself the experience of all human pain, guilt, injustice, and despair. Yet, even there, he had some awareness of the great peace and joy that lay just ahead of him. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said this to the man on the cross beside him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
My King Jesus is a Captain Courageous. He sees all the highs and lows in perspective. Jesus can tell us to live by faith because he knows how to live by faith. He has felt the deepest fear, but he has never been conquered by it. Jesus is really unquenchable. Nothing fazes Jesus.
Knowing this is good for us. When I was a teenager, I seemed to be, more and more, on my way to being a misfit and an outcast. I would pray about this in the dark after I went to bed, and pour my heart out to God. In the end I would run out of words and be completely exhausted. And Jesus was there.
In these experiences of mine, over and over again, there was simply Jesus and silence. But (within the silence) there was this steadiness of Jesus, and there was the presence of this joy of Jesus that nothing fazed. Nothing could overcome it, and this joy didn’t need to use words to tell me that I belonged to this joy. This joy was my friend, whether I felt it or not.
The crowd didn’t know what was ahead of Jesus and they didn’t understand him at all. But I think they understood this: his terrific fearlessness and joy.
The people in the crowd knew that the Roman soldiers posted at the gates and along the road were watching them. Guards sent from the temple could be seen watching them. And surely they knew there were traitors and spies watching them. It was at least mildly risky for the people in the crowd to be there. But the fearlessness and joy of Jesus rubbed off on them. They made the most of their celebrating.
Jesus does this. Jesus makes this possible. The world is dangerous and uncertain. We have got responsibilities and worries to deal with. We have got our own crosses to bear, and we know that some crosses kill in the end.
Road Going Down to Desert Aire: March 2015
But we can welcome Jesus in; who is the king of courage and joy. He can inspire us to live unconquered lives where we can still smile and laugh and praise because he is part of us. I have seen this happen many times.
When we turn to Jesus and let him get through to us, he will enable us to do more than merely exist. He will also enable us to help those around us to live with more peace and confidence, because of our king who faced the cross bravely for us and rules above it all in heaven in joy.
But, even though he seems above it all, he really isn’t, when it comes to us, his children. His cross is not only grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. His cross is also courage, strength, and happiness. His cross is joy.

This is where our salvation comes from. This is just a small part of the new life that Jesus, and his cross, and his resurrection make possible.