Monday, November 30, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Fruitfulness

Preached on November 29, 2015, First Sunday in Advent

Scripture reading: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 1:5-25

My parents were married in 1951, on the 17th day of February. I was born in 1951, on the 24th day of November. That means I was born nine months and seven days after my parents’ wedding day (forty-one weeks). And I seem to remember, once, a long, long time ago, someone saying to my mom, “You were a fertile myrtle.”
Photos Taken at Desert Aire WA: November 2015
I was their first fruit. And, as their first fruit, the timing of my arrival was as quick, and as precise, and as respectable as anyone could wish.
I gave this sermon the title “fruitfulness” because I was afraid to call it a fertility sermon. And then I know so little about either one.
Fruitfulness and fertility can be a painful and embarrassing subject, whether we are talking about Sarah and Elizabeth, or Abraham and Zechariah, women or men. The opposite of being fruitful and fertile is to be barren.
Some of the most important stories in the Bible are about barrenness, and fertility, and fruitfulness. The stories tell us of babies promised and delayed to the point of impossibility. The stories tell us of babies in danger. God himself came to earth as a special kind of impossible baby who was nearly killed by the soldiers of the king.
The truth is that this goes far beyond the subject of motherhood and fatherhood. Human beings have, in their heart, the desire and longing to be fruitful. We think about being productive, of having something to give, of making a difference.
The Bible is full of the thought of every kind of fruitfulness. One of my old favorite verses in the Bible comes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” This fruitfulness is not about babies.
Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit; fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) This has nothing to do with babies, either.
The desire to be fruitful seems to be a part of our simply being God’s creatures: be fruitful and multiply. (Genesis 1:28) But God has a purpose and plan for all his creatures and (as human beings) we give thought and prayer to God’s purpose for us. For Abraham and Sarah a child was not only part of their desire for parenthood. The baby was also part of God’s promise for something much bigger. Remember God said to Abraham: “I will bless you so you shall be a blessing...By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” (Genesis 12) Fruitfulness is about blessing: making life full and happy. Sarah’s baby was all about the fullness and happiness of the world.
The Bible is the story about God’s love and it is also about our inclusion in God’s love. In that story, there are very important promises about babies. But it is not so much that the promises are about babies. The real point is that the babies are about promises. The promises are about God’s love for the world, God’s love for people, and God’s love for us.
The sin that spoiled the world was the desire of our first father and mother (Adam and Eve) to be free from love. They didn’t want to escape from love, but they also didn’t want to be dependant on God’s love.
They didn’t want to be dependant on God’s love alone. They wanted something more to fall back on.
They wanted to know everything for themselves. They wanted to know about good and evil, which was another way of wanting to know what was good for them and what was bad for them. They wanted to judge their options for themselves. They wanted to be qualified to make their own choices, to prove themselves, and to be in charge of their own fruitfulness. They would have the power to decide what their fruitfulness would be, and how to achieve it.
Because they didn’t want to be tied to the love of God they took actions that carried them outside of the story of God’s love. They didn’t lose God’s love. God still loved them. They were like intelligent plants that uprooted themselves from the soil of God’s love. They were like children who ran away from home.
The scars of their uprooting and the scars of their running away became our spiritual genetics. It was the loving gift of God to our first father and mother to give them this awesome responsibility: to decide what we, their children, would be in their footsteps.
Every parent has some responsibility in that direction, but no parent since the Garden of Eden has had such great power to channel the nature of all their children down to this day. God loves us infinitely, but our inherited instinct is either to run from love, or resist it, or control it, or make our own substitutes for it.
Until we have a new life in Jesus, until we die and rise with the one who died and rose for us, we are part of the old human race that doesn’t know how to be at home in the story of love. We need to be born into a new life with the God who became a baby for us in Jesus. In Jesus God has recreated a new human race that can bear the fruit of love.
Instead, we run. We resist. We control. We make our own substitutes. We bear fruit but we are not fruitful. We are like the root stock rose bush growing in my back yard. It was full of leaves and full of luxuriant growth, and it only bore one rose last summer.
The story of God’s love in the Bible shows us that, in the world as it is, and in us when we have at least one foot firmly planted in this world, fruitfulness is a miracle. Fruitfulness is really not our thing. Fruitfulness is God’s thing.
God promised Elizabeth and Zechariah a baby who would be named John, and who would be called John the Baptist (meaning that he would baptize people). This baby would grow up to be part of the story of restoring God’s love to the world and making a new and fruitful world through the kingdom of Jesus.
The message was, “He will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous: to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17) John would grow up to play his part in the love of God. That love, in Jesus, would restore relationships, and enable people to live with wisdom, and to be ready to be taken into God’s story of love.
What makes a person fruitful? I remember a man who was very successful in industrial construction. He had over a hundred employees. He turned the business over to his sons and they led the business into bankruptcy. (Well there was a recession going on.) This man and his wife were lucky to have saved their own home from being lost to the banks.
This man and his wife were wonderful Christian people. They were gracious people. They were loved by their family, and by their community, and by their church.
They were smart and talented, and I will remember their intelligence and talent. But I will also remember their faith and their love. They were my friends. The fruit, for me, was that I belonged to them and they belonged to me. I was with them and they ere with me through some difficult times, but the fruit wasn’t exactly to be found there. The fruit even a matter of owing anything to each other for the sake of our friendship and love. The fruit was simply a matter of love.
In the Bible, fruitfulness is not a matter of achievement, at all. Fruitfulness is not a matter of productivity. Abraham and Sarah developed great wealth even though they were nomads. Zechariah and Elizabeth had an important role in their society. Their fruitfulness was not in that wealth or in their role. Abraham and Sarah had an impossible baby. Elizabeth and Zechariah had an impossible baby. Neither baby was an achievement or a possession. Both babies were miracles.
If you read more of the stories of these people you will see that both Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s promises. Abraham laughed in an earlier chapter of Genesis. Zechariah doubted and questioned God’s promises and he got a scolding for it and, since he didn’t know when to shut up, God shut him up for a while.
They were all people of faith, but they were not people of perfect faith. They were also people of doubt and questions. I think the true faith that God looks for is the kind of faith that keeps having faith, even in the midst of doubt. After all, real faith is faith placed in God much more than it is any faith that we might place in ourselves.
Have you ever laughed at God or thought he was talking nonsense? If you have then you have the faith of Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth. You have a faith of Biblical proportions. Then, for you, faith means trusting that God’s faithfulness is greater than your faith. God’s faithfulness is what matters. The author and preacher Timothy Keller writes this: “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” That is fruitfulness.
Henry Nouwen wrote about fruitfulness. Read his book “Lifesigns”. He sees the fruitfulness of love coming in three ways: weakness, thankfulness, and caring. God is the one who leads the way to this fruitfulness of love.
God bore the fruit that saves us by becoming weak. God became the baby in the manger, and he and his parents had to run for their lives in order to survive the soldiers of King Herod. God became a carpenter, and next he became a migrant teacher with no roof over his head. At last God became a victim of injustice, with a mockery of a trial and an illegal execution. God was dead and buried in Jesus. God became weak. That is how God was able to rise from the dead to give us victory in life and death.
We bear fruit when we become weak. You bear fruit when your children know that you become afraid for them. You bear fruit when you say, “I’m sorry.” You bear fruit when you act on the conviction that the needs of other people are more important than your own; that the needs of other people are stronger and your needs are weaker.
God also bore fruit by being thankful. In the sixth chapter of John, a crowd had come to Jesus in a remote place and there was no food for them to eat, except for the fact that one boy had brought five small loaves of barley bread and two small dried fish. Jesus gave thanks for the boy’s food and fed the crowd of thousands. (John 6:1-13) Before Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back to life, he thanked his Father for listening to his prayer, even before he prayed it. (John 11:41-42) When God came down to live in front of us, in Jesus, he gave thanks. The fruitfulness of God’s love comes from his thanks.
There is a Christian singer/songwriter called tobyMac. Is real name is Toby McKeehan. I don’t think I have ever heard a thing he has sung or written, but there was a quote from him on Face Book that says this: “There are people out there who would love to have your bad days.” Maybe this would not be true for all your bad days, but most of us have homes, and food, and warmth, and fellowship. Many of us can walk, and talk, and hear, and think. And we have known love.
Thankfulness is the way to enjoy giftedness. Thankfulness is enjoyment. Thankfulness gives us the peace and freedom to bear fruit; that is, to give love and caring to others.
God bears fruit by caring. This means taking care. Jesus didn’t control people. He did command people, but he also gave them freedom. He gave them choice. He asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) He asked the lame man, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) In the Book of Acts we can read about how (after Jesus rose from the dead) the apostles told the story of God’s love in Jesus. On one occasion, Peter described Jesus this way, “He went around doing good.” (Acts 10:38)
We bear fruit by finding ways to take care of other people, and our community, and our world. We may have abilities and resources that enable us to do this in special ways, but we may not have special ways. We may not have any other ability than to take care of what we see and hear any way we can.
We bear fruit by taking care, even if we don’t think it will accomplish anything. We bear fruit by taking care, even though it will do nothing for us. Paul wrote, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The love of God bore fruit by caring; by taking care of those who did not know how to appreciate him.

The time to celebrate the birth of Jesus is on its way. This is the celebration of God’s fruitfulness. In Jesus we can see God’s weakness, God’s thankfulness, God’s caring. This bears fruit in us and through us. God’s fruit helps us die to our unfruitful nature and be reborn into the new fruitful world of Jesus and his kingdom.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Don't Worry, Be Thankful

Preached on Sunday, November 22, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 104:1-24; Luke 12:22-34

A woman was at work when she got a call from her babysitter. The message was that her daughter had a high fever. So the woman left work and raced to the drugstore for some medicine.
Along Lower Crab Creek WA: November 2015
When she got back to her car, she found that she had locked her keys in her car. So she called home and told the babysitter what was wrong. The babysitter told her that her daughter was getting worse and that, maybe, she could get a coat-hanger from the store and unlock the car. The mother got a coat hanger and, back at the car she realized that she had no idea how to unlock a car door with a coat hanger.  She prayed frantically for God to show her what to do.
Just then a beat-up old car pulled up next to hers and this tough looking guy gets out. He’s covered with tattoos. He’s wearing a biker’s jacket. He’s got a skull rag on his head. But he looked over at this woman and he could see that she was crying.
He asked her if she needed help, and the woman told him about her daughter, and her keys. She asked him, “Can you use this hanger to unlock my car?” He says, “Sure thing!”
The door is open in less than a minute. The woman hugged him and she said, “Thank you so much. You’re such a nice man!” The guy said, “I’m not a nice man at all. I just got out of prison a couple hours ago. I was in for car theft.”
The woman hugged him again and she prayed out loud, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for sending a professional!” (From Ray Kerley, Eculaugh, note #7165)
In the teaching we read from Jesus the word thanks is not used. Jesus was talking about worry. Actually he was talking about the antidote, the treatment, for worry. Worry is one of the main enemies of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a celebration (sometimes a very quiet celebration) and you can’t celebrate very well when you are worried. You can put on a smile, but you can’t celebrate.
Thanksgiving is peace, and you can’t have peace when you are worried; unless you have the peace that passes understanding.
One of the treatments Jesus prescribed for worry is to think, and think again. Jesus said, “Consider.” “Consider things.” “Consider the ravens.” “Consider the lilies.” Considering has something to do with how you think and how you see. Worry doesn’t start with a feeling, and neither does thanks. Worry and thanksgiving come from a state of mind. They come from a way of looking at the world and at life.
Jesus said, “Look around you.” It’s true that Jesus was being selective in what he wants you to look at. But, if you are worried sick about something, you are being selective too.
Jesus pointed to the grass in the fields and he pointed selectively. Think about walking over the fields and the hillsides. You can think about the grass and the wildflowers, or you can think about snakes. I only nearly stepped on snakes three times this summer.
I don’t go around worrying about snakes. I killed a rattlesnake with a shovel in my yard several years ago. (What he was doing with that shovel, I’ll never know!)
When you are walking through the fields you can think about all the grass and wildflowers, or you can think about snakes. You can think about both, but don’t let the snakes make you forget to consider the grass and the wildflowers.
Jesus said, “Look at the world around you.” Look at how things fit together. See how they work. See how everything has a place. There is beauty. There is order. There is precision. There is a design. This world is a work of art created by God. You are a part of this. You are a work of art.
Here is something that we can see more than ever before through the gift of science, which reveals more and more amazing things every day. Every new amazing answer provides us with brand new amazing questions waiting to be explained.
Look at your hands. See how complicated they are, with all those little bones and joints. And the skin! How different it is on the tops than on the palms. Think of how each person who has ever lived has had a unique set of fingerprints.
If you were able to look inside your hand, and one single cell, and if you were able to see what goes on in that cell, in the tiny organs every cell has, and how that cell was fed and nourished on a molecular level within you hand, you would see a process that was just as complex and beautiful as anything you could see with your naked eye.
If you could looker deeper into your hand, and see the smallest things (the atoms, the subatomic particles, and the energy in them, and the spaces between them) you might forget all about yourself. You would see yourself as if your hand held a whole galaxy: billions of stars.
I was at a church picnic on a farm where there was a little girl visiting with her grandparents who owned that farm. I got to talk with her. We must have been talking about the world of that farm and how God made everything. I remember her saying something about being made of mud and worms. I tried to argue with her but she was very committed to this. I told her that mud was made out of stardust and so she was made out of stardust, but she never bought it. I wonder what she grew up to believe.
God’s artistry and design have no end. We are surrounded by examples of infinite skill, infinite wisdom, infinite care. Jesus said: consider, look, think. And, if you are still worried, think again.
There is a fancy word called “providence”. Nobody uses this word in today’s world and that is part of our problem. It has to do with God: with God providing. The old Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee had a good definition for providence. He said, “Providence is the means by which God directs all things – both animate and inanimate; seen and unseen; good and evil – toward a worthy purpose, which means his will must finally prevail.” (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Introduction to Esther, p. 171)
But (more than that) God’s providence means that God, in his love, provides for us, and gives us what we need. Thanksgiving comes from thinking, considering, and seeing this.
Another treatment for worry is to consider that you are important, that you matter, that you matter more than the birds and the lilies and the grass which are the objects of God’s infinite care and love. Some people have trouble with this. They have trouble because of discouragement, or because of mistakes they have made. Other people (who may or may not be scientific) seem to think that the human species is a noxious weed upon the planet: and in a way we are. Even the Bible says that we are trouble makers. But we are also creatures of God just as much as any other creature.
Jesus said that we are more to God than the birds and the grass. There is something different in human beings that Jesus says is of special value. Jesus says that life is more than food, and that the body is more than clothes.
This is very odd. How can life be more than food if you will die if you don’t get food? Or how is the body more than clothes if going naked outside in the winter would kill you? What Jesus means is that there is something in human life that is not physical and not material.
The word Jesus uses for our life here is the word for “soul”. You have a spiritual life that runs deeper and will outlast your physical life. Because you are a spiritual being, as well as physical, you will carry the story of everything around you into eternity. Jesus wants you to know that this makes you a being of tremendous worth to him.
The Lord treasures you. Consider this when you think about whatever worries you, or wears you down. Keep thinking about this.
There was a girl who was asked what she looked for in a guy and she answered, “How he fits in his blue jeans.” Those are the values and the expectations that will not last, especially not long passed the age of fifty. But there is something spiritual and eternal in us that is made for everlasting life with God, made for an everlasting home. Caring about that life will give us values that last.
Those who know the Lord have a different set of concerns. We have our hearts set on different things. We are motivated by different loves.
To be in your garden in the morning, to look in on your children or grandchildren when they are in bed (and not just to say, “Thank God they’re asleep.”), to hear or read a word that God speaks to you…in that instant you know, at least for a moment, that your life is an awesome gift, and that it means something. This is an antidote for worry. This is part of thanksgiving.
Jesus said, “Do not set our heart of what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.”
Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t work and don’t provide for yourself and for those who love you.” He is saying, “Don’t live for that. Live for something bigger. Live a different life, because your life is a treasure and so are other people. Devote your life to what is best and highest.”
Jesus says, “Seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
I read once about a Laotian Christian pastor. The communist government in Laos wanted to stop him from preaching. They wanted to stop his church from meeting. So they sent soldiers to his house.
The soldiers gathered the pastor and his family together and they held a gun to his twelve-year-old son’s head. They told the pastor to deny his faith but, before the pastor could say anything, the boy spoke up and said that he would never betray Jesus. So the soldiers shot the boy on the spot. The same thing happened with the pastor’s wife. Then the soldiers took the pastor to a prison work-camp.
Eventually he escaped to Thailand where he devoted himself to sharing Jesus among the other refugees. Even though, by some standards, it could be said that he had lost everything he held dear, by his standards he had not lost everything, and he still followed Jesus who loved him and who said, “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
He shared Christ with others out of a thankful heart. People who know Jesus find that their hearts are set on different things, and that they are motivated by a different love.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted.” Here Jesus is saying, “Know what counts and live accordingly.”
When Jesus said (in another place) to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye, if they cause you to sin, he was using strong language with shock value to say, “Take these choices seriously. What you choose to consider, in your heart and your mind, matters.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
When Jesus says to be ready to sell what you have, he is using strong language with shock value. He means for you to make a real decision about what you value and love. How will you live if you believe that your Father has been pleased to give you his kingdom?
What does “his kingdom” mean? A kingdom is wherever its king rules, wherever the king’s will is done.
It means that you live a life in which God truly rules. God provides for you. God works with you: in you, and through you, and around you. God rules.
You live under God’s will, and under God’s protection. You live in God’s peace. You live with hope in God’s promises. Heaven is yours. The coming kingdom is yours. In a very real way God has given you his kingdom already, and so this world is yours. You have come home. You have come inside.
God gave us his kingdom when Jesus died for us on the cross. Jesus carried the things that separate us from God. He carried those things on the cross. Jesus tore down the wall. He bridged the gap on the cross.
This is the same thing John was talking about when he said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Knowing Jesus is all about receiving a gift from someone who loves you; whose love you can trust. This is the antidote for worry. This is where thanksgiving comes from.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Terrorism - Living in a World Reserved for Fire

Preached on Sunday, November 15, 2015

Scripture readings: 1 Peter 4:7-19; 2 Peter 3:8-14

A man had just retired. He had big plans for landscaping around his house. He was out working in his yard one day, when his eighty-plus-year-old neighbor came by.
Photos at Desert Aire/Mattawa and Crab Creek WA
November 2015
The older neighbor was carrying a box of oak seedlings. He had bought the seedlings to plant in his own yard and he had some left over. He asked the new retiree if he wanted to plant some baby oak trees.
The younger man said, “No oak trees for me, thanks. I won’t live long enough to enjoy them.”
The older man gave him a sad look and said, “Son, I’m sorry to hear that. We’ll sure miss you!”
Which of those two old people was the wisest? Is it wise to say, “When you know you are approaching the end of your days, plant an oak tree”?
Is that wisdom?
The Bible has wisdom just like that. I think you could as well paraphrase what we read in Peter’s letters this way, “If you live in a world that is fit to be burned then spend your lives giving something good to that world.”
Peter said: “Love each other deeply… (1 Peter 4:8)
“Offer hospitality…” (1 Peter 4:9)
“Use whatever gift you have received to serve others faithfully…” (1 Peter 4:10)
“Be willing to suffer for doing good….” (That is: “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (Peter 4:19)
This is how God asks us to live in a world that is fit to be burned. “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” (2 Peter 3:11-12)
“Godly” is a word that is an adjective describing the quality of an action or process. Godly living means living a way of life that can be clearly seen to come from God and to be going to God and leading to God: the God who creates, and loves, and saves, and rules, and makes all things new. Godliness means living your life along these lines.
This is how God asks us to live in a world that is fit to be burned.
Peter wrote to people whose lives had been changed by Jesus coming into their lives. They were committed to live with purpose, and love, and generosity, because of Jesus.
At the time when Peter wrote to them, it looked as if the only good this was going to accomplish for them was to get them arrested, and tortured, and killed in a horrible death. This was not an absolute certainty, but it was always a lurking possibility.
It was something worth worrying about, if you believe in the power of worry. You could never know for sure when, and where, and if the axe might fall.
They knew this. Peter knew it too.
In fact, they had been in danger from the very moment they believed. They had entered a world of danger that was especially dangerous for people who stood out because of their commitments.
They had not been tricked into this. As Christians, they had never been innocent optimists. In fact, they had found God in the face of Jesus Christ who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34)
In fact, the world had crucified their Lord, and that crucifixion was where their salvation and their new life came from. A new life was made possible by the fact that God himself became a human being, in Jesus, in order to come into this world that is so full of sin, and evil, and injustice, and violence, and hatred. God loved this world enough to die for it, as its victim, in Jesus.
Then Jesus rose from the dead. He proved that he could save us by facing this world at its worst and not being overcome by it.
The world has always worshiped power, and success, and ambition, and pride. It has always worshiped anger. It has always worshiped glory and the selfish self. That is where bitterness and hatred come from. That is where violence and victimization come from.
Some people claim that the existence of this evil contradicts the existence of God. Or, at least, it contradicts the existence of a strong God, or a good God. Since we were born collaborators with this world that so angers and scares us, we have enough of this world flowing through our veins to make us wonder about the contradictions. We are full of contradictions ourselves, and we have never fully learned how to take to heart this strange God whom we have learned to call our God.
So God wants to give you a greater experience of exactly who he is. God offers himself to you so that you may know him in a way that will contradict your doubts.
When you meet God, one of the things that will bring you to your knees is the fact that he is a God of contradiction. We see who God is because we see Jesus. Jesus is God living as a contradictory human.
In Jesus we see that God is the humble lamb who dies for the sins of the world, even though he is infinite in power and holiness. God’s ownership of the universe as it is, and God’s power of resurrection to make a new heaven and a new earth, in place of the old, is lamb power. God’s power is lamb power.
In the face of a world that is fit to be burned, the Lord Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world. The world doesn’t contradict God. God contradicts the world. We are the people who follow this God.
The Lord has called us to be a contradiction to this world. Peter said, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives….” “Holy” means set apart by God for a purpose. It means life with a purpose.
Holiness also means to be set apart in a way that makes you different from everything else around you. Holiness makes you the contradiction that you are called to be: not weird in a weird way, but beautifully weird. In godliness you live your life along a line that intersects with God and his contradictory work. In Jesus, God himself lived a godly life in order to hold your life close to his, as friend to friend.
Jesus told his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9) What had they seen? They had seen a person who cared about a poor couple running out of wine for the refreshments at their wedding. (John 2:1-11) They had seen a person who protected a woman in danger of being killed for her sins. (John 8:1-11) They had seen a person who cared about the hunger of thousands. (John 6:1-15)
Looking at Jesus, they had seen a person who cared about sickness, and grief. He cared about the poor, and those who were outcasts and hated by others. And he did something about it, and what he said and did about it pointed to his Father. It was all godly, because it pointed to God. God, in Jesus, contradicted the way the world worked around him.
Most people would probably have to be almost twenty years old now to clearly remember the most shocking day of terrorism in modern times: September 11, 2001. Those who are able can remember the volunteers who went to Ground Zero to dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center with their bare hands. Those people contradicted this world and the world’s evil.
In this sense, what they did was very godly. So was the work of the firefighters and the police who climbed the stairs of the towers before they fell, or waited at the bottom for their work to begin.
In the last thirty days we have heard of the airliner full of vacationers that exploded over the Egyptian desert. We have heard that funerals in Bagdad were bombed, and that another neighborhood in Beirut was bombed. We have heard that well over a hundred people have been exploded or shot in Paris: over a hundred dead and hundreds more wounded. Our own country is on alert because of what happened in Paris.
Tomorrow people will work in office buildings, and they will go to airports and fly in jets, and they will work as police and fire-fighters and other first responders, and they will put on uniforms as members of our armed forces at a time when one of our NATO allies has declared the attack upon Paris as an act of war. And everyone here has some connection to these people, or we are one of these people, or we have been, or we could be.
We shop in shopping centers. We go to theaters and eat in restaurants. We drive on bridges. We live downstream from great dams and reservoirs. We go to work, or we know people who do.
And we listen, and we watch, and we talk about our lives in this world. Even in our own homes we shape this world we live in. We make this world less godly. Or we make it more godly.
We are people who live in a world that God came to contradict. We are all called to join together with God and contradict this world.
To live as free, and loving, and generous people in a world of fear and hatred is a contradiction against this world and all its evil. Can we be people who are not motivated by fear or hatred? This is the holy and godly way to live, even in a world that will only be purified by fire.
The God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus calls us to contradict this world together, and to live holy and godly lives together.
Peter wrote, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 4:11)
Sometimes God’s call for us to contradict the world makes me think of that dream I had, toward the end of 1964, right after my thirteenth birthday.
That angel came in the night and showed me some things. There was a pall, or a shadow, over everything I saw. There was a black cloud that was coming over the world.
I felt that war was in the cloud; and fear. It was raining on the world, and the rain seemed to bring misery on everyone. Some people were running from the cloud. Some people were walking. Some were too exhausted, too afraid, too confused to move. Some had made tents to shelter themselves from the cloud and the rain, but they were no real shelter, and I knew that they were all going to be swept away.
A voice told me that people would be in great fear, and confusion, and anger, and despair, and I was to speak to them for God.
I don’t know when the great cloud I saw will come. Maybe I have misunderstood its meaning. Maybe we are in it now. You might be surprised to know that I don’t think about it all the time, but times like the past few days makes me think about it.
The dream I had has nothing to do with a calling for me or for you to say or do great things, or to do things very well. My calling is not a call that requires me or you to make a good impression or to receive anyone’s special recognition.
The calling is just to be a contradiction to what you and I find around us. Even God’s own people don’t always understand what it means to live in contradiction to this world. To be a contradiction is my calling and it is yours.
This world needs more wisdom and more help than any human is able to give. But Peter wrote that you can be a simple person who speaks to this world for God, and you can be a person who serves others in this world with the strength that God supplies.

This strength comes when you have experienced the most miraculous contradiction of all: that the designer and creator of all things (the Lord of heaven and earth) has died for you, and that he lives in you, and that he loves this world, and that he wants to love this world through you. This is how you and I are to live in such a world as ours.

The Bible on Gender, Marriage, Church

I was planning to preach this long, complicated lecture on Sunday, November 15, 2015, but the acts of terrorism in Paris the day before led me to preach a different sermon instead. Maybe my congregation will be willing to sit through this at a later date.

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:18-25: Ephesians 5:21-33; Matthew 19:4-6

Today I hope to share what I believe the Bible says about the direction we take in living out our identities as male and female; particularly in marriage, and why it matters. I hope, with God’s help, to teach why it is important that the Church, the Body of Christ, faithfully nurtures our relationships as male and female, as God designed them to be lived.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explained that, in order to understand the meaning of our life, and the nature of our relationships as male and female (especially in marriage), we have to go back to the beginning, when God created human life.
Maybe a couple of things need to be explained first.
For one thing, in the Bible, in the very beginning, there is no hint of inequality between male and female.
Even Paul, in the verses we read in Ephesians, does not tell anyone about their own authority. He tells them what they owe to others. Paul says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Being subject to one another comes first and it conditions everything else. Paul tells wives and husbands how to submit to each other, or how to respect each other. He tells wives how to respect their husbands. He tells husbands, how to love their wives sacrificially, without thought to themselves. Such respect and such love leaves no one un-subjected to anyone.
He doesn’t tell us what to expect from others. He tells us what to give to others, and that is what submission is about, as God’s word teaches us. And above all he says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
Another thing to remember is that the name Adam is not (properly considered) a proper name. Originally it was not a personal name at all. Adam is a Hebrew word for person, or human. More literally it is a word that describes human beings as beings from the earth. In fact you could just translate Adam as “the earthling”, in the sense of someone who belongs to the earth.
If you are a female, there is a sense in which you are a female Adam. In Genesis 1:27 we could translate it this way: “So God created “the earthling” in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And, then, God commands them to be fruitful and multiply, but nothing is said about the nature of their relationship with each other in Genesis chapter one.
We are told about their relationship in marriage in the second chapter of Genesis. This builds on our understanding of human nature, and marriage, as a part of God’s creation.
It tells us that part of our essential nature, as God made us, and as God sees us, is that, “it is not good for the earthling to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) It is not good to be alone: at least, not all the time.
The interesting thing is that (at this point in the story) gender and sex are not the most important issues in human relationships. What is needed is “a helper fit, or suitable, for him.” (Genesis 2:18) Help is about assistance, and support, and encouragement.
One thing we need to know, as Christians, is that the church is God’s new creation in Christ. In Christ, and in the Church, God has given us a source of helpers who are supposed to be fit for us and suitable for us, and we are supposed to become fit and suitable for them. It’s a requirement.
God said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.” There are so many ways to think about this. But there is the thought of being suitable for real, basic companionship.
We know that Adam was able to speak and name God’s creatures, but we don’t actually hear Adam speak until he meets the woman, and then he practically sings! What he says when he meets the woman is true Hebrew poetry. It is the first human poem in the Bible.
We have to understand our first opportunity to hear Adam speak. Speaking is one of the essential parts of human companionship in terms of the help we need. A suitable helper is a being who can hear us when we speak, and who can speak to us; or even be silent beside us with an eloquent silence (a silence that says something). A suitable helper is someone who can think with us, feel with us, and work alongside us. At first the Adam didn’t know he needed this.
The Lord gave the Adam a growing experience of himself and what kind of helper he needed. What kind of helper would fit the Adam? To help the Adam start thinking about this we are told that God made a circus parade for the earthling: rabbits, cougars, deer, bears, sparrows, quail, monkeys, sheep and cattle, and maybe even platypuses, even though they don’t do much. And who knows what else?
Adam needed companionship. But God didn’t ask, “Are you a cat person, or a dog person?”
God knew the kind of helper Adam needed, but there is no way of telling if Adam was even aware yet; or even understood his need to not be alone; let alone anything more than that. In the Hebrew version of this part of the history, the Hebrew word for man never actually occurs. It only calls him “the Adam”.
The Adam named each animal that God brought to him. The ability to give them names meant that the Adam had the ability to understand the nature and purpose of each creature. But he gave none of them the name “Suitable Helper.”
The scriptures tell us that the suitable helper was a gift from God; and that God had a definite plan and design for this helper. The story tells us that God took part of the earthling’s side to make that helper. The old eighteenth century commentator Matthew Henry says, “Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be loved.”
The earthling, the Adam, had the ability to see the nature and purpose of God’s creations. So the Adam looked at the woman and said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” And this is the very first time the Hebrew word for man actually occurs in the Bible. Man, as a concept, doesn’t exist before that. In Hebrew, the word for man is “ish” and the word for woman is “ishah”: “ish and “ishah”.
Now, in one sense, from the sound of it, it seems as if ish and ishah are just masculine and feminine versions of the same thing. If this were the only fact in the matter, one might say that males and females were simply interchangeable. But that is not how the language of Genesis works, it is not how Hebrew works. It is not what the message is saying. Males and females, in marriage, are not simply different versions of the same thing.
For instance: the earthling’s name was Adam. Adam is a masculine Hebrew word. The feminine version of Adam is Adamah (Adam and Adamah, as in ish and ishah”. But Adamah (the feminine form of “Adam”) doesn’t mean female or woman. Adamah means earth, and Adam means earthling. Earth and earthling share a relationship, but they are nothing alike.
The earth is a place where an earthling can get lost. The earth is a thing of which an earthling might barely scratch the surface. Men and women are especially like that to each other.
In the language of Genesis, the relationship between male and female is that kind of relationship. Marriage is meant to be that kind of relationship; to join two completely different categories.
In Hebrew, there is a singular word for a righteous person that is masculine but is applicable to both males and females.
(Don’t read this note out loud: a careful study can find examples in many places, for instance, in Psalm 5:12 and Psalm 37:16.)
Righteous (as it applies to both men and women) is the masculine version of the thing that is called righteousness (in its feminine form). Yet there is a difference between a righteous person and righteousness itself.
Isn’t righteousness, in itself, a much bigger thing than any one righteous person can ever be? And yet, what would righteousness (the feminine) mean, if no one was righteous (the masculine)? And a righteous person does not relate to righteousness the same way as righteousness relates to a righteous person. And so they belong to each other (the feminine and the masculine), but they are not the same. They belong to each other, but they are two entirely different categories of things.
Righteous men and women seek to live within the realm of righteousness. Righteousness is a whole wonderful world; a Promised Land to any man or woman who dreams of being righteous.
Male and female, man and woman, are a pair like that.
In the creation, marriage was designed not only to unite individuals, but to unite different ways of being.
Men and women are, in some essential ways, two entirely different categories of things. They have significantly different anatomies that affect how they experience life. Their bodies have different rhythms and calendars.
No two men are alike. No two women are alike. A man and a woman can have more in common between them than they have with the other members of their same sex, or they can have less in common. But men and women are, in some sense, different categories, by God’s design.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians talked about “a great mystery”. Paul compares the relationship between a husband and wife with the relationship between Jesus and the Church; which is the body of Christ, and also his spouse. The mystery is both the relationship between Christ and his Church and the way in which a good marriage (between a man and a woman) represents the story of Christ and his Church.
They are nothing alike. There is never any question of which one is which. They are completely different categories. Yet they belong to each other. They serve each other in every way. They help and bless each other in everything.
A mystery, in the ancient world, was not a problem to be solved, or a puzzle to be figured out. A mystery was the story of a saving truth that you could not know unless it was revealed to you. In that ancient world of the Ephesians, a mystery was always acted out (or lived out), as if it were a pageant or a play. For Paul, a man and woman in marriage were actors in the pageant of the story of Christ and his Church, playing distinct parts.
Paul took his notion of this salvation pageant from the prophets in the Old Testament. Israel was sometimes described as the bride of the Lord, taken from Egypt, planted in the wilderness, or planted in a garden. Or Israel was a bride rescued from a life of prostitution. Solomon, Hosea, and others wrote about this pageant in different ways.
Christ, dying on the cross and rising from the dead, is the drama of God’s saving story. The story of the cross and the resurrection is the mystery of God’s salvation; winning for himself a human bride (which is us, the Church). It is the drama of God joining to himself something entirely different from himself in love.
In the cross and the resurrection God and we are joined in one. God and we are nothing at all alike, but we are joined in one, in a mysterious sort of marriage.
In human marriage, man and woman (on so many levels nothing alike) are joined in one. Our anatomical sexual identity is part of the costume that makes it absolutely clear how different we are from each other in this pageant. This adds to the drama that Paul calls the mystery of oneness.
Two men, or two women, together, would not bridge the distance, and would not enact this drama. They would not be radical enough. The creation itself is a radical thing because God is a radical.
Two men, or two women, would only be a half measure toward what God wants. But God never goes in for half measures when he calls us to do anything. God forbids half measures because they create confusion about what he wants and what he calls us to.
The joining of two people of the same sex would be the joining of two individuals, but God wants a place called marriage that will be a new creation in the sense that it is a recreation of the whole human race in two people together, in one single couple. A man with another man cannot represent the whole human race, nor can a woman with another woman.
God wants each marriage to be a Garden of Eden to the best of its ability, and a new human race. Marriage acts out this drama.
The marriage of a man and woman is what made the human race possible. It is what makes life possible. God wants human beings to have a place, called marriage, where they re-enact the creation, where the human race began and where all human life comes from. Children with a father and mother experience the whole human race in miniature and get some idea of how the two halves of the human race fit together.
Anything any less than this can be given another name (if someone wishes to do so); but anything less than this is not marriage as it is shown to us, by God, at the beginning of the human race in the Garden of Eden. Anything less does not enact the mystery of our creation, or the mystery of our salvation.
Anything less is not quite essential enough. But a man and a woman coming together is an essential. And marriage celebrates that.
In the creation stories, it is not clear that Adam really understood what he lacked. God gave Adam something that Adam was not wise enough to ask for, or even to understand.
We need to understand that marriage must be like this. But God knew how to give Adam something better than he could anticipate. This is why we hear the joy in Adam’s voice when he suddenly discovered the woman.
We need to trust that God knows how to give gifts to his people that are better than they know how to ask. And we want the Church, the new creation, to be a place where God gives those gifts to people; because we want to be the people of the Gospel, the people of the good news.
When men and women do not find each other, then Christ and the Church become their marriage mystery. Our relationships with Christ and the church become the drama of our help and our salvation.

As people of the good news, we want the church, the new creation, to guard the real treasures of life. We want to guard marriage and family, and call them by their right names, their proper names; so that new generations can understand what marriage and family mean, and find their way into the blessings for which God has designed human life.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Telling It - Giving Rest

Preached on Sunday, November 8, 2015

Scripture readings: 1 Peter 2:11-17; Mark 6:30-44

Being Jesus, and following Jesus, can be exhausting. I hate to say it. I would like to protect you from it, if I could, but I don’t think I can.
In fact I have a strange personal history of getting in trouble with people I tried to protect from getting exhausted. Once, in a church I served while I was an seminary intern, the husband and wife of a new family in our church accused me of looking down on them as if they couldn’t do all those things that they were being asked to do by the people of the church who were giving them all the jobs that were exhausting them. Of course they wouldn’t have put it that way because they didn’t realize what I was trying to protect them from. After I left to go on my next internship, they left that church because they got exhausted.
Being Jesus, and following Jesus can be exhausting, and Jesus and his disciples had reached that point. They didn’t even have time to eat. So Jesus said, “Let’s get away from it all. Let’s take a break and rest.” So they set sail across the lake.
I think that Jesus must have let them rest at their oars, and that the wind wasn’t blowing, because the crowds cut them off from their rest. The boat should have beaten the crowd, and the disciples should have been able to slip away before the crowd got to them.
Maybe Jesus even arranged it all on purpose. I wouldn’t put it past him. That Jesus can be a tricky fellow.
So their much needed rest was interrupted. What was it that interrupted their rest? Was it the needs of others, or was it the compassion of Jesus? Well, it was both. Their rest was interrupted by the needs of others and by the compassion of Jesus. And knowing that and conducting your life accordingly is a good way to stay exhausted.
Jesus had a good idea about sparing his friends from exhaustion. He showed the compassion of the creator. Jesus is our creator who has come to live beside us, in the flesh. In the beginning God created rest and blessed it. The seventh day of creation is about rest and renewal.
The interesting thing about that seventh day is that it is a day without sunset or sunrise. It’s a day without beginning or end. It means that, in the middle of our life, we must spend time with eternity, and we must spend time with the God who made us for eternity.
Sunday is one of my days off. I preach on my day off so that I can spend some time today with eternity; and with the God who made me for eternity and died to give eternity to me as a gift.
We need rest to interrupt our lives, and so we are just as needy as the disciples who needed rest and as the crowd that ran to Jesus in order to be amazed. The fact is that everyone needs the same rest and the same amazement as we do.
Separation from God is the opposite of rest. The world clearly needs rest. And Jesus is compassionate and Jesus interrupts our exhaustion and tells us to rest; and to help others rest as well. Our job is to tell the good news that rest can be found with Jesus.
Mark tells us that, on that lakeshore of Galilee, Jesus looked at the crowd and “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6:34) Jesus’ compassion didn’t begin then and there. It began earlier, when he saw that his followers (his friends) needed rest, and he showed them that he wanted them to rest.
Then his compassion made him speak to the crowd and teach them many things. Then the compassion of Jesus made him want to feed them.
Actually it was the compassion of his friends that made him feed the crowd: maybe. They were the ones who told Jesus that that people needed to eat. Maybe the compassion of Jesus made his friends compassionate, just as he was. They were learning compassion, and they showed they cared about the world by sharing the world’s needs with Jesus.
Then Jesus did a clearly tricky thing. Jesus proposed that his friends give all their food to the crowd; and they did. But the trick was to show his friends that, when they came to the end of their resources, they did not come to the end of his resources at all. They exhausted their food, yet they had more in the end than they had before they gave their all.
Sometimes we Christians get exhausted. But it is usually for a different reason than the exhaustion of Jesus and those who follow him. Too many Christians exhaust themselves with church committees, and church work, and it’s true that something has to be done to take care of things.
But our church business often has no compassion in it. Our stewardship of our building, our practice for worship, our determination to be organized often has no heart and no compassion in it. We have compulsion but little compassion. We have forgotten the story of the good news of Jesus even when we are in the church business.
There is no secret of rest in a lot of what we are doing for Jesus and with Jesus. If the rest of Jesus was in it, maybe we would be in a better mood and a better place.
If you read on in the Gospel of Mark, it doesn’t look like the disciples ever got their rest. There was only a lot more drama. But all the drama that followed showed them Jesus in a new way. They found their much needed rest by seeing Jesus in that new way.
Maybe we need that kind of rest: to see Jesus in a new way, to see the compassion that Jesus has for others and for us. Have you seen enough of the compassion of Jesus?
The compassion of Jesus that saw countless people as though they were sheep without a shepherd didn’t begin on the shores of Lake Galilee. It all began in eternity. It began when the Lord looked out over the wreckage of a world that had not even been created yet. The Lord looked out over the wreckage of countless broken hearts, and countless scarred and aimless lives, even before he gave them life.
His eternal compassion brought out the good shepherd in his heart. The Lord knew that he would be their shepherd, and that he would give his life to rescue those sheep from their scarred and aimless lives.
He knew that there would be a power in this compassion that would change them. The power of what he would do on the cross and in the resurrection would set them free, and give them rest.
That is the power of the compassion of Jesus for us. It’s the power of Jesus to make a difference in our lives. It’s the power of the good news that we are called to share with others.
What we call salvation is a miracle that changes everything. It works like magic. We try to work. We try to be responsible. We try to play and rest.
We do the best we can at all of these until the miracle of Jesus surprises us. The compassion of Jesus changes everything about what we do. It changes us.
We are called to tell the good news of Jesus and how Jesus makes a difference in our lives and sets us right. The whole world needs this change. This world of broken people will never work right unless the people of Jesus show the way.
Strangely, what Peter says in his letter about living as strangers and aliens in this world shows the difference that Jesus makes in our lives. Peter talks about living “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13) He talks about living for “the Lord’s will”. (1 Peter 2:15) He says, “Live as servants of God.” (1 Peter 2:16)
Peter told us to “abstain from sinful desires” and we have taken much too narrow a view of what such desires are. It is not just about sex. When we limit these desires to sex we lose a lot of the change in our lives that Peter was writing about.
Our sinful desires affect our reasons for loving our neighbor as ourselves. For instance, we want love to serve our own interests. The New Testament word for the love of Jesus, and for the love he requires of us, is called “agape” (in Greek). Agape means a love that doesn’t serve our own interests. The dominant world of the Greeks and the Romans almost never used that word for love because they wanted their love to serve their own personal interests, just as we do.
The dominant world of Jesus’ time also thought that compassion was soft and weak. They thought that humility was only fit for slaves and other underlings.
Peter told us to do amazing things. Peter told us to respect everyone. Peter told us to love the whole set of those who belong to Jesus as brothers and sisters, whether it fit your interests or not. Peter told us to love those who have legal and constitutional authority over us. Rome was proud of its constitution and of the way the emperor played his part in respecting it. Peter told Christians to honor the system that was persecuting them and killing them.
Peter told us that our fear of God (or our living with God in a state of wonder and awe) was a part and parcel of this holy discipline of love; this strange way of life. It was and is the way to live for the Lord’s sake. It is the way to be a servant of God. It is the way to do God’s will.
We often miss the point of this. The point is that the way of life that the Bible gives to Christians is meant to be the heart of a miracle. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)
Peter didn’t tell us how this would happen. It’s like the change that Jesus makes in our lives. It is a miracle. The compassion of Jesus wants everyone to love and enjoy what he has to give in a kind of miracle that changes lives from anger to glory.
People who look down on you and people who judge Christians as inferior will be willing to lose their own desires and priorities (as taught by this world) and they will learn to desire what Jesus gives.
This miracle that changes life will prepare the world that looks at us suspiciously: it will prepare them for the kingdom of God. They will learn to love the softness, and the weakness, and the slavishness of a love that does not serve their own interests. They will love humility. They will love compassion.
We are called to tell how Jesus made this difference in us. We are called to tell it by living in this world in ways that can heal the world around us.

The Lord’s Table is the table of the one who pursued us because he didn’t pursue his own interests. This is the table where we find true humility and compassion. Here we find the healing of our exhaustion. We are called here to find rest. We are called here to Jesus and to his great story that makes all the difference.