Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Faith for Life - Building Trust

Preached on Sunday, January 29, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 55:1-13; John 4:1-26

When I was a kid, there was this line that a lot of kids knew. It comes from an old, old poem, but there was also an old, old cartoon, in black and white, that was sometimes shown on TV, early on Saturday mornings. The line was: “Welcome to my parlor said the spider to the fly.”
Along Lower Crab Creek, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
January 2017
We invented games in which we had teams that would hide from each other, and ambush members of the other team, and capture them, and put them in our prison. When we caught someone, we just might say: “Welcome my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”
We said this to sound scary.
I liked watching spiders to see what it was like for them to lie in wait, in order to catch other bugs. I also liked teasing spiders by dropping little bits of things into their webs and watching them come out to see what it was. When they found that it wasn’t a bug, they would tear the thing out of their web, and drop it to the ground, and repair the damage I had caused.
When Jesus rested by the well, at the town of Sychar, I’ve always felt that he was lurking on purpose. Jesus was lying in wait to capture this woman and as much of her town as possible.
He wasn’t doing this for a spider’s reasons. I think spiders enjoy what they do. I think Jesus enjoyed what he was doing; although he was doing this for completely different reasons. Jesus lay in wait for love. Jesus already knew this woman and her town. Jesus loved them; although they had no idea that they were so known and so loved.
Ages ago, I learned a prayer that is one of those prayers that ought to be one of the first prayers you pray when you wake up in the morning. It goes like this: “Good morning, Lord. What are you up to today? Let me be a part of it.”
When you’ve prayed this prayer in the morning, for the rest of the day, no matter how busy the day becomes, this prayer sets you up to lie in wait to find out what the Lord is up to. You lie in wait to see who it is that the Lord wants you to love that day. You lie in wait to see who it is that needs to know that the Lord himself knows them and loves them.
You have to be forewarned that it’s possible, even for Christians, to lie in wait for a spider’s reasons. For some Christians being an agent of Jesus is more like proving themselves, or scoring points. They’re doing it to get something.
Jesus lay in wait in order to give. He asked for a drink of water, and there’s no mention that he ever got what he asked for. Just so, there’s no record that he ate any of the food the disciples went to get for him. Jesus asked purely so that he could give. Jesus gave the woman what he told her that she should have asked for from him. Jesus gave her living water.
Living water, technically, meant running water, water that moved: like fresh creek-water, instead of well-water. John tells us, in the twentieth chapter of his gospel, that he selected the material for his gospel for a purpose: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) The story of Jesus and the woman at the well tells us who Jesus is, so that we may believe in what he truly is. And it tells us about the life we receive from him, because of who he is.
Jesus is the giver of the living water. The Lord, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, is the giver of living water. The Lord says: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” (Isaiah 55:1) Those who come to the giver of the waters will find life, and nourishment, and forgiveness, and mercy.
Jesus told the woman that she needed what only he could give her. And he told her how well he knew her need.
He told her that he was willing to give her new life though his living water, which was the gift of the life of the Holy Spirit: a Spirit-centered life, a God-centered life. He told her enough about her life to prove that he knew everything she had ever done. He also told her that he was everything that she had ever hoped for.
Jesus died on the cross carrying our sins, and feeling the full weight of their power and despair. When he prayed for those who crucified him (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”) he was also praying for us, because we seldom see to the depths of our own sins that helped to put him on the cross. When we see Jesus on the cross for us, then we know that we are both fully known and fully loved.
The story of Jesus and the woman at the well shows us how his lying in wait for us, and our lying in wait for others, is more like a conversation than an ambush. Or maybe it was Jesus who turned an ambush into a conversation.
The woman at the well seemed pretty resistant to Jesus. She almost ambushed Jesus with challenges. If she had talked to us the way she talked to him, we would have stopped and left her alone. Jesus didn’t stop. At very least, he didn’t leave her alone.
We wouldn’t have known what to make of her. Technically, she was mostly asking questions, but they were rude questions. They were off-putting questions, and they were evasive, and slippery, and tricky.
The woman’s questions show her to be full of layers of defensiveness, and Jesus peeled back those layers, one by one. Haven’t you found that Jesus has been trying to do the same with you, all along. We hardly know ourselves, and we certainly don’t want other people to know everything about us. We don’t want to know everything about ourselves.
We are just like the woman at the well. We have to find out, sooner or later, that Jesus knows everything about us. Once again, John is giving us an example from the life and ministry of Jesus, in order to tell us who Jesus really is. There’s a wonderful Psalm that tells us who God is. It’s Psalm 139. “O Lord, you have searched me and know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.” (Psalm 139:1-2)
This is who Jesus is. We are a mystery to ourselves until we find out exactly what Jesus has uncovered at last. He is the Lord who searches us and knows us.
Everyone we know is just such a mystery as we are to them. To lie in wait for others in love we have to be willing to not stop and go away. We have to stay in conversation with others until we see Jesus uncover the layers, whatever time it takes.
The very first thing that Jesus showed the woman was that he trusted her and he gave her the dignity of having something worth giving to him. We lie in wait, in love, by showing others that we trust them. We treat them humbly in the faith that we believe they having something worth giving to us.
There’s no greater honor than knowing that you have something worth giving. Jesus has given us this honor and this gift. When we follow Jesus, we learn to give such honor to others.
Jesus geared what he said to what the woman said to him. Jesus let the woman set the agenda. That’s another honor that we give to others, when we love them as Jesus loves them.
It comes from being willing to love others graciously from the depths of our hearts. It means loving in spirit and in truth, just as we have learned how to worship God in spirit and in truth; from the depths of our hearts. This comes from Jesus, who loves us from the depths of his cross, and so we love others from the depths of our own cross that we have taken up in order to follow Jesus.
We haven’t read all the way to the end of the story. One of the great things Jesus says there is this: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) When we have the spring of living water welling up in to us eternal life (John 4:14) then we will only give to others what Jesus has already given to us.

Spiders lie in wait to eat. The people of Jesus lie in wait to give, and that is their food. They have started their day with the prayer. “Good morning, Lord. What are you up to today? Let me be a part of it.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Faith for Life - Embracing God's Wonderful World

Preached on Sunday, January 22, 2017

Scripture readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:1-21

Last Fall, Some Colors and Encounters
Desert Aire/Mattawa WA - November 2016
There’s this song. You’ve heard it. I’m really not good enough of a man to deserve to sing this song, but I will anyway because God always gives us good news that we don’t deserve to sing about.
“What a Wonderful World”
I see trees of green........ red roses too
I see them bloom..... for me and you
And I think to myself.... what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue..... clouds of white
Bright blessed days....dark sacred nights
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow.....so pretty ..in the sky
Are also on the faces.....of people ..going by
I see friends shaking hands.....sayin’.. how do you do?
They’re really sayin’......I love you.

I hear babies cry...... I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more.....than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world
(George David Weiss/Bob Thiele) Herald Square Music, Inc. on behalf of Range Road Music, Inc. and Quartet Music, Inc. ASCAP

I can’t think of any better way to put into words the meaning of the verse, “For God so loved the world.”
What kind of world do we live in? How would you describe it? Does the world fit the song, or is the song inadequate? Is the song unbiblical and blasphemous? Could God sing this song?
I think we can understand what kind of world we live in, and God’s purpose for us in this world, if we can understand these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
I’ll tell you my answers right now: about the song. I love that song. Do I think the song is adequate? Do I think it tells the truth? I think it tells the truth: maybe not the whole truth. Who could think that it did? And yet I believe that God himself could sing this song; because God so loves the world.
What kind of world do I think we live in? John 3:16 says it. We live in a beloved world, a truly wonderful world. And we live in a perishing world. 
These must be truly seen together, and not forgotten. Unless we understand the absolute depth of its belovedness, and the depth of its perishing, we won’t know who we are, or where we are, or what to do next.
John 3:16 makes us very wise, because it tells us that there is good news. It tells us that the good news is important. The good news is the beginning and ending of all things. But it’s especially important because there is also bad news, and we’ll never get through the bad news unless we know the good news.
I once knew a denominational officer who, at meetings, would sometimes say: “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” After the meeting, I usually told him, “We’re all Christians here, and we all believe in the happy ending. So, let’s have the bad news first.”
But that’s not quite biblical, either, because (biblically) you start with the good news, then you get faced with the bad news, and then you get the great news (the wonderful news), as the final word.
John 3:16 tells us about the good news of the love that God has for the world. There is great news in seeing how far the love of God for the world will go when bad news raises its ugly head.
But we must remember that the love of God for the world came first. And God’s love for the world is the final, final word. But the love of God for the world is also God’s first word on everything.
The word “world” in this passage means, mostly, the human world. It’s the world of individuals, and neighbors, and strangers, and friends, and enemies. It’s the world of families, and relationships, and communities, and nations, and laws, and politics, and economics, and international relations. It’s the world of social issues, and culture wars, and wars of blood and carnage.
I also think that Jesus’ use of the word “world”, as it’s used here, includes the world of nature. It includes the environment that we are all a part of. It means the creation that surrounds us, as we belong to it.
Although we have reason to fear the world of nature, there’s nothing wrong with that world, except as far as we have gone wrong right in the middle of it. There is a curse, in the form of a punishment for our human rebellion against God.
The curse sets us at odds with the creation. Creation will not work for us the way it might have done, if we had been willing to be faithful to the love of God. Our perishing ways have blighted the natural world; but that’s our fault.
It’s not nature’s fault.
You see the bad news most clearly in the human world. That’s where you can see the “perishing” part at its darkest. That’s where you see darkness, and the hiding from the light. That’s where you see evil, and ugliness, and condemnation. Where life has gone wrong, you see perishing taking the place of life.
Jesus mentions a snake, on a pole, in the desert. This comes from that story in the Book of Numbers, where the people of Israel have won some great victories, and then they sit down and complain.
In the story of the journey of God’s people, wandering through the wilderness to the Promised Land, the Lord has been making sure that his people have enough food and water along the way, but they complain about it anyway. And then they run into a plague of snakes, really aggressive, deadly snakes.
The snakes have come as a result of their complaints. When they confess their guilt to Moses, Moses prays, and the Lord tells him to make a bronze copy of the snakes, and put it on a pole, and the people who look at the bronze snake will be healed.
Moses does it; and the people do it. The people are healed. The bronze snake is a picture of the people’s sins. It’s also, strangely, a picture of God’s holiness. It’s a picture of God’s faithful love.
When the people look at the bronze snake they see these two things; and both of these things are true: they see their sins, and they see God’s love.
That’s the good news; but, for now, we are looking at the bad news. Their stubborn habit of complaining tells us of a strange desire that human beings have to live outside of the environment of the love of God, and its obligations: the obligations of love and faithfulness.
We want to be in charge. We want to do, and to say, and to think, and to feel just what we want, whether it’s good or not; whether it’s healthy, or helpful, or not; whether it’s life-giving or not.
There’s nothing wrong with a snake being a snake, but there’s a lot wrong with people being like snakes. That’s what those people were. They were bitten by their own medicine.
We are the same. The human world, in the way that it’s divorced from God, is a snake-bitten world. It has venom running through its veins, and the venom is contagious. It needs a remedy, but it cannot heal itself. We cannot heal ourselves.
The temptation is to think that those people of Israel (the ones who were bitten by the snakes) were bad people. They weren’t bad people. They were ordinary people. They were just ordinary sinners; and they were scared, and frustrated, and crabby.
They were tired of always, constantly, having to live by faith. They felt that living by faith didn’t give them enough attention. Living by faith didn’t give them their due. And, so, they did their share of biting, and they got bit back.
It’s the same with us; decent, sincere people that we are: in other words, decent, ordinary sinners. Nicodemus was also a decent, sincere man who was capable of seeing God at work in the world around him. He showed that he was capable of seeing God at work in Jesus, and he was capable of wanting to know more about it. And, so, it was quite a shock for him, as it is for us, to hear these words: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7)
Nicodemus was very wise to see and suggest that this wasn’t possible, because he really almost understood what Jesus meant. He knew that Jesus meant a completely new life; and he, himself, had probably tried being a new person a thousand times. It hadn’t worked. Nicodemus had only succeeded in appearances.
What Jesus expected seemed so impossible that Nicodemus couldn’t think of anything except to make a crude joke about it. “Shall I go find my old mother and climb inside her?”
The Greek word that’s often used in the New Testament for being born makes us see birth in a way that’s different from our normal way of seeing it. It’s related to the word for Genesis, as in the creation of the universe. Jesus told Nicodemus, and us, that we have to become a new creation.
What Jesus says must be done is something that’s impossible for us to do. It has nothing to do with the things we can do. It has nothing to do with starting a new chapter in your life, or turning over a new leaf. It has nothing to do with growing or evolving. It has nothing to do with stopping being yourself, or with finding yourself. It has nothing to do with a makeover. (Sometimes kids set out to recreate themselves, but that has nothing to do with being born again.) It has nothing to do with a new attitude, or a new discipline, or a new spirituality.
Back in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, there’s a picture of the Holy Spirit of God hovering over the shapeless creation. The shapelessness is described as “the waters” or “the deep”.
The “water and the spirit” are Jesus’ way of describing the new creation of a human being in the miracle of being born again. When he says, “Spirit gives birth to spirit,” he means that the new life is spirit-centered. He means that the new life is God-centered. Being born again means being recreated in the power, and the holiness, and the image of God, through the Holy Spirit.
When we are born again, we are no longer purely children of a perishing world. We are no longer living in perishing ways. Through Jesus, our perishing life has perished. We have come to an end of ourselves. In our heart, we are children of God who will not perish, and we will live in life-giving ways.
It’s very important to understand how God does this thing that’s impossible for us. We come back to John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
“He gave his only begotten son.” That’s the key. God gave his Son.
Jesus told Nicodemus that the Christ, the Son of God, would be like the snake on the pole that brought healing to those who saw him. Nicodemus knew the story well, but he had never thought of it, before, as relating to the Messiah.
He couldn’t imagine it at all; although, later on, he would see the real thing for himself. Nicodemus would stand at the foot of the cross looking up at Jesus, and he would help to take Jesus down from the cross, and bury him.
Crucifixion was considered to be a cursed death (especially by the Jews); because of its bloodiness, its ugliness, its monstrosity. It revealed the reality of evil and sin. It was like visible darkness.
Only the worst and the lowest people were crucified. Jesus came to identify himself with this world of evil and darkness. He allowed himself to be treated as if he were the worst, and as if he were the lowest, by taking it all upon himself. Jesus became the very picture of this wonderful, perishing world that is so loved by God.
Jesus’ plan was for this terrible and cursed death (this picture of the world at its worst) to bring us life, and to make us a part of a wonderful world. He died in place of us. He was like the snake on the pole. Those who looked at him would see their own sin. And they would see the faithful love of God. In seeing both, they would be healed, and they would live. They would do more than live. They would be reborn.
Having faith in what we see on the cross (having faith in who we see on the cross) is a self-emptying thing. We die to ourselves when we accept it as God’s gift to us. And the Holy Spirit gives us a new birth into a new life.
This is what believing is about. It means stepping into that different thing; that previously unknown thing; that new thing. You enter in.
Sometimes we feel the perishing life closing in on us, holding us like a tightening clamp; but God gives us everlasting life, life that never runs out, life that never ends. God gives us a life where the lights come on.
In that light, we can see the mess better much better than we could before (when we were blind in the darkness), and we can also see the disappearance of so much that we were afraid of. So, we come to the light.
This is not a thing that we can make happen. It truly, only, happens to us because God so loves us, and so loves the world to which we belong. When we know this, then we understand the kind of world we live in, and then we can understand our place and our job in such a world.
Our job is to join Jesus in bringing others with us, into this wonderful world. But we have to live in the presence of this wonderful world if we are to be any good to anyone else, if we are going to be any good for the world that God so loves.

We know that we live in a perishing world. But, most of all, we know that we live in a beloved world. Our world is made wonderful by the love of God. We can go on out into it; into God’s world, and live out the truth and the power of God’s love, and share it with others.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Faith for Living - Jesus and the Transformers

Preached on Sunday, January 15, 2017 

Scripture readings: Isaiah 25:1-9; John 2:1-11

There’s a “Transformers” movie series which begins when a young guy buys a used Chevy Camaro that proves to have a mind of its own. It turns out that the car can transform itself into a super-intelligent, super-strong robot from another planet.
On that Walk between Live Oak CA and the Feather River
December 2016
It’s a member of an alien race of robots who can transform themselves into mostly motor vehicles of various sorts. Those are the transformers.
There are all kinds of books, and videos, and programs out there that promise to turn you into a transformer. They don’t promise to give you the power to change yourself from one thing into another, but they promise to teach you to change yourself into a different person than you currently are. They promise to teach you to transform yourself into someone smarter, more physically fit, more confident, more successful, sexier, or richer, or some combination of these.
Some of these programs may actually work. They may turn people into transformers.
When I was in high school, my grandma Evans believed that I was in serious need of transforming myself into a different person. So, she gave me a copy of “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale, in hopes that I would take it to heart. She hoped that, by taking it to heart, I would become a more confident person.
I gave it a half-hearted try; even though I clearly understood that the book warned me that half-heartedness was doomed to failure. I experimented with it, and I soon felt that it was a program that could only succeed if I hid myself from myself. My experiment only worked when I pretended to be someone else (someone I was not), and I found that I couldn’t really eliminate my old self.
In the end, I gave it up. I didn’t become a transformer.
A couple years later, when I was eighteen, I received an experience of transformation without ever becoming a transformer. The people who knew me as a kid would be able to vouch for this. They noticed the transformation, at the time, and they said so.
My secret of transformation is that I gave up. I had loved the Lord for as long as I could remember. I remember loving God (loving Jesus) when I was three, but there was a lot of understanding that I needed to grow into; and I had to learn to say “yes” to God about those things. When I was eighteen I realized that I had not been saying “yes” to the God I loved.
There’s a common phrase among Christians about “accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior”. And I don’t know how well even Christians understand this phrase.
“Savior” is a word we seem to take to mean that Jesus is the source of our forgiveness. Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins on the cross. That’s true. I had officially accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior when I was about nine. I did this while I was watching Billy Graham on TV, all by myself, at home in our family den.
Actually, I believe I knew something about this long before. That was part of the reason why I loved Jesus.
“Savior” also means rescuer. Jesus is the one who saves the day. He comes to our rescue, and this goes infinitely beyond sin.
When I was eight I almost drowned. And, when I say that I “almost drowned”, I not referring to the time when I really did drown. I really did drown when I was seventeen, in the sense that I wasn’t breathing and I had turned purple when they got me out of the lake.
When I was eight, I only, almost drowned in a swimming pool. When this happened there was a kid who jumped into the pool, and grabbed me, and swam me back to shallow water.
Boy was I ever mad at him. I yelled at him. I told him that everything had been just fine and that I didn’t need his help. That boy was my savior from drowning, and I refused to admit it. I didn’t accept him as my savior, which would have meant admitting that I was in trouble like he said.
Christians accept Jesus as their Savior from the sins that are really bothering them, but they aren’t very open to admitting everyplace where they truly need forgiveness, because there are places where even the best of us don’t want to accept responsibility or blame. Letting Jesus saves us from our sins doesn’t go very far, unless we are willing for him to save us from ourselves.
When Christians accept Jesus as Lord, sometimes it seems that they only mean admitting that Jesus is the big guy, and that he has the power to answer their prayers, if they pray the right way. But the word “Lord” means that he’s the boss. It means that we always say yes to Jesus, and that we never, never say “no”. The best of us have trouble with this.
When I was eighteen, I was faced with a choice of whether I was willing to say “no” to anything Jesus said. I felt, from the depth of my heart, that I couldn’t face it any longer. I could no longer face being someone who said “no” to Jesus.
To the best of my ability, I have stopped saying “no” to Jesus. If you catch me saying “no”, please confront me about it.
For me, positive thinking can only be the willingness to say “yes” to Jesus; and not say “no”.
There is really only one transformer. That one is Jesus.
The Gospel of John tells us that changing water into wine was the first “sign” that Jesus did. The word “sign” means more than a miracle. Sign means identification. A sign is a signal. The signs of Jesus signify his identity. Jesus’ signs are the signals that he sent to tell others who he is.
Wine is a sign for what God does. So is water. All through the Old Testament, God sometimes provides water as needed. God provides water because water is life-giving. God is the life-giver: the maker and protector of life. Water is a sign of God.
The Old Testament also shows God as the wine-maker, or the provider of wine. (Isaiah 25:6; Jeremiah 31:12; Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 2:14-23) When God brings the wine, it’s the sign of joy, and promise, and abundance. When God brings the wine, it is part of the celebration of the union, or the marriage, between God and his people, or even between God and his creation.
In Isaiah, God brings the wine to celebrate the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a new world where there is no more doom and gloom. There is no darkness. There is no death. There is no grief.
The wine is for everyone who has trusted in God. The wine is for everyone who has been brought by the love of God into that new world that will not end. It is a world where all people are married to God.
It’s a world where all people have been transformed by the transformer God. “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” (Isaiah 25:8)
It also needs to be said that, through the Old Testament, wine also serves as a sign for blood. (Isaiah 63:1) The truth is that the power to transform sinners and the power to transform the world were pictured and foreshadowed by the blood of the sacrifices in the temple for the forgiveness of sins, and by the predictions of the prophets about the great bloody battles that would come at the end of time for changing the old world into the new world.
The blood of the cross became the power to transform people, and to bring a new creation to life. In the gospel, the bearer of the cross brings the wine.
Jesus turned the water into wine in order to show that he is the one who brings the wine. He is the bridegroom of the new world. He is the transformer.
Toward the end of the Gospel of John, John tells us his purpose for choosing to write what he wrote. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) John chooses every episode, and every talk of Jesus, in order to show us exactly who Jesus is, and in order to show us how he gives us life.
At the marriage in Cana, Jesus shows us that he is the transformer. He turns water (which is a symbol for life) into wine (which is a symbol for abundance, and celebration, and union).
Jesus shows us that his power can transform our limitations. Jesus shows us that we can live with his abundance, and celebration, and union in our ordinary lives in this world. Jesus shows us that we can live in this world without anger or fear because he will use his power to change this needy world into a new world, in his time.
In the time and the world of Jesus, everyone in town, and people from miles around, would attend any local wedding. The whole world went to your wedding. And they were all supposed to be wined and dined by you.
Your honor depended on this. Shame would follow any failure of hospitality for your part. That shame would follow you all your life.
The family that ran out of wine was probably a poor family doing the best they could, and they were failing. Their failure would not be forgotten, and no amount of positive thinking could prevent it.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, noticed the trouble they were in, and she feared for them. She decided that something needed to be done, and she was sure that Jesus could do it even though he had never given any sign of being able to do something like that before. She had a good reason for knowing this.
In some ways, Mary was the first Christian. She was the first person to have their life changed by Jesus. Doesn’t this make sense? Mary had a God-given identity and calling that came totally by the grace of God in Christ.
Mary was a person of grace who saw that others had a need for grace. She saw that they needed something that only Jesus could give them. She saw them with the eyes of one upon whom the Holy Spirit had come. (Luke 1:35) When the angel told Mary that she had “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30), the word translated as favor is the same word that is translated as grace.
Mary spoke to Jesus on behalf of this young couple and their family. It was one of the first prayers made to Jesus. Jesus sounds like he was surprised by it, and not quite prepared to do anything about it.
Doesn’t this show us something we already know? We may not always be sure that Jesus is prepared to come to the aid of others for whom we pray. We may not always be sure of what he intends to do. It’s true that he might have other plans. So, it isn’t strange that the people who knew Jesus the best felt the same as we do.
Jesus didn’t really answer Mary clearly at all. Mary still had faith in him, and she told the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
This is the mystery of not saying “no”. Refusing to say no is not a way of getting what you want from Jesus. It’s simply the only way that we can really trust Jesus as Lord.
Jesus was, and is, the transformer. In a way, Mary (as the first Christian) became a transformer, too. She saw a need. Her heart spoke to her. Her heart was the same heart on whom the Holy Spirit had come. Her heart was the first heart to beat side by side with the heart of Jesus. Timothy Keller writes: “There’s a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice.”
This is what God’s justice is about: confronting a world where (over and over again) we see that the wine has gone. Mary spoke from the experience of a heart that knew this. She spoke to Jesus. She also spoke to the people who needed to be spoken to. She got people to listen to Jesus and not to their own common sense. She got other people to do what they would never have done without her initiative. She played a part in getting the water turned into wine. Mary set it up.
We live in a world where there is love and hope and yet there is not enough of something missing to see it all through. No matter how much we have to love and celebrate, we live in a world where the wine is gone, and we are called to see and confront this, with Jesus’ help, and with prayer, and with the will to do whatever he tells you, and with the will to persuade others.
We live in a shrouded world: shrouded by the sin that is so destructive that it leads to death. Jesus came to bear all that sin and death on the cross and to kill its power by resurrection. Jesus came to take away the shroud and raise the world, and us, to life.
We don’t have the power to turn the water into wine, but we can bring to others our service to Jesus. We can be like the servants, who were the only ones at the wedding who really knew everything that was going on. We can bring out to the world whatever Jesus wants to turn into wine.

Our story can become the story of Jesus and the transformers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Faith for Life - The Art of Being Surprised

Preached on Sunday, January 8, 2017

Scripture readings: Genesis 28:10-17; John 1:29-51

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16) All through the Old and New Testaments, God is surprising.
In the stories that we have read this morning, from Genesis and from the Gospel of John, there really is the same surprise. At some point, neither Jacob nor the people who are about to become the disciples of Jesus are aware of the fact that, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Walking toward the Feather River from Live Oak, CA
December 2016
In Jacob’s story the center of God’s surprising promise (the foundation upon which all of God’s promises are based) is where we hear the Lord say, “I am with you.” (Genesis 28:15) God isn’t with Jacob because of the angels. The angels are there because God is there. God brings the peace, and grace, and power of heaven into contact with the needs of earth, and to us in our deepest needs.
Jacob is running for his life, and his life has become a disaster, and God will be with Jacob to rescue Jacob from himself. Jacob is running for his life because he has stolen his brother’s blessing by tricking and lying to their father Isaac.
Jacob is a manipulator, a thief, and a liar. If God comes to Jacob in the night, it ought to be for the purpose of punishing him or, at least, giving him a good scolding.
But God is surprising. God is a surprise. This was Jacob’s first recorded encounter with the Lord. He had heard of the Lord from his father, but I don’t think he had ever actually met him before this disaster. Given what Jacob was, in his heart, there should have been the greatest chasm, and wall, and gap between him and the Lord. The Lord shouldn’t have been with him at all.
You need to know, right now, that the Lord is with you just as much as the Lord is with anyone who hasn’t met him before (like Jacob) and whose is (at heart) false-hearted (like Jacob). You also need to know the truth that the Lord really is with you.
The Lord who says, “I am with you,” is not only with everyone. The Lord is also with everyone (including you and me) on the basis of being the bridger of chasms, the breaker of walls, the filler of gaps.
This Lord is the Savior from sin. He is the hero and the rescuer. The ladder full of angels was the bridge of God with Jacob, the God who would save Jacob from himself.
The people who were going to become disciples of Jesus didn’t know or understand what they were looking for. They came to Jesus, first of all, simply because they loved John the Baptist who spoke about the time when God would come near to judge his people, and to judge the world, and to set up his kingdom among them and make them the center of his blessing to the world. John told his own disciples about someone who was coming, who would make this happen.
Then, one day, John pointed them to Jesus, and he called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This would make Jesus someone who would bridge the chasms, break the walls, and fill the gaps between God and his people; between God and the world.
This would make Jesus someone who would fulfill ancient promises in the scriptures that were very hard to understand. The prophet Isaiah spoke of someone who would serve as a lamb-like sacrifice: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him; and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) That’s the saving-sacrifice part. Here is the lamb-like part: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7) This was God’s surprising scheme to save the world.
So, the disciples of John the Baptist, and their friends, began to come to Jesus. They didn’t know, for sure, what to call him: rabbi (which sort of means a teacher), or even Messiah and Christ (which is a royal title for an anointed king).
They found, first of all, that Jesus was surprising. Jesus was a complete surprise to them. His first words were, “What do you want?” (John 1:38) His second words were: “Come and see.” (John 1:39) It was his invitation for them to stay with him. It was his offer to be with them.
First of all, Jesus would change their lives by being with them. What they understood least, at this point, what that he would change them absolutely by being the lamb that was slain to take away their sins. Jesus was the one who bridges the chasms, and breaks the walls, and fills the gaps. He would take the first steps to change the world by changing them, and by changing us.
The first disciples wouldn’t understand this until Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. When this crucified Lord is with us, then his death is with us: the death of our own sins, and the death of everything in us that so needs to be changed, is with us. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ.” (Galatians 2:20)
When this risen Lord is with us, the resurrection is with us. This not only means the promise of heaven> it means a new heart beats in us, and a new mind thinks in us, and a new soul feels in us. “Heaven comes down and glory fills our souls.”
How can anyone be anything but surprised by this? This is what God is like. This is what God does. When Jesus is with us, then we can say, like Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.”
Jesus is what Jacob saw. Jesus told Nathanael that Nathanael, would come to see this same thing about him. Jesus is the Lord with us. One of Jesus’ names, in the gospels is Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us”. (Matthew 1:23) Jesus brings heaven to us where we are, in our great need.
All the people we read about this morning were caught, by surprise, by the God of surprises. Jacob was in danger. He was also losing the only world he knew. He was also in a crisis and disaster of his own making. Jacob deserved to be on the run. He deserved to lose everything. This was a crisis very much like “hitting bottom.”
Jacob had no real knowledge or experience of God, until that moment of hitting bottom. How can you tell someone that they may not really ever know who God is, or who Jesus is (which is the same thing), until they hit bottom? How can you say that to anyone? I’ve known the Lord all my life but I needed failure, and humiliation, and crisis in order to be completely surprised out of my old self into something new.
For the disciples of Jesus, I think they lived in a state of mind in which they perceived their world to be in crisis. Their people and their nation were in crisis. They had been conquered and occupied by one of the world’s great superpowers. People were saying: “Something radical has to happen. Things cannot go on as they are.” Jesus seemed like a possible solution to this desperate feeling. Jesus seemed like the answer.
The curious thing is that Jesus didn’t change any of the things they were worried about. Jesus didn’t take away anything that they feared or hated. The world and the situation of their nation went on as it had been going, and it all went from bad to worse in their lifetime.
Jesus changed their world only by changing them. And he did this by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. This would come as a complete surprise to them.
The whole Bible in general, and the gospels in particular, teach us the gift of surprise. When we know Jesus, we ought to be ready for anything. We ought to be ready for surprise.
Maybe we ought to be in a continual state of surprise. We are not supposed to cultivate our sense of surprise. We are not called to emotionalism. We are called to see outside ourselves, and to see heaven come to earth.
This is what should happen because of the fact that we live with Jesus, and we are usually looking at him and listening to him at the same time that we are living what looks like ordinary lives. Our calling is not to generate feelings but to see Jesus.
Jesus is God with us, and so our calling is to be prepared to share the stories of our surprising Jesus, our surprising God, with others. This comes easier when we remember the stories of the Bible that tell us that God is with us even when we have hit bottom. God is with us when we think that things can’t keep going as they are. God is with everyone who is in any of those same boats. We can’t share our God with anyone if we don’t trust that God is ready, and able, and more than willing to surprise them.

The disciples, in their lives before Jesus, were searching, but they were surprised to be found by the God who was searching for them. Jacob was just running with all his might. He wasn’t searching for anything but he was found anyway. This is the God who is always a surprise, and he makes our own lives in this world a surprise to share with others.