Monday, March 27, 2017

Faith for Life - The Great Shepherd

Preached on Sunday, March 26, 2017

Scripture readings: Psalm 23; John 10:1-21

A grandma gave her little grandson a big hug when he came in the door, and she said, “How’s my little lamb?” The boy’s answer was, “Grandma, I don’t want to be your little lamb any more. I want to be your little tiger!”
Walking along the Columbia River at Desert Aire, WA
March 2017
Jesus described us as his flock, with himself being our good shepherd. This has a lot to tell us about who Jesus is and what he wants us to become. It’s true that, compared to Jesus, we are pretty sheepish. But the main reason Jesus compares us to sheep in his parable of the good shepherd is to let us know that, if sheep are lucky to have a good shepherd, then how much better it is to be real human beings with Jesus as our Lord, our Savior, and our Friend. (paraphrase of Leslie Weatherhead)
The root of the Hebrew word for shepherd is the same as the root for friend. And shepherd is also one of the titles given to the ancient kings of Israel.
Jesus is our friend and our King: our Lord. He isn’t so much telling us that we’re sheep as he is telling us that he’s our friend and leader, and that we can count on him.
A good shepherd is an expert shepherd. Jesus means that he knows what he’s doing and so we’re in good hands. We’re in safe hands. Two kids were talking about their dogs. One kid had taught his dog to do lots of tricks. The other kid hadn’t, and he asked the successful dog-training-kid how he did it. His friend said, “Well, first of all, you’ve got to know more than your dog.”
A good shepherd knows more about being a sheep than the sheep do. Even if they could talk, sheep couldn’t tell you much about themselves. They could say: “I’m eating very well, thank you.” Or, “I’m playing.” Or, “I’m tired.” Or, “I’m scared.”
If you asked the shepherd how his sheep were doing, he could tell you where they were in the season, where they had come from, how long the present pasture would hold out, and where their next pasture would be. The shepherd could tell you if there were any signs of danger serious enough to worry about.
If you asked a sheep what a stream was for, they would tell you, confidently, that a stream was for drinking. The shepherd would tell you that a stream could also be for crossing to get to the next pasture, or to get back to the corral, and home.
Sheep know what they want to eat, and where they want to eat their way to. The shepherd knows whether their desires are good for them.
The sheep that’s always able to go its own way is, in the end, the lost sheep, the frightened hungry sheep, the wolf’s dinner. It’s the sheep who follow their shepherd that have the most abundant lives.
For humans following Jesus, there are two kinds of following.
The most sheep-like kind of following is the practical kind. It’s getting directions and being guiding in life’s choices. “What should be my life’s work?” “Where should I live?” “Who should I marry?”
“Shall I have a slice of the chocolate cream pie, or a slice of the coconut cream pie?” These are the questions about the mechanics of life. These are important, but not the most important questions.
After you eat the chocolate pie, you could realize your mistake and you could go back for some of that coconut pie. Although you could eat your way into the problem of having to stop eating any pie at all.
I prayed very hard for guidance before I came here, but I’m always aware of a problem about this. When I was in college, I had to make a choice between two completely different jobs. I struggled in prayer about this choice because I was a very serious Christian. I prayed, and prayed, and I felt, in the end, that God was laughing at me and saying, “Dennis, choose either job. I’ll bless you either way.”
That’s one way of following. The other way is for the more mature sheep. This means following Jesus where he goes morally and spiritually.
It isn’t so much a matter of where to go, but how you get there. After all, Jesus is more than a shepherd and we are more than sheep. Instead of leading us to pastures of grass, like different spots on the map, Jesus is leading us to pastures of fellowship and relationship with others, pastures of faithfulness, pastures of commitment, pastures of peace, pastures of involvement.
Jesus described his own best pasture to his disciples, and to the woman at the well, in Chapter Four of the Gospel of John. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” Jesus’ favorite pasture is serving his Father.
This is where Jesus really goes ahead of us and leads us. Being a sheep, in Jesus’ flock, means asking yourself, “How can I apply Jesus’ way of life, or his way of loving, or his way of praying, or his way of sacrifice?”
So, our choice of what to do and where to do it is not as important as our choice of how to live with the Lord, and with others, along the way. Things like our job and our place in life are mainly something that occupies us while we apply ourselves to serving Jesus and others, and loving Jesus and others.
At the same time, the practical choices we make will set us up for a special set of opportunities and problems that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. God will use what we choose, and work it into our lives with the proper blessings, and losses, and people, that will allow us to grow the most in faith and love.
There seem to be wrong turns and detours, but the main part of following the good shepherd is following how to live, not where to live. Following Jesus is moral and spiritual, and that is the obedience of following that will allow him to make you the person he created you to be.
A sheep can never hope to become like its shepherd, but Jesus is more than a shepherd, and we are more than sheep. We will never be like Jesus in all his glory, but we can be like him in surprising ways: in humility, in simplicity, in love.
That’s what matters. Whatever your practical choices, you will look back and see that you might have done better. You might have been wiser. Yet the good shepherd always gave you the best that you were prepared to receive. You will see that Jesus has always provided for you and cared for you along the way, and he always will. Even the times when he had to correct you were right and good.
Following the good shepherd means following the love, the good faith, the strength, the courage, and the wisdom of Jesus in all your relationships. If you do this, then you will look back and see the growth and the leading that the Lord has given you.
You will look back and see the Lord’s power at work, leading you and caring for you. That is another part of following. There is power in this.
The Greek word used here for good (as in the good shepherd) also means “beautiful”. It means a beauty that is attractive and powerful. This beauty doesn’t only serve itself, it actually does something to those who see it. We have to experience this strange, and powerful, and compelling beauty, or else we won’t know anything at all, no matter how well we might follow.
Something of the beauty of Jesus has to go into our heart, or else something essential will be missing. Jesus describes the powerful beauty of his voice as the bond between him and his sheep: between him and us.
I was at a church women’s meeting once, where there were a couple of mothers with babies and there was a baby sitter in a nearby room with the babies and the older kids. We heard a baby start to cry and one of the mothers got up and left the meeting, because she knew that the sound of crying came from her own baby’s voice. Her baby’s voice had power, and that one voice moved her, and not the others, because the crying was just for that one mother.
Who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, is a unique, powerful, and beautiful voice that reaches inside us, changes us, and motivates and moves us. Who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, is a bond that ties us to him, and we are no longer the same.
Jesus is the sacrificing shepherd. His rod and his staff are the cross that comforts us, that heals us and promises that we are loved with a love that is safe and indestructible.
An ordinary shepherd would die for his sheep only because he was risking his life to keep them, and himself, alive. An ordinary shepherd wouldn’t want to die because, if he did, that would be the end of the sheep, just as much as if he had run away. The enemy would have a free hand and the flock would be defenseless and lost.
Jesus is different because he intentionally sacrificed his life for love of us. In his life, and death, and resurrection, we see how far he went to share everything that we have got to deal with it, and also to give us everything that he has for new life.
Jesus fought with, and took the punches of, all our enemies: temptation, weakness, tiredness, abandonment, sin, and even death. Jesus intentionally went all the way so that wherever we are he can come to us qualified to be our good shepherd.
The cross is his tool (his rod and his staff) because it is how he guides us to live and encourages us to trust. The cross represents a real battle that he has fought for us, and for our salvation (our rescue), because it really was the weapon of his success. The cross is how he sets us free from our sins, and our guilt, and our fears. The cross is the sign that Jesus is the best shepherd (the great shepherd), and that he will never quit, and never hold back.
Paul the apostle wrote “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Corinthians 1:20 RSV) On the cross, God, “made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 RSV) These are the accomplishments that Jesus achieved by using the weapon or the tool of the cross.

When we follow Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we start out as sheep: smelly, foolish, and fuzzy. The path we take with him is changing us into something else. Instead of merely guiding us and protecting us; instead of merely planning for us; the skill and the beauty of Jesus are changing us into his children; his own sons and daughters; his own little brothers and little sisters. Jesus is much more than any good shepherd. Jesus is our Lord, and Savior, and Friend.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lenten Reflections on the Catechisms - The Lord's Prayer

"Lenten Reflections"
Alternating during the Wednesdays of Lent, I am taking turns with the local Lutheran pastor preaching or guiding meditations and reflections on themes from the catechisms.

Shared on Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Scripture readings: Luke 11:1-4; Mark 4:32-41

There is this prayer that we call The Lord’s Prayer. We call it The Lord’s Prayer because it’s a prayer that the Lord Jesus taught his disciples, and us. We say that it’s a prayer that Jesus has taught us because we hope that we are his disciples, too.
Along the Columbia River at Desert Aire, WA
December 2016, February 2017
It’s a prayer in the words of Jesus. It’s a great thing (a great comfort) to come to God the Father in prayer with the very words that God the Son made into a prayer for us.
Surely, we know that The Lord’s Prayer is not a magic prayer. It’s a prayer given to us by God the Son and, so, (if it’s a prayer for us) it’s a prayer for humans who have found a new life as the human sons and daughters of God.
It’s not a prayer of power. It’s a prayer of relationship, because it’s a prayer of sons and daughters. It’s a prayer created to come from the heart, and to reflect the heart of those who pray it, and also to reflect the heart of the one to whom we pray.
Like the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, The Lord’s Prayer tells us that God is with us in our fears and in our faith.
Some have said that we ought to call this prayer The Disciples’ Prayer. Disciple means follower and learner. When I was young, my teachers made our classes learn a lot of things by heart: but you can learn a lot of things by heart that don’t really come from your heart, or change your heart.
I believe the disciples wanted to pray with a disciple’s heart. They didn’t ask, “Lord, teach us a prayer.” They asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
They wanted to love the Lord with all their heart. They wanted to pray with the same kind of heart they saw in Jesus: with the same kind of heart that Jesus said that his Father had.
In this five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation we are looking, a bit, at the heart of the disciples of Jesus from our tradition of the Reformation. In my part of that tradition, we have a “catechism”, a teaching devise, from about four hundred years ago, called the Westminster Shorter Catechism, because it was the shorter one of two. It became the main teaching device for children in the reformed tradition of the British Isles and of many in the American colonies, and it continued to be used up until the early part of the twentieth century. Let’s take a look at what that catechism teaches about the heart that prays The Lord’s Prayer, and the God of the Prayer who calls us sons and daughters.
But first I want to comment on one of the most important unnoticed words in the Prayer. That word is the word “our”: our Father; our daily bread; our sins, debts, trespasses. It’s the same issue with the word “us”: give us; deliver us.
We never pray alone, and we are never to pray only for ourselves. We never pray alone because the Prayer teaches us that we pray with God the Son, to God the Father, and we know that we pray in the power of God the Holy Spirit.
We never pray alone for other reasons. This world and this creation is full of prayer, because God is the Father of creation, and the Son is the servant-savior of creation, and the Spirit is the breath of Creation. (For those reading this, for example, see Psalm 145)
We never pray alone because all of God’s children in heaven and on earth are praying together. This is happening even now.
We never pray alone because we never pray to only “my Father”. We never pray for only “my daily bread”. We never pray for only “my sins to be forgiven”. We never pray only “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”
We pray with the whole family of creation and the church. We pray for the whole family of creation and the church. We know how to pray with the words “us” and “our” because you and I represent much more than ourselves in prayer. When Jesus teaches you, and me, and us, to pray, this is how his prayer shapes your heart, and my heart, and our heart.
Let’s turn to this old catechism and see how our hearts and lives are changed by prayer and by The Lord’s Prayer.
Q98. What is prayer?
Prayer is offering our desires to God in the name of Christ for things that agree with His will, confessing our sins, and thankfully recognizing His mercies.

What are our desires when we have a heart shaped by true prayer?
How does our life with others change because we have such desires and such a heart?

Q99. How does God direct us to pray?
The whole word of God, but especially the Lord's prayer, which Christ taught His disciples, directs our prayers.

Good! Now let’s look at the Lord’s Prayer.
Q100. What does the beginning of the Lord's prayer teach us?
The beginning of the Lord's prayer (Our Father in heaven) teaches us to draw near to God with completely holy reverence and confidence, as children to a father who is able and ready to help us. It also teaches that we should pray with and for others.

Our Father in heaven:
What is the word, in this phrase, that might teach us that God is ready?
What is the word, in this phrase, that might teach us that God is able?
Q101. For what do we pray in the first request?
In the first request (hallowed be your name) we pray that God will enable us and others to glorify Him in everything He uses to make Himself known and that He will work out everything to His own glory.

John Calvin (the younger contemporary of Martin Luther) wrote: “That God’s name should be hallowed is nothing other than to say that God should have his own honor, of which he is worthy, so that men should never think or speak of God without the greatest veneration.”
Who is responsible for seeing to it that others speak of God with the greatest veneration?
How can we be part of this?
Q102. For what do we pray in the second request?
In the second request (your kingdom come) we pray that Satan's kingdom may be destroyed, that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, with ourselves and others brought into and kept in it, and that the kingdom of glory may come quickly.

If this comes from our heart what kind of life will we live for the coming of the kingdom?
How are we limited in our role in the Father’s kingdom coming?
Q103. For what do we pray in the third request?
In the third request (your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) we pray that by His grace God would make us have the capability and the will to know, obey, and submit to His will in everything, as the angels do in heaven.

How does God’s will get done on earth?
How might God’s will being done be a matter of culture, and law, and the church?
Q104. For what do we pray in the fourth request?
In the fourth request (Give us today our daily bread) we pray that we may receive an adequate amount of the good things in this life as a free gift of God and that with them we may enjoy His blessing.

How would a thankful heart pray this prayer?
What would the life of those who prayed this prayer for others look like?

Q105. For what do we pray in the fifth request?
In the fifth request (Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors), encouraged by God's grace, which makes it possible for us sincerely to forgive others, we pray that, for Christ's sake, God would freely pardon all our sins.

“Debts” and “trespasses are the word from Matthew’s “Lord’s Prayer” and Jesus’ explanation of it in Matthew. “Sin” and “debts” are both of the words from Luke’s “Lord’s Prayer”. I like to think of “debts” being where we fall short, and “trespasses” being where we go too far. Both falling short and going too far are at the heart of the meaning of sin, in which we miss the mark of being, for God and for others, what God has created us to be.
Why does God require us to forgive others?
How does our forgiveness being related to our forgiving of others make you feel?
Q106. For what do we pray in the sixth request?
In the sixth request (And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one) we pray that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin or support and deliver us when we are tempted.

I believe that “deliver us from evil” and “deliver us from the evil one” are equally likely translations of this prayer. God may test us but evil tempts us.
How does this request relate to God as our Father and Parent?
What does this request say about what is going on in us and in our world?

Q107. What does the conclusion of the Lord's prayer teach us?
The conclusion of the Lord's prayer (for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever) teaches us to be encouraged only by God in our prayers and to praise Him by acknowledging that kingdom, power, and glory are His. To show that we want to be heard and have confidence that we are, we say "Amen".

Even though the conclusion of the prayer is not found in many of the most ancient manuscripts of the gospels, it does go back to the disciples during the first century (the Didache), and it also summarizes a prayer by King David in First Chronicles (29:11-13). So, it is very ancient indeed, and Jesus knew and taught the heart and spirit of it.
What does the heart that prays this prayer know about our Father in heaven?
How does knowing this lead us to live in this world. How is our knowing this part of the prayer actually our experience of a genuine answer to our prayer?
William Barclay sums up The Prayer like this: “And so, when we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer, we rise from our knees and go out to the world and its ways remembering the royal sovereignty of God and pledged to obedience to him, remembering the dynamic power of God and trusting in that power to answer our prayers, remembering the glory of God and living with the reverence which knows that earth is penetrated with the divine glory.” (William Barclay, “The Beatitudes & The Lord’s Prayer”)

(The catechism questions and answers are quoted from “The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English” by Douglas F. Kelly and Philip Rollinson; P & R Publishing Company)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Faith for Life - Use the Light Right

Preached on Sunday, March 19, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 6:1-10; John 9:1-12, 35-41

Wild Horses Monument, North of Bridge at Vantage, WA
Columbia River, March 2017
One night, a police officer spotted a man on his hands and knees, crawling around under a street light. He stopped, and he asked the man what was going on. The man was drunk, and he looked up at the officer, and told him that he was looking for his car keys. The officer was curious about what would come of this, and so he decided to help him look but, after a few minutes, without success, he asked the man if he was sure he had dropped his keys there.
The man said, “No, officer, I dropped them across the street. “Then why are we looking here?” And the drunk answered, “Because the light is better here.”
I think that the Pharisees condemned the man born blind for giving credit to Jesus, and condemned Jesus for healing him on the Sabbath, because they thought the light was better there.
The sin and the suffering-as-punishment issue were simpler, and there seemed to be so much of it going on in the Hebrew Scriptures. Our Old Testament is actually pretty clear that there are other causes for suffering.
The Book of Job is a huge example of the mystery of why bad things happen to good people. But the Book of Job is difficult, and it leaves this suffering as a mystery only to be understood by God.
I don’t think the Pharisees and the rabbis of Jesus’ day were very fond of mysteries. Somewhat later in time, the rabbis came up with a statement of their understanding of the cause of suffering. Here’s what they said: “There is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity.” (b. Sabbat 55a)
This had been common thinking for a long time. When the disciples saw the blind man, and got the news that he had been blind from birth, they wondered what sort of light Rabbi Jesus might shed on the question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)
The great rabbis debated among themselves over the question of whether a fetus could sin. Some thought that they couldn’t sin and some thought that they could sin. (Genesis Rabbah 34:10 and 63:6)
When the healed blind man stood up for Jesus who had healed him, the rabbis accused him of the incompetence of having been born in sin, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” (John 9:34)
So, the healed blind man (who may have been only a teenager, because the Pharisees thought they needed to talk to his parents, and his parents had to assure the judges that their son was “of age” meaning that he had passed his thirteenth birthday): anyway, in their sight, he stood condemned for being blind, and he stood condemned for being healed.
A fine world he lived in! A judging world! The great mercy of living in such a world was the brand-new fact that Jesus joined him in such a world. Jesus became one of the judged ones, just for him (and for all of us).
To be fair, we have to notice that the Pharisees were split on the question of whether Jesus was right to heal the blind man on the Sabbath. Unfortunately, the ones who started out defending Jesus were outnumbered and out-voted.
One thing we need to remember is that the Pharisees were good people. They were famous for being good. Most of God’s people admired them.
Pharisee comes from a word that means “separated”, meaning that they had helped the people of Israel to separate themselves from the Greeks and the Romans at a time when joining in, and getting assimilated, had been a popular temptation. The Pharisees stood for God’s laws, and their many interpretations were part of a plan to make keeping the law more comprehensible and orderly.
The mystery is how their very goodness got in the way of their seeing who Jesus is. Their goodness got in the way of their truly knowing him.
It’s simple to see that what we might call righteousness can easily turn into self-righteousness. This is so true that most people don’t even use the word righteous any more. The issue of righteousness has been so abused.
This story of healing is about more than self-righteousness. It really is about judging. Jesus summed it up like this: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (John 9:39)
The Pharisees (good people that they were) were looking for who to judge, and how to judge them. In doing this, they set the tone and they set the example for what goodness was supposed to look like.
The disciples wondered if they ought to know who to judge and how to judge them, but Jesus said that wasn’t his business. His business was to see who to help, and how to help, and to save. That was really what Jesus reserved his judgement for. That’s what his kingdom was, and is, about.
Those who served as the popular example of goodness looked upon the man born blind as a lesson in sin and punishment which fit their kind of righteousness. Jesus looked at the man born blind and saw an opportunity for the work of God to be done for the blind man. Jesus saw the blind man as an invitation to bring healing and salvation. If Jesus read a lesson in the blind man, it was a lesson for serving, and helping, and making things better.
Here we see two kinds of blindness at work. We see two kinds of sight: two kinds of light.
I have the gift of sight, but my sight is really short-sighted. I’ve been wearing powerful eye-glasses since I was ten years old. I’m very near-sighted, not far-sighted.
The Pharisees were near-sighted. They read their lesson in the man, and in the healing which broke the Sabbath law. There was nothing more needed than to say “case closed”.
Jesus read hope into the lesson, and hope had a long, far-sighted goal in mind. The calling to heal the blind man, and to show him that his life contained the works of God, had a long and great goal. We see his understanding grow of who Jesus is. We see the blind man move from knowing his healer as the man named Jesus to worshipping Jesus as the Son of Man, which means the king of the kingdom of God.
We see his hope grow. We even see him hope that the people who are going to excommunicate him from their fellowship might actually want to be disciples of Jesus, too. He turned out to be wrong about this, but he chose the right way to be wrong. I would choose to always be wrong like him.
The light that comes from Jesus wants to grow. It wants to spread. It hopes for the best from others. It faces risk with confidence. The light that comes from Jesus gives ability and life to people. The light that comes from Jesus helps people, and sets them free.
That’s Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question. He told them (and he tells us) not to judge or blame but to do the work of God for whoever it is that God has put before us. That is the kingdom of Jesus. That is the kingdom of the true light.
There are two kinds of light. There is the light to judge by. There is the light to work by. Those two lights don’t work together.
Those whose light was for judging saw the light of Jesus and judged it more and more. Jesus, whose light was for working and saving, worked and saved, more and more. Sooner or later, one of those lights has to come out on top.
We see a similar process in the prophets, and in God’s call to Isaiah. Isaiah saw the glory and light of God’s holiness. This light showed him his own sin, and the sin of his people (God’s people). This light broke his heart so that he grieved over his sin, and he grieved over his peoples’ sin, and God’s healing and forgiveness was given to him.
If what Isaiah saw, and what God gave him, formed the foundation of his message, then you can easily see how those who listened to Isaiah would get tired of hearing him.
Who wants to know that they are sinners? Who wants to know that they need to be forgiven?
They would close their eyes, and close their ears, and there would be a kind of divine justice in this. Their judgement of Isaiah and his message defined them for what they were, and that carried its own punishment.
In the case of Jesus, the judging light seemed to finally win the day. The judging light judged Jesus and nailed him to the cross.
Then everything changed. The saving light, the working light, the serving light, beat the judging light three days later, and forever, when Jesus rose from the dead.
That’s God’s justice. That’s God’s judgment. That’s our salvation. That’s the kingdom of Jesus: the kingdom of God.
There is the judgement. How will we judge this judgment?

What is the purpose of our light? What do we use it for? Is it for judging and closing doors? Or is it for working, and serving, and saving? Of course, we are not the light; and yet we are, because Jesus is the light of the world, and our light. Let us use that light for the purpose it has been given to us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Faith for Life - Follow the Light

Preached on Sunday, March 12, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 13:17-22; John 8:12-30

A sergeant got separated from his squad while they were out on maneuvers. It was late by the time he caught up with them, and he had missed supper.
Around Lake Lenice, on Crab Creek
North of Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
February 2017
He asked them what the meal had been. “We had pork,” said one solder. “No, it was turkey,” said another. Still another one said, “I thought it was chicken.” Finally, one of the men confessed, “I couldn’t tell, sir, it was dark out.”
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Let’s think about light: what is its importance and meaning to us? Then, let’s think about what it means to follow, because Jesus promises whatever the light is as a prize for those who follow him.
First of all, there’s the light. The gospel of John is full of references to light, and the light has to do with Jesus.
Light means so many things to us. It affects us in so many ways. Too much light can be painful and dangerous. A solar eclipse is going to cross the Pacific Northwest, this August, and we all need to be careful how we watch it. In the summer, I like walking in the shade, but you can’t find that around here, so I make do with morning or evening light.
Light can be fun, like playing with a flashlight, as a kid. There are fireworks on the Fourth of July. There are candles on birthday cakes, and lights on Christmas trees.
Light can be kind, like when someone turns the lamp on when they catch you reading in the dark. There are campfires. And there is the glowing fireplace on a winter night.
Light can be inspiring, like when it shines through a stained-glass window. Living here, we have the inspiration of our spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
Maybe you have a special feeling in your heart when, at the end of the last day of a long trip, you turn the last corner and you see the light shining on your front porch.
Jesus is the light of the world and the light of life.
Usually, in the Gospel of John, darkness is the image for evil. In that case, Jesus, the light of the world, invades and conquers darkness.
Light is the real goodness behind everything good in the world. Jesus, the light of the world, is God’s comfort for the griefs of this world, God’s healing for the hurts of the world, God’s guidance for the questions of the world, God’s hope for the fears of the world, God’s peace for the conflicts of the world.
Jesus compares himself with something so basic in order to invite you to use your heart and ask yourself what light is for you, and so find out for yourself what Jesus wants to be, for you, and for the needs of those who are around you.
In Genesis, everything begins with light. Life begins with light. The first thing that happened in the universe was that God said, “Let there be light.” Today’s prevailing, scientific theory of the origin of the universe is a sudden explosion of energy and light that we call “The Big Bang”.
The Old Testament often uses the expression of “seeing the light” to mean being alive or being born. Each of us has had our own experience of seeing our first light with a slap on our bottom from the doctor and a cry; only no one remembers that.
But there is also an experience of Jesus bringing you the first light of his life dawning upon you. Perhaps you have a memory of that. You suddenly felt alive in a way that you didn’t before. You can’t believe that whatever you had before was quite worth being called life.
When my youngest sister was little and the rest of us would be talking on and on about things that had happened before she was born, she would get bored and say, “Oh, that happened when I was dead.” The experience of Christ dawning upon you makes your previous history seem like that. Because Christ has filled you with the light of his life.
“The light of the world” was also a term which people used to describe the sun. They knew that the sun gave life to growing, living things on earth and that there would be no food without the sun. Jesus, the world’s true sunlight, is the source of our mental, and emotional, and spiritual nourishment and growth.
The light of your life may be someone you love who loves you back. So, the light of the world, Jesus, often ripens nourishment for us through our relationships with others. In his book “The Four Loves” C. S. Lewis writes this: “We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
There are people who have helped you or changed you. Maybe the first rays of the light of Jesus beamed on you through your parents and your family in childhood. Maybe Jesus has given you rays of light through a teacher in school, or a Sunday school teacher. Maybe Jesus gave you light through a friend.
Many people will say that the light of Jesus came to them through their spouse. Maybe it comes when you hold your first child in your arms. You have seen it in someone else’s dignity, or purity, or courage, or peace, or wisdom.
Maybe someone has found light in something you have said or done. When Jesus says that he is the light of the world, he wants to shine through you, and through all of us in the same way he has shined on us through others.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples, and us, this amazing thing. He said, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) But you know that the light comes from him first. And the light of Jesus (so John tells us) “shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5) That’s what the light of the world wants for you.
Jesus is the light of the world and you need light in order to see and find your way. Light shows you what you are doing, and what’s going on around you.
There was a little girl who got a stubborn case of pneumonia. She got tired of doctors, and nurses, and medicines, and being tested and poked. When the doctor decided to take some x-rays, she put her foot down. She wasn’t going to let them do it. The doctor told her it wouldn’t hurt, and that it was just like having your picture taken.
The little girl gave in and said, “OK. You can take my picture, but I’m not going to smile.”
Jesus, the light of the world, enables us to get an inside picture of what’s going on in the world around us, in which we can see the meaning of things, and the real needs of a dark world. The light of the world also enables us to get an inside picture of ourselves. Getting these pictures doesn’t always make us want to smile. We may see something we hadn’t seen before. It may be something we didn’t want to see, and we see that it’s wrong, and we see that it needs to be fixed.
But this can be a good thing. The artist Michelangelo said that, when he made a sculpture, all he did was to set free the shape that he saw inside the block of marble.
Christ shows us what we are dealing with on the inside of the people around us. He enables us to see the potential strengths, and the unexpressed needs, and the mysterious weaknesses. The light of Jesus shows us what we need to do in order to deal, in God’s way, with what we see in God’s light.
Jesus enables us to look within ourselves with honesty, repentance, patience, and faith. The light of Jesus reveals that we are God’s creations, that we need him, and that we are made to be loved by him and by others. Jesus shows us that everyone else is made for just the same reason.
Jesus shows us that we are made for fellowship and partnership. Jesus enables us to see behind, and around, and ahead, to see him at work, to see his gifts, his wisdom, and his hope.
The light of Jesus shows us where we could be taking ourselves if we don’t follow him. Doubt un-wrestled with, and discouragement, are forms of darkness that keep us from seeing what we can do. The light of the world helps us see that we can do something, or (at least) be something, by following Jesus.
Following! When Jesus said that he was the light of the world, it happened to be during a special Jewish feast, called “The Feast of Tabernacles” (tabernacle is a fancy word for tent). It celebrated the journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
On that journey, God led his people every step of the way; but he led them in the strange form of a moving column. It was a column of smoke by day, and a column of fire by night. With God acting like this column, the people of God could travel day and night. They could see in the dark because they had the light of God who is the light of the world.
The rabbis passed down one of the prayers from the Feast of Tabernacles, as it was celebrated in the Temple. The prayer goes like this: “Oh Lord of the universe, thou commandest us to light the lamps to thee, yet thou art the light of the world.” The people had been praying that prayer during the week when Jesus said that he is the light of the world.
Jesus is the pillar of fire that guides us through the dark, in the wilderness, so that we can find our new life. Jesus is the light that needs to be followed. Jesus is the light that shines for the express purpose of bringing us somewhere.
We have plans about where we want to go in life. These plans are our idea of what it means to be successful, or to have a meaningful life. They make our life into a journey to somewhere, unless, perhaps, our goals are mainly behind us.
In the wilderness, the Lord had goals for his people that they often forgot, or misunderstood, and they often thought more about the goals that were behind them, in Egypt. They often wanted to go back, if only they could.
Jesus is the light leading us forward, through a desert, to plans and goals we may, or may not, fully understand, or appreciate, even yet. At least, Jesus wants us to see this life as it is, as a journey forward to goals that he knows.
In the end, the journey will bring us home as members of his family, and there will be more freedom there, in our true home, than we can dream of.
We are on what is called a pilgrimage, a journey with a holy purpose. Since we don’t know the purpose exactly, everything along the way could turn out to be important in reaching the goal. Every crisis and every decision to be made is part of getting to the promised land.
And yet the important thing isn’t so much making the right choices that will take you to where you think the promised land is. The most important thing is sticking close to the light of the Lord, so that the journey makes you what the Lord wants you to be, wherever you go. Every turning point or choice that comes along is the opportunity to receive more of the light of life from Jesus.
In the long conversation of Jesus, one of the things he said to those who didn’t understand a word he said was this: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be.” (John 8:28) Jesus lifted up means Jesus lifted up on the cross. Our journey, following Jesus, is a wilderness journey where darkness is a problem, but it’s also a journey of grace, and forgiveness, and hope, all because of a God who offers himself for us on a cross.
To follow the light means being a disciple, and being a disciple boils down to being partners with other disciples; being a kind of team under the command of Jesus. But Jesus, carrying us and our sin on the cross, is not only our leader, but a player too.
A soldier follows his sergeant into the fight. A patient follows their doctor or counselor, but the best doctors and counselors need to be players, too, in the wellbeing of their patients.
Jesus is our leader, and a player with us. His leading work and his shining work are part of his saving work. Following Jesus makes for an interesting life so much beyond the understanding of those who don’t know who he is. It’s the difference between light and darkness.

Following Jesus means living his way but, most of all, coming back again and again to that cross that gives us the light of love and the light of life. This is what makes Jesus the light of the world.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Lenten Reflections on the Catechisms: The Ten Commandments

"Lenten Reflections"
Alternating during the Wednesdays of Lent, I am taking turns with the local Lutheran pastor preaching or guiding meditations and reflections on themes from the catechisms.
Shared on Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Scripture reading: Exodus 20:1-17
The giving of the Ten Commandments was a moment of extreme fear. If we read on, this is what we find: that God spoke these words out of something like thunder and lightning, darkness and fire, and smoke on the mountain.
The voice of God spoke directly to his people, and the people were almost scared to death. They were surprised that the God who created everything, and who rescued them from generations of slavery endured under the system of the world’s great powers, and who defied the laws of nature, and who took care of them in the wilderness; that such a God could speak to them and that they could hear his voice and live.
What if the storm was much more than the face or the presence of God? What if the fire and smoke were the face of what God was giving to them in his words on the mountain?
Perhaps God’s love for us, and our true love for God can be like a storm. Perhaps our true love for others and the ties that bind us to them can be like fire and smoke. Could there be fear in such things that could almost scare us to death? Or could there be great dangers, or great gambles, or great and daunting demands in such things?
What if the honoring of parents, or being involved in the death of another human being is like a storm? What if guarding the truth or envying what others have is like a storm? And, so, what if the love of God Himself is nothing less than a storm?
If that were so, then what purpose do the commandments serve in such a storm? How might the commandments help us?
The Ten Commandments begin with a kind of introduction: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” There are two words in the Hebrew language, in the Old Testament, that we translate as Lord. One of those words means “the boss”. The other word, spelled in four capital letters, covers the special name of God (Jahweh, Yahweh; which, in the past, English speakers also used to translate as Jehovah). This is the word or, rather, this is the name that’s used in the commandments and the law.
This word “LORD” is not a name like Sam or Suzy. It describes the mystery of all personal identity: I am who I am. That’s the name for Lord used in the Commandments. This name of God asks us to personally know (or to learn) who God is: by experience, by prayer, by how we live, and by how we respond to life and to other people.
How might these Ten Commandments enable us to learn about the God who created us and who loves us? How might the Ten Commandments help us to learn who God is?
The introduction also told the Israelites (and it tells us) something more about who God is. The God of the Ten Commandments (the God of the law) is the God who rescues us, who sets us free, who delivers us from forces and circumstances that seem too big for us to deal with, who changes our lives in ways that are not humanly possible. This, from the very start, is the God of grace, the God of gracious self-giving and love.
If we belong to such a God as this; how does this enable us to understand what God is after? What God is looking for from us, in the Ten Commandments? How are the Commandments designed to produce the results that a God of grace and self-giving love would want?
When we talk about the Ten Commandments, it sounds as though we were talking about rules and orders. A better translation would replace the term “The Ten Commandments” with “The Ten Words”.
This doesn’t soften the commandments. This doesn’t reduce them to being only the ten suggestions.
In Hebrew, the whole idea is that words are powerful. Human words have great power. The saying that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” isn’t true. Words can hurt, and words can bless. Words weaken and words empower.
God’s words do this infinitely more than this. God’s words make things happen. God’s first word was, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God’s words have created everything that exists. One day, they will create a new heaven and a new earth.
God’s words can recreate anything. They can recreate you.
How might God’s words in the commandments change you? How might they recreate you?
In some ways, you and I, in our lives, are living words of power. With God, this is infinitely true. The Gospel of John tells us that the God who speaks into being everything in creation is something like a word. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… All things were made through him… And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth….” (John 1:1-14)
We know this word as Jesus. In Jesus, God became one of us, and (for a time) lived among us as simply as any another human being. Then the word, this word called Jesus, started recreating those who paid attention to him. Jesus, the living word, began to recreate them through his way of living, and through his spoken words. So, they followed him and stayed with him.
Then this word called Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world, which is our own sin, and died for those sins.
Something like this had to happen, because our sin comes from so deep within a human nature that has separated itself from perfect reliance upon God and, therefore, we always fall short of his commandments. We are never quite in step, never in true harmony, with the life God that wants to speak into being through us.
Great harm comes from this; greater harm than we know. This, after all, is where God’s law and our relationships give us the fears and the dangers that are greater than those that come from storms, and smoke, and fire.
Our nature, separated from God by sin, runs too deep to be changed, or reshaped, by mere words alone. God’s word had to become flesh: as solid, and as real, and as lived out as we are. God’s word had to become a real part of us: as real as our own brains, and hearts, and flesh, and blood.
So, this word, that we call Jesus, became one of us, and stood in for us, and died for our sin, and carried that sin away from us. Jesus buried that sin in his own grave, and then he rose from the dead to give us a life of resurrection, in which our sins die daily, and we rise daily to a new life; a holy life. Holiness means a life in tune with God’s harmony: a life in keeping with God’s purpose for us; God’s word to us.
How do we receive that new source of life through Jesus, in which we live the gracious words of God?
How do we maintain that new source of life, through Jesus, in which we live the gracious words of God?

May the mercy and peace of “the word made flesh” in Jesus dwell within you. May the law of God become, for you, not only a word of fear, but a word of grace and love.