Called Up

Scripture:  Isaiah 6:1-8

            It is often reported that in the United States Football is the most popular sport, and the  reason for this is because of all the major leagues football generates the most revenue.   However, I think there is a case still to be made for America’s favorite pastime baseball.   Football may generate the most ad revenue and draw bigger crowds per game, but NFL teams only play 16 games a year, compared to the 162 games that make up the MLB season.   However, I think the biggest case for the popularity of baseball is the number of teams.   For instance there are only 32 teams in the NFL and currently that is the entirety of professional football teams in the United States. Baseball is a different story.   There are a total of 247 professional baseball teams in the United States.  Even though our state does not host a MLB team, we have four professional baseball teams in the state.    The support of that many teams across the country speaks a lot to the popularity of baseball.   One of the reasons why there are so many baseball teams is because of the extensive farm system that baseball has.  The origins of this system is now over 100 years old.  The way it works is that each major league baseball team has multiple teams associated with it.  This goes from the high level AAA teams like the Indianapolis Indians all the way down to rookie league teams.   In these leagues players can continue to develop skills until their affiliated major league team has need for them.  With rare exception, MLB draft picks start off in the farm teams.  Most start at the rookie level and they work their way up.   It is obviously the dream and the goal of these baseball players to make it out of the minor leagues and play in a major league ball game.  These players work hard to try and get their chance to get called up.    The reality is the majority will not.  Of all players drafted by a major league team, only 1/5th will actually play for that major league team.  The other 80% will spend their entire professional careers in the minor leagues.   Despite those slim odds, hundreds of young men pursue this dream year after year.   This morning’s scripture is the call story of the prophet Isaiah.  It is the story of what led him to become one of the most influential prophets of the old testament.   This is one of several different call stories we found scattered throughout the Bible.   These are stories of how seemingly regular people are called up to a higher, grander, world transforming purpose.   In baseball only 20% of the players get called up, so I wonder what is our percentage of people called up in the church? 

            Because the book of Isaiah is so expansive and because he is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament, Isaiah is sometimes today referred to as the prince of prophets.   Outside of what little details are revealed about his life within the book of Isaiah, very little is known about Isaiah-especially before he was called to be a prophet.   Isaiah was a prophet for somewhere between 35 and 50 years.  While not guaranteed, we can presume that he was a young man when this morning’s scripture took place.   By and large this morning’s scripture picks up in the middle, and we do not have any context.  The scripture tells us it was the year that King Uzziah died, but we know nothing about Isaiah.  The scripture does not tell us who he was until this point, what he was up to, or why he of all people was called by God. 

            And what a call story that Isaiah has.   In serving the Indiana conference of the United Methodist church on the district committee on ministries as well as the board of ordained ministries, I have been able to hear the call story of several clergy colleagues.  These stories are the personal experiences of pastors and how God worked through those experiences to bring them to serving in ministry.   I can say that I have never heard someone share a story like Isaiah’s!   This morning’s scripture is wild.   Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on his heavenly throne.   The imagery of the seraphim with all of their wings is akin to passages out of the book of Revelation.   It is quite the call story!   In most of the call stories I have heard a theme that emerges again and again is that the people were not sure if God were truly calling them or not.   I do not think Isaiah had that problem.   Seeing God on God’s heavenly throne surrounded by multi-winged angels seems like a pretty hard to deny affirmation.   You may have noticed that in the pew bible’s the sub-heading for this morning’s scripture is “Isaiah’s commission”.   This is the scripture about how Isaiah was called up to be a prophet.  However, we can get so distracted by the grandeur of the vision that we miss an important detail.  

            This scripture is when Isaiah was called up to be a prophet, but notice God did not initially tell Isaiah what to do.   This scripture is not God telling Isaiah that he has proven himself, and now God has a mission for him.   That’s not how it goes down at all.   Isaiah volunteers.   Verse 8 records, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?”     There is nothing to indicate that this was explicitly directed to Isaiah, but nevertheless he is the one who responded, “Here am I, send me!”

            Now typically we do refer to this as Isaiah’s call story, but for Isaiah his calling was more him volunteering.   Remember, Isaiah served as a prophet for three to five decades.  It was quite the commitment he signed himself up for.   That is not a decision that should be taken likely, so I wonder what motivated Isaiah to volunteer so quickly?   While we do not know all of the details of Isaiah’s backstory we do get a clue to his motivations in this scripture.  

            This morning’s scripture makes it known that Isaiah was terrified by what he saw as he exclaims in verse 5.  “Woe to me!  I cried, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”    Several centuries later, Paul wrote about the source of Isaiah’s existential angst in the book of Romans when Paul wrote, “for the wages of sin is death.”  Isaiah knew that he was a sinner from a sinful people, and he knew that out of God’s rightful and swift justice the meant he deserved to be doomed.   Yet that is not what happened.   Isaiah was redeemed.   He was set right with God, in verse 7 the angel tells Isaiah, “your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.”   It is after this happens, it is after Isaiah is informed that he is forgiven, that he then responds “here am I send me.”   God had provided for Isaiah in a way that he could never provide for himself and God had given Isaiah a gift he could never properly return.   Perhaps, for Isaiah, the only right feeling response to God was to respond when God asked for volunteers.  

            If that is true, if part of what motivated Isaiah was responding for God taking away his guilt and forgiving him of his sin, then that has incredible implications for us.    Because if you consider yourself a Christian, if you consider Jesus your savior and the Lord of your life, then your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for.    Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross you are no longer a person with unclean lips and you are no longer belong to a people of unclean lips- you belong to God.   I feel obligated to remind you that this forgiveness, this salvation we profess is a gift offered to us without price.   We do not deserve it, we are not entitled to it, and we certainly do nothing to earn it.   We are offered reconciliation with God as a gift, and we are only saved because we have received that gift.  What then should our response be?   If we take this gift of eternal life and keep it to ourselves that would be the height of selfishness.  God has offered the gift of his son to the whole world, and after we have received the gift the only right, good, and proper response is to seek to share and invite others to open that gift.   Like Isaiah, our response to God’s grace should be to volunteer. 

            When it comes to being called by God, I think this is something that we sometimes get wrong.   I think a lot of good church folk who are sitting on the sidelines, are open to the idea of serving God’s kingdom in some way.  However, they are waiting to be called up.   They are waiting for their own grand vision with smoke, lights, and six winged angels where God delivers unto them their calling.   What if is not meant to work quite like that?   What if God has already called us. . .because he has.  If you are a Christian, then you have already responded to God’s call out of the world to be one of his children.   What if now God is actually waiting on you to call yourself out, to step into the game, and volunteer?   If that is true, then it means you are already called up to serve in God’s kingdom.  The question is what are you going to volunteer to do about it?  

            With that question in mind, there are  some points for you to consider.  First, while God is waiting for us to volunteer, God still has created and us gifted us with unique gifts and abilities.  This means that not everyone is called or equipped to be a preacher, not everyone is called or equipped to be a missionary, and not everyone is equipped or called to be a children Sunday school teacher.   This naturally leads us to wonder then how do we know what we are supposed to volunteer to do for God?    Honestly, that is a question we have to answer for ourselves but thankfully it is often not a hard question to answer.  Again, in hearing the call story of many clergy there is a common theme.   Even if they ran from their calling for years, they could not deny it.   It is as if their calling was written on their hearts.   Again, Paul touches on this in Romans where he writes, “If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”   Whatever it is you feel God has best equipped you to do, then just do it.   Whatever it is, if God has truly gifted you to do it, then you can fulfill that role in a way that no one else can.  In whatever way you feel equipped, God is asking “Whom shall I send?”   God is waiting for you to volunteer.  

            There are many ways that we can volunteer to serve God’s kingdom.   Being a missionary, a Sunday school teacher, or a preacher are perhaps the most visible upfront ways but they are not the only ways.   Perhaps you are equipped to make the difference in people’s lives one person at a time by visiting with the sick and home bound or even by tutoring students.  Perhaps you are equipped to put the physical needs of others first through doing things like volunteering for a food pantry or delivering meals on wheels.   Perhaps you have been equipped to partner with others to take on major systemic problems like inadequate low-income housing or drug addiction.   Or perhaps you are called to teach and preach, and that is a calling you have been running from for awhile.  

I realize some of you know all of this because you are already doing what God would have you to do.  If you have already answered that call if you have already said “Here I am, send me” to God, and you already doing what God has equipped you to do, then may God’s blessing be upon your service, may it be fruitful, may you make disciples, and man you transform the world.    If have not responded to God’s question of “whom shall I send?”  Why not?   Let’s work together to remove those barriers.  If really are not sure what steps you need to take to be faithful to God in your faith journey, then I would love to come along aside you and help figure that out together.  If you feel like that is where you are, then let’s sit down and talk about it sometime.  

All of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ are called up.   The question is are we going to step up and volunteer to serve God’s kingdom.   If you are already doing so, then may you continue to fulfill God’s specific calling in your life.   If you are still on the sidelines, then may you hear the voice of God in the depths of your being asking “Whom shall I send?”   And it is my prayer you can respond “Here I am Lord, send me.” 

 

 

Spirit Wear

Scripture:  Romans 8:12-17           

Relatively speaking we are a fairly young country.    There are plenty of younger countries politically speaking, but when compared to places like Europe and Asia we are a young culture.    Our cultural traditions do not have deep roots as a lot of other places, and this can be seen in a variety of ways.   In general we tend to be a little bit more utilitarian and practical compared to the ceremonial ways of much older cultures.   For instance the most lavish, ceremonial uniform we have is probably the military dress uniform.   While the uniform is impressive and makes quite the statement, it is still fairly basic, constrained, and conservative.  It does not for instance hold a candle on something like the Swiss guard.

swiss-guard_590.jpg

  That is not a costume, but an actual uniform, breastplate and all, of a fully functional military unit.   The Swiss Guard uniform dates back to the 1500’s.   In that time of human history warfare was fought in pitched battles, and it was important to be able to tell who was on your side and who was not.   This led to bright colors and ceremonial flourishes to differentiate different units from one another.   It was not until World War I that these bright colors fully disappeared from military uniforms.   Yet, militaries still place a high value on uniforms because they still serve the important function of identifying who is on your side. 

Uniforms in general are an interesting thing to think about from a design perspective.   It does not matter if the uniform is for a military, a sports team, or a specific place of employment all uniforms have a balance to strike.  First uniforms have to be functional for whatever purpose they are serving.   Second, uniforms have a communicative function.   Uniforms communicate something about the organization, institution, or brand they are representing.   Uniforms are also often mired in history and trying to honor traditions (like the Swiss Guard).   Most of all though, the point of a uniform is to give a sense of an identity, and this sense of identity is twofold.  The uniform identifies to those not wearing the uniform just who the uniformed are, but the uniform also communicates to those wearing it that there is a bond that connects them.   This is lifted up often as one of the benefits of school uniforms.   While they are not completely unbiased, a maker of school uniforms on their FAQ page list this unity as one of the primary benefits.  Their webpage argues: “Helping to build a sense of community within the school, uniforms create an atmosphere of belonging. This essence of unity can positively effect a child's attitude toward school.”

As I read this morning’s scripture, I wondered what does a Christian uniform look like.   Now I am not saying we should all wear matching clothes every Sunday, because even if we had an incredible uniform I think everyone wearing the same thing would creep visitors out.   I wonder though as disciples of Christ, what do we have that provides the same function as a uniform.   What is it exactly that identifies who we are to the outside world as well as provides a sense of unity and belonging within?   I believe this morning’s scripture does have the answer for just what Christian Spirit wear is like? 

This morning’s scripture reading kind of picks up in the middle, and that is sort of by necessity.   Starting with verse 12 this morning’s scripture is the conclusion of a point that Paul has been developing throughout his letter to the Romans.  Going all the way back to chapter one of Romans Paul begins laying out the temptations we face, what he calls living “according to the flesh.”   For chapter after chapter Paul makes the point that the Jewish law has merit because it points out to us these sinful ways, but we fall short of the glory of God, we can not follow those laws perfectly so they are not our salvation.   Paul makes the case that it is only through Jesus Christ that we are saved, that our sins are forgiven, and that we are reconciled with God.    Being justified by Jesus mighty acts of salvation is referred to by Paul as “living according to the Spirit.”   Starting in verse 7:7, Paul bears his soul a bit and acknowledges that even those who are saved by Christ continue to have this pull between the ways of the flesh and living according to the Spirit.   This morning’s scripture is the conclusion of all that.  

In this final summary of living according to the flesh vs. living according to the Spirit, Paul brings out an unusual but powerful word when he writes, “Therefor, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation.”  An obligation?   That is word with some baggage attached to it isn’t?   We do not like obligations.   Obligations feel constraining, they feel like something we are forced into.    We often talk about grace and forgiveness as a free gift, but if that is true then what is this talk of an obligation?  

This is when Paul lays out his final point, the reason why we have an obligation.   We have an obligation to God because God has adopted us.   Today, it is not uncommon to hold sentiments like “we are all God’s children.”   From a strictly biblical point of view, this is not right.  In multiple places Paul writes about this, what makes people children of God is that they are adopted into God’s family.   In this morning’s scripture and elsewhere, this is presented less as an allegory and more as the best representation of the reality of grace.  

When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior who died for our sins, then we are reconciled with God.  This reconciliation is not just getting back on God’s good’s side.   That is more or less what following the law is portrayed as.    That is also an infectious form of pop-Christianity.  There are people who claim to believe in God, but it seems their idea of God is more like Karma:  they just need to do more good than bad to stay in the black and be on God’s good side.  That way of thinking though has more to do with living according the flesh than it does being led by the Spirit.  As this morning’s scripture states, “the Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children.”  

This is the good news of grace.  Grace is not just about getting God not mad at us, it is being so radically accepted by God that God says, “you are now one of us.”   In this morning’s scripture Paul makes this point strongly, almost scandalously.  He did this by writing, “The spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship, and by him we cry Abba, Father.” The word Abba is Aramaic.   This is the language that was spoken by first century Jews.   Now if you are looking in the pew bibles or likely your own bible there will be a little note that says Abba is Aramaic for father.   That is technically true, but it does not give the whole picture.  Abba is the informal word for father.  Perhaps the better translation for abba would be daddy or even da-da.  Abba is the word that children use to refer to their father.   This was scandalous, because Paul was taking this informal term and applying it to God.   In the Hebrew scriptures the name of God is so holy they do not write it.  That is why in our English translation the Hebrew word for God is written as LORD.   God was the holiest being in existence and to be treated with the utmost solemnity and respect.   It would have been shocking for Paul then to use such an informal word as daddy to refer to the Great I AM.   Yet is the best way to get across just how radical God’s love for us is.   Because we followed the ways of the flesh we were cut off from God our creator, but out of God’s great love, the acts of Jesus, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit we have been adopted in to God’s family.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that is our uniform, that is our Sprit wear.   Members of the household of God is what the world should know us as, and it should be what creates unity and acceptance inside the church.  

            This brings up the question though, how do we show  the world that we are adopted in to God’s family, because it is not like we got a church letter jacket when we joined to show where we belong.    There is not an official uniform that clearly communicates to the world that we are part of God’s family.   When we accept God’s love and we are justified through faith, there is a change but it is not an external change.   The change is in our heart.  It’s like I got this feeling, inside my bones.  And you can’t stop the feeling, but I can’t exactly wear it on my sleeve either.  

            I am having a hard time putting what I want to say into words, but maybe I can illustrate it better.    No doubt many of you have probably heard this song before:

 

            However, when you remove the music from the video the images things change.   Things actually get weird and seeing people dancing to a tune that you can not hear is odd as this supercut shows:

 

            As believers in Christ, we are like the people in the first video.  We hear the song, and dance accordingly.   We have received the spirit, and we move when the spirit says move.    We recognize the spirit in each other, we know we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we can hear the music.    However, the unbelieving world around us is like the second video.   They can not hear the song.    Our spirit wear is not a uniform we wear but it is a rhythm of God’s love we move to, but the world does not hear that beat and so to the world around us we look like the people in the second video, they can see us moving but do not see the connection.   

            So how do we fix that?   We teach the world the beat we hear.   The love of God that has called to us, that won us over, that gave us the spirit of adoption, we take that love and we share it with the world.   We live as God’s children in the world, loving others the way that God love us.   This after all is our obligation as God’s children, to our honor our Father in heaven by following God’s example.   

            This is not a one and done strategy.   We cannot just do a single good deed or one event and check loving others off our to do list.   We have to consistently time and time again demonstrate that we love people because God loves them.   We wear a uniform as God’s children that other people cannot see, so we have to help them hear truth that God loves them too.   We have to show them what God’s love looks like put into practice, and we have to help them feel it deep inside their bones that they too can be part of God’s family. 

            If you consider yourself a Christian, if you believe that Christ is your Lord and Savior, then “the Spirit himself testifies that you are a child of God.”   May you proudly proclaim that and may you garb yourself in that Spirit wear.   May you live as one of God’s children, and may you seek to help others hear the truth that God loves them and God wants to adopt them too.   May you share that message with enthusiasm until the whole word joins us in the dance of God’s love. 

Easy Peasy

Scripture:  1 John 5:1-6

            I have a healthy appreciation for rules.   I am not sure if one of the reasons I enjoy playing games is because I appreciate rules or if I appreciate rules because I play a lot of games.  Either way there is a connection there, because games require rules.   Rules are the framework that make a game a game. I have read hundreds of rulebooks, and I feel like I have a decent understanding for why certain rules exist, when rules are really good, and when rules are not so hot.   Because again, I have a healthy appreciation for rules so it makes me kind of twitchy when people intentionally do not follow the rules in games.   Perhaps the single worst game for this is Monopoly.    Monopoly is a game that it seems most people have memories of playing, and for a lot of people one of the things they remember is that the game takes forever to play   The reason it takes forever, is because a lot of people do not actually play by the rules.   By the rules, when someone lands on an unbought property and they choose not to buy it, the property immediately goes up for auction.   This ensures that all of the properties are bought up quickly, yet a lot of people are clueless that auctions are part of the rules of Monopoly.   Then there is a rule that people add to the game, which all money paid to the game through fines and cards goes into the center of the board.  Whenever someone lands on free parking they get all of that money.   That free parking rule, is not in the rulebook.   Yet, a lot of people have always played it that way.  These issues with Monopoly happened due to its popularity.   Since the game was released in 1933, a lot of people have played Monopoly, but very few have read the rulebook.   Most people learned how to play Monopoly from someone else who may or may not have even looked at the rulebook, and as this has happened over five generations, the rules have not been followed like they are supposed to, and the game of most   

 I wonder if something similar has happened with scripture.   People seek to faithfully live as disciples of Christ, but just like people who play Monopoly by the wrong rules they never went to consult the source material   This morning’s scripture tells us, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.”   How many even know what commands, are being referenced here?   We will get to them in a couple of minutes, but spoiler alert, there are only three.   This morning’s scripture states these commands are not burdensome, but the reality is we struggle with them.  But perhaps, if we knew them better then we might not struggle with them, we might not find them burdensome, and maybe we might even find them easy peasy. 

            This morning’s scripture once again comes from 1 John, and one of the things I appreciate so much about this letter is just how grounded it is in the teachings of Jesus.   It make sense because the author of 1 John is the author of the gospel of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.   By the writing of this morning’s scripture, John was older and he had dedicated a lifetime to following and teaching the things that Jesus had taught him.   It is clear that John had taken being a disciple of Jesus to heart, had internalized the example of Jesus, and sought to be live that out.   We can see the way the letter of 1 John echoes the gospels in this morning’s scripture.   John writes God’s commands are not burdensome, which calls back to when Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

            The reason why being a disciple of Jesus is not burdensome is because of the commands.   During Jesus’s time there were several rabbis, these were wise teachers who had an interpretation and understanding of the law that could withstand scrutiny and question.   The disciples of the rabbis were expected to know their teacher’s interpretation and unique emphasis backwards and forwards.  That was referred to as the rabbi’s yoke.  These could be detailed and burdensome, but not Jesus.   The way he taught the commands of God was not burdensome.   He made it simple, and in the gospels he only lifts up three commands.   The greatest is love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.    Jesus stated that all of the law and the prophets hung on these two commands.  Then in the gospel of John, on the night of the last supper, Jesus adds a new command:  love one another.  

            John was a lifelong disciple of Jesus, so when he John writes about the commands of God in this morning’s scripture he is writing about the commands that Jesus gave to follow:  Love God with all your being, love your neighbor as yourself, and love one another.   You may notice there is a common theme here.    As disciples of Jesus we only have three commands to follow, and these three commands are thematically similar.  Once you have one down, the other two should be easier to follow.   John is right these commands are not burdensome.  They are easy to know and easy to remember.   Following them should be easy peasy but we know that is not always the case.   When it comes to playing monopoly, people get it wrong because they either do not know key rules or they use wrong rules.   They way to address these issues in teaching the game is to point out what is the right way as well as what ways have been the wrong way.   Clarity goes a long way in helping to understand a game’s rules, and perhaps that is true for following God’s commands as well. 

            In this morning’s scripture John wrote, “for everyone born of God overcomes the world.”   We should read this as both an encouragement but also we should see it as prophetic, because often the reasons why we struggle with following these commands is because we get distracted or misled by voices from the world.   We can see this clear as day when it comes to the greatest commandment love God.   To love God with all of heart, all of soul, all of our mind, and all of strength does not leave much wiggle room.  It means we love God with our entire being, and that means God is the first and greatest love of our life.   Jesus himself said that a person cannot serve two masters, that we cannot love both God and money.  Yet there are many people who in chasing the American dream and the promise of financial security have fallen in love with money.    When it comes to loving God we have to also avoid following the false rules of the Pharisees.  The great sin of the biblical Pharisees is that they loved their idea of God more than they actually loved God.    The hard truth is that this is way to get the command wrong that persist to this very day.   Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller called this out well when he wrote, “If your God never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”

            Money, power, security, fame, political ideology can all at worse be false idols and are at best petty distractions.   At either level, they can get between us and loving God.   They distract us from how non-burdensome loving God is, because God is so worth loving.     As 1 John 4:19 states we love because he first loved us, and God has never stopped loving us.   When we begin to even get the faintest glimpse of how much God love us, then loving God is the most natural and pure response.   It is a good, right and proper thing for us to love God with all of being for who God and for what God has done for us.   

            The second command to love our neighbor as ourselves is also not burdensome.  Often this command brings up a qualifying question, just as it did in Jesus day, of well then, who is my neighbor?   The fact that we are prone to even ponder that questions though shows just how much we need to overcome the world.   When we seek to qualify who is our neighbor, we are seeking to divide, to put people in groups, to get a free pass for who we can devalue and not pay attention to.   That is the perverse way of the world.   It is the way of the world to divide.   It is the way of the world to paint people with a broad brush, to dismiss others as a snowflake so that you do not have to pay attention to their point of view.   That is the way of the world, but brothers and sisters in Christ that is not supposed to be our way. 

 As disciples of Jesus we are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves.    Let’s not worry about qualifying who our neighbor is, because our neighbors are the people we take the time to notice and take time to love.   Trying to always figure out who is an who is out of our little group, that is the way of the world and that kind of vain gatekeeping is exhaustingly burdensome.   Let us simply love others without condition, and we let God worry about sorting them out later.  

The final command, to love one another is also not burdensome.  However, it may actually be the hardest one to follow.   I have two children, and I have no doubt they love each other very much.  Yet, if you have more than one child or siblings of your own, then you know that any given moment the way they treat each other is not always the most loving.  It seems to be that the people we are closest to are the ones that we sometimes have the least patience with, argue the most with, and are the least forgiving with.   That can be true in the body of Christ as well, which is why the new command that Jesus gave was to love one another.  Again, we have to overcome the way of the world.   Often our personal conflicts resolve from the fact that at least one of us involved (often both) are being more selfish than they should be.  Love though, is self-less and others focused.    It is the way of the world to put ourselves first, but when we overcome that we put each other first and we love one another.   In loving one another as the body of Christ the church becomes the incubator for God’s love.   We gain a better understanding of God’s love through how we experience and we are better able to love our neighbor through how we model love to one another.  This morning’s scripture makes it clear that these commands are all interconnected.   John expressed this interconnectedness in the first couple of verses: “everyone who loves the father, loves his child as well.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.”

            The commands of God are simple:  Love God, love others, love each other.   It truly can all be summed up by love.   These commands are not burdensome, but they can start off feeling that way because the only way we get better at love is by practicing.   If you want to be more serious about following the commands of God in your every day life, then I do have a simple suggestion.   Before you act and before you speak, ask yourself “is this loving?  Does this express love to God or love for another person?” and then only continue if the answer is yes.   It is true that evaluating all of our words and actions will feel burdensome, but only at first.   As I mentioned, I have read the rules for hundreds of games.   At first, the rule book (especially the thick rulebooks) feel burdensome.  I have to consult them and re-read them regularly.  Yet, the more experience I get at the game, the more practice I have with the rules, the more natural following them becomes.   Eventually, I can get to the place where I know the rules.  I do not have them memorized nor can I cite page numbers, but I internally know the game, I can follow all of the rules perfectly, and I can then share those rules with others.    In much the same way, if we seek to practice being more loving regularly, it will get easier.   The rules will become second nature to us. 

So may you know the commands of God as given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.    May you seek to follow them instead of following the ways of the world.   May you love.   May you love God with all your being.  May you notice others and love your neighbor as yourself, and may you perfect that love in how you love one another.  In doing so may you claim the victory that has overcome the world.   May you indeed overcome the world through your belief in Jesus as the son of God so that loving others becomes easy peasy.  

Ante Up

Scripture:  1 John 3:16-24

I remember being at a clergy gathering a few years ago.  It is common at these things to put people together and attempt to get people to know one another better.   So in telling about myself, I mentioned how much I enjoy gaming.   This immediately caused a raised eyebrow, because this person associated the word gaming with gambling and immediately thought I was talking about card games like poker.   Many of you know, that is not what I was referring to, but instead I was talking about the growing hobby of designer board and card games.  I personally have no interest whatsoever in gambling, so poker is not a game I play.  However, I do like games and I have a fairly big interest in ludology, or the study of games.   So even though there is zero chance I will ever sit down with a pile of chips at a poker table, there are elements of the game that I appreciate.   I find it fascinating how poker is a game of probability and observation.   The best poker players know the math of the game and the probability of a winning hand backwards and forwards.  This is combined with the meta-game of being able to observe and analyze the patterns and habits to use those to their advantage.   One of the fascinating things at the game is how tied gambling is to it, because when the wager is removed the game breaks down.

  In the mid 2000’s, when televised Texas Hold’em was at its height  of popularity I did get a poker video game that could be played online against other people.   I thought this would be a way to play the game but avoid the actual gambling part.   However, it did not work.   Since there was no real money, there was no real risk, which means on pretty much every hand someone would go all in.   If they lost, they just left to rejoin a different game with another pile of fake chips.  It took all of the strategy, skill, and tension out of the game.   I find it interesting that what makes poker work as a game, is that you have to pay to play.   A lot of the skill to playing poker is knowing when to ante up, and be invested in the hand.   In the end, I think this is why poker has endured as a game.  It goes deeper than just the appeal of winning money.  Poker is a game that requires the players to be literally invested in.   It is being invested in the game that keeps people at the table, and I think there is a faith lesson in that for us.  I think it is the message that we find in this morning’s scripture.  Faith is not meant to be a passive activity, it is meant to be actively invested in.   This morning’s scripture is a challenge, it is our turn and we have to answer the question:  Are you going to ante up? 

I really appreciate the letter that we call 1 John.   It is full of so much profound encouragement and wisdom.   One of the elements that really makes this letter especially profound is the source.   1 John is not written by an armchair theologian or a consultant with very little field experience.    Church tradition holds that 1 John was written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and the author of the gospel of John.  When we remember that when reading 1 John becomes fascinating because we get to see the way that the apostle John took the teachings of Jesus to heart, lived them out, and passed on what he had learned.  For instance in the gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”   Then in this morning’s scripture that lesson is passed on in verse 16: “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his lie for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”   Biblical scholars believe that 1 John and this morning’s scripture was written as a circular letter.  The idea is that the letter would be passed around to multiple churches and shared with many.  This letter was also written late in John’s life, so in an era before mass communication, a letter of this nature would have been the most effective way for John to pass on the wisdom he gained from a life time of following Jesus.  

So what is it that John felt was most important to pass on?  We see it plainly stated in this morning’s scripture.   Verse 23 defines what he understands to be God’s primary command: “and this is his command:  to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and to love one another as he commanded us.”   One of the interesting points that the entirety of 1 John makes, and that we see reinforced by this morning’s scripture is how connected these two concepts are.    The major case that the entire letter of 1 John is trying to make is that one of the key ways that our belief in Jesus Christ can be seen in how we love one another.   We see that case being made in this morning’s scripture.   Right after John states that Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should lay down our lives for one another he backs this up by pointing out this is not a rhetorical statement.   He puts out there in practical terms in verse 17:  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them how can the love of God be in that person?”   

We see John’s point here.   The sacrificial love that Jesus showed in laying down his life on the cross, is the same love we can show by sacrificially giving to meet the needs of one another.   John does not mince words, if someone is not willing to do that, then they cannot say God’s love is in them, which means they do not truly believe in the son.    We cannot simply say we love God, for that to be more than empty words we have to be able to show it.   One of the primary ways we show a love for God is how we love on another.  Or as John puts it in verse 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

 Our faith, to be a faith that holds and does not fold, has to be one that we back up with and in truth.   This means our faith cannot just be one of theory and hypotheticals, it cannot be one that exist mostly on paper.   Faith requires us to ante up.    It requires us to be actively invested in it.    Faith is not an activity where we contently sit on the sidelines, it requires us to have some skin in the game.   Faith is not meant to be something we do cautiously and just stick our toe into.    Faith is something we go all in on.    This means we have to be willing to take a risk.   We have to risk our time, our resources, and especially our comfort zones.   While faith will always feel like a risk, the good news of this morning’s scripture friends is that faith is also a sure bet.   Because we have an unmistakable assurance.   It is an assurance backed up by the collective experience of Christian tradition, it is an assurance found throughout the scripture and plainly stated here in verse 24: “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him and he in them.”

            So if God’s command is to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and to love one another- for it is by our love for one another we display our belief in the Son, the question that leaves us with is how do we do that?  In pondering that question, there are two considerations that rise to the top.  First, when John writes about our brothers and sisters and loving one another, we have to define who exactly he is referring to here.   John is being a lot more specific than all of humanity here.   God is indeed the creator of all, but only those who belief in Jesus the Son are part of the family of God and are therefore brothers and sisters in Christ.   The one another that we are supposed to love is the church.   John is consistent with the message found in much of the New Testament that the church is to be the incubator of God’s love.   All who have been saved by grace have radically experienced the love of God, and we are to share that love with one another as a testimony to the world of God’s love truly looks like.   The sacrificial, Jesus like love that John writes about that we are supposed to show our brothers and sisters in Christ is how we are supposed to love one another- those of us gathered here and now.  

            In order for us to love one another as Christ commanded, then two things have to happen.   First, we have to ante up and be invested in one another.   For us to truly love one another we have to take the time to get to know one another.   That is something that most of us are good at, to a point.   In the book Get Their Name, Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, and Kay Kotan write that people have an average of eight close relationships in the church.  The analogy they use is a lego block with eight spots that can connect to other blocks and once those spots are full people tend to stick close to just those eight.  The command recited in this morning’s scripture is not to love eight other people, it is to love one another.  We can do better at expanding who we care for to more than eight.   Our goal should be to grow in the love of God and our love for one another, so that we always have one more open spot so that we always have space to include someone else in who we love.  

            Again the love we are to have for one another is more than just words we are to love in action and in truth.  When our brothers and sisters in Christ are in need, we meet that need.  When they are hurt, we tend to it.   When the world falls apart and breaks on them, we help pick up the pieces.   We care for one another with the same kind of “I will be there for you, no matter what” love that Jesus showed us.  

            So the first thing that needs to happen for us to love one another is that we have to take time to know others, but the second thing that has to happen is that we have to allow ourselves to be known.   The truth of it is, for some of us that is actually the harder of the two things to do.  In the book Lifestories Mark Hall, lead singer of Casting Crowns, writes about the meaning of origins of the band’s songs.  Here is what he wrote about the song “Stain Glassed Masquerade, “I often tell my students we are happy plastic people, so I wrote a song about it.  Stained Glass Masquerade describes my struggle with image manufacturing. . . I sketched a mental picture of a strong Christian. . . and at church I strived to be that person.  If there was anything in my life that didn’t fit the mental picture, I had to bury it.”   He goes on to explain that this struggle is what led him to write the chorus of the song which states “So I tuck it all away, like everything is OK; if I make them all believe it, Maybe I’ll believe it too.  So with a painted grin, I play the part again; So maybe they will see me the way that I see them.”

            In order to allow others to love us, we have to allow them to see us for who we are, imperfections and all.   If all we ever show our brothers and sisters in Christ is a shallow representation of who we really are, then they will never be able to truly love us because we do not let them.   Love goes both ways.  We have to ante up and give the time and effort to invest in one another, but we have to also ante up and put ourselves on the table and allow other people to care for and nurture us.  

            As followers of Jesus Christ, we know what love is because Jesus gave us the ultimate example of love when he laid down his life for us.   That is a depth of love that honestly takes us a lifetime to explore, but scriptures like this morning make it clear that as we learn just how deep the Father’s love for us, we are to put that love into practice.   We are to let the love of God flow out of us and perfect in how we love one another.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love one another.   Let us not love with words or speech but in actions and in truth.   May we, may this congregation and this church, be a living example to the world around us how marvelous and joyful is the love of God made known through Jesus Christ his son. 

             

Second Chances

Scripture:  Acts 3:12-19           

Connor was about three and I took him to the park on a beautiful spring day.  He played on the playground, enjoyed the fresh air, the sunshine, and had a great time.  At one point he wanted to race down a hill, so we did.  In the process.  He lost control of his little body, fell and tumbled a bit.   Now I watched him fall, it was not that bad, and he was not truly hurt.  However, he was a little whiny and wanted to be picked up.  Instead, I got down on his level, looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you know why we fall Connor?”  Wiping the tears from his eyes he shook his head no.  “So we can learn how to pick ourselves up.”  Which is exactly what he did.  It was one of my greatest moments in parenting.   It also was not really mine, because I was quoting a scene from Batman Begins.  So even though I might get my parenting tips from super hero movies, the wisdom in that scene was worth passing on.  Falling down, failing, is important because it is only through that experience we learn how to get back up again. 

   Our culture does not have a kind opinion of failure and honestly stigmatizes it.   We are taught this in subtle ways from an early age.   It is probably not intentional, but a lot of kids are taught they are not allowed to fail in school.   Working in youth ministry, I have had conversations with many students for who grades were a constant source of anxiety in life.   They felt a constant pressure to be perfect, because grades are often based off of a cumulative percentage.  This meant that one bad test, might mathematically make it impossible  to get the grade the feel they need to even have a chance for the college or scholarships they had set as goals.  These highly motivated students felt like failure was not an option, and this caused a lot of stress in their life.   I have also interacted with students on the flip side who did not even try.   They routinely put forth zero effort in classes.   This is also a learned behavior.  These students were often a lot more laid back than their high strung peers, after all you cannot fear failure if you never even try. 

            Clearly a middle ground approach might be the best option, and part of reaching that middle ground is creating space where students are allowed to fail, and have it not be impossible to recover from.   After all, failure is one of the best teachers, and this has always been the case.   Famed CEO of IBM Thomas Watson Sr. in the mid-20th century once famously said, “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”  For much of the 20th century though, the business world had a “success at any cost” mentality.  It is only recently that major companies like Google and Apple have re-found the wisdom in the idea of “failing upwards.”   The “failure tolerant leader” is a growing trend in the business world and there is a lot of wisdom in that, because as much as we do not like it failure is part of life.  Failure is part of faith too.   No matter who we are, no matter how pious and righteous we seek to be, at some point we are going to fall.  And why do we fall?  So we can learn how to get back up, which in faith terms means being up to the grace of Christ all over again. 

            In this morning’s scripture, Peter forced a whole lot of people to face their spiritual failure.  This story from Acts comes from the very beginning of the church.   It takes place mere weeks after Pentecost, and only a few months after the death and resurrection of Jesus.   During this time Peter and the other apostles were gathering daily in the temple courts, and as Acts 2:47 states, “And the Lord added to their number daily.”   It was in this exciting time of early church growth that this morning’s scripture took place.  This morning’s scripture picks up in the middle a little bit.   Right before our morning reading, Peter and John entered the temple and saw a man who was born crippled begging for charity.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth they healed this man.   The healed man, was probably something of a fixture at the temple.  He probably positioned himself at the same spot daily.   He would have been known and familiar sight to many of the people gathered there.  The fact that he was no walking is why all of the people were astonished, it is why a crowd gathered.   Peter, being a good preacher, could not pass up the opportunity to address the group.  

            Yet, I am fairly confident Peter never read “How to win friends and influence people”, because he is really blunt in the sermon he gives in this morning’s scripture.    He lays the facts bare and does not allow the audience to hide behind excuses.  Remember, this was just months after Jesus was crucified.  It may not have been the talk of town anymore, but it was still fresh in the collective memory.   There was probably more than one person in this crowd who gawked at Jesus being paraded through the town, bloody and struggling to carry the cross.  There was probably more than one person who rubbernecked at Golgotha to read the sign of Jesus head that read “King of the Jews”, there was probably more than one person in the crowd who waived a palm branch on palm Sunday, but was suspiciously quiet on Good Friday.   Peter addresses them directly:  You handed him over to be killed, You disowned the holy and righteous one, you killed the author of life.”

            Peter could have stopped right there.  The people had done messed up, and he could have just let them have it.   The good news of this scripture though is he did not.   Instead of naming their failure and heaping condemnation upon them, he shows empathy and acknowledges they did not understand what they were doing.   He goes on to urge them to repent and turn back to God.   The message Peter delivers in this scripture is not one of condemnation for failing, it is about acknowledging failure and being given a second chance.   If we skip ahead in the book of Acts to chapter 4, in verse 4:4 we joyfully read that somewhere over 1,000 people responded to this good news.  

            As we consider this scripture of facing spiritual failure and second chances, I believe that there are two things we can take away from this.   First, we all need second chances.   Heck, if you are anything like me.  You need third, fourth, a score of chances.  As Christians it is our life goal to be like Jesus.  To reach a place where we love God with all of our being, we love our neighbor as ourselves, and we do not willfully sin.   And again, if you are like me-we fail spectacularly at doing that.  We all mess up, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.   We do not do the good we know we should do, we do harm that we know we should not do, and we wonder from the fold of God.   The good news, is that we too are called to “repent, turn to God so that [our] sins might be wiped out, that times of refreshing might come from the Lord.”   The beautiful, almost uncomprehend able truth of God’s love, is that God will forgive us.  It does not matter what we have done, God will forgive us.  It does not matter how many times we have done the same stupid thing that we just cannot seem to get away from, God will forgive us.  

            Now a word of caution, God’s love for us is unconditional but that does not mean we should take it for granted.  That does not mean we have a blank check to act in whatever selfish prideful way we want, because we know that God will eventually forgive us.   God’s love, grace, is free but grace is not cheap.   On the cross, God paid a very high price to prove God’s love and make forgiveness available to us.  We ca not just glibly ask God to forgive us, because for us to truly repent and seek forgiveness requires us to be reminded of that fact that Jesus suffered on a cross because of our sins.  When we fail in life and have to pick ourselves up, it is ultimately a good experience in the end but the process is not always the most comfortable because it changes us for the better.  In the same way, truly experiencing God’s grace for the first time or again is not always comfortable but it should change us for the better. 

              Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about what it is like to experience grace in her book Accidental Saints.   In that book she relays a time that she really messed up.   A couple of members of her church were going to get married to one another.  They wanted her to do the service, and scheduled it over 18 months in advance.    Due to a calendar issue of not getting various calendars synced she also ended up scheduling a speaking engagement in Australia.  It was an honest mistake, but it was compounded by the fact that it took a couple of months to catch.   By that point she was in a bind.   The event in Australia was a big deal with a locked in venue and thousands of dollars in promotional materials printed.  They wanted her, because it was a Lutheran women’s group event and it was very important to have a woman Lutheran minister.   The wedding could also not be moved, because deposits had already been paid, and it was the only time family members could make it.   Nadia Bolz-Weber was in a bind and no matter what angle she approached it from, she could not make it right.  Finally the couple wrote her a letter releasing her from her commitment to do the wedding.  Even though they were disappointed they ended the letter with “we love you.  And we forgive you.”    Love you and forgive you, is the message of the cross.  It is the message, the very essence of grace.  In her reflection on this memory, Bolz-Weber writes, “and the thing about grace, real grace, is that it stings.  It stings because if it’s real it means we don’t ‘deserve’ it.  . . and basically receiving grace is the best [terrible] feeling in the world.”

            Grace is a reminder that if God were truly fair we would not be forgiven this time.   Grace is a reminder that it was because of us making terrible decisions, like the ones we need to be for forgiven for, that Jesus had to die in the first place.   To be justified and found forgiven by God should humble us.  Because the thing about grace, about real grace, is not only doses it sting but it must change us.    When we fail, we learn from how we pick ourselves up.  In the same way, when we sin, and we truly seek forgiveness again, we must repent and be changed again.  

            The second take away is who is preaching this message of second chances in the first place.  It is Peter, and he knows a things or two about second chances.  When he states, “I know you acted in ignorance” in verse 17, he is talking to himself as much to the crowd.  It is Peter you remember who failed hard on the night Jesus was arrested.  It was Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times before dawn.   And it was Peter who Jesus Christ forgave.   It makes sense why Peter did not condemn the people for their failure to accept Christ, because he, before repenting, was one of their number.   If you have faith, then you know because of God’s great love you have been given more than once second chance already.  You have been allowed to fail and forgiven by God more than a few times.   So let us follow the example of Peter.  May we be willing to grant other people second chances.   If someone fails hard in faith, if they mis-step, if the “backslide”, if they live in a way that you do think is not worthy of one who calls themselves a Christian, then may we not condemn, may we not judge, may we not ghost them and cut them off completely.   Instead, may we treat them with grace and offer them a second chance.  May we come alongside them, and may help pick them up, so that through the example of radical grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we show they can see God’s love in us. 

            In this morning’s scripture Peter shared the gospel with Jews in Jerusalem who were present when Jesus was killed.  Instead of condemning them, he offers them grace and forgiveness.   May you remember that because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ, you too are offered this forgiveness and grace.   To  search out grace is to acknowledge that we have failed and fallen short, may you not be too proud to do that, but may you return to the foot of the cross seeking a second chance.   May you know that when you do, no matter what, God will forgive you again, and again.   That brothers and sisters in Christ, is what makes grace so amazing. 

My Favorite Scripture Ever

Scripture: 1 John 1:1-2:1

            After almost fifteen years of marriage, I have learned that the way my wife and I interact with the world around us is fundamentally different.  Occasionally, when she really loves something, like the Sound of Music, she will promote it as her favorite.   By and large though she does not naturally rank things against other things of the same category.   Using pie as an example, she will take any given pie and either like it, think it is ok, or not like it.  It is possible to really like, really dislike it, or if she is not sure then “it’s different.”   This is not how I work at all, because I naturally evaluate and rank everything.  So using pie as an example, I can easily give you a top ten list of what I consider to be the best kind of pie (Since you are now curious it is Strawberry-Rhubarb as number one, followed closely by blueberry and pecan.  Apple, chocolate chip, sugar cream, pumpkin, blackberry, Boston Cream, and Cherry- in that order- round out the top ten).  I do not just arbitrarily rank things.  I tend to know what I like, and why I like it.  I feel like this would be a weird personality quirk, except for I am clearly not the only person who does this.  David Letterman made the top ten list into an art form, and since then a lot of people have found organizing our likes into list a helpful practice.  In our digital age this has become even more popular.  For instance, popular click-bait website buzzfeed’s whole business model is organizing things into lists.  I am clearly not the only person who ranks and rates everything.  Film critic James Poniewozik even did a great job at defining why I do this.  During the introduction to the list “The 100 Best TV shows of all time” he said “Lists are incredibly important. They are how we define what matters to us.”  I think there is a lot of truth to that, the things we consider our favorites communicate quite a bit about us.  Even in my little pie example, putting strawberry-rhubarb as my number one communicates that I think that sweet and tart is a great flavor combination.   I naturally rank and put everything into list.  Over the years, you may have noticed that because I have shared a lot of my favorite things with you.   However, I realized that I have never shared my favorite scripture with you.   

A lot of people have favorite scriptures, sometimes you hear people refer to their favorite as their “life verse.”   Thanks to the prevalence of smart phones, we now have data about what scriptures many people consider their favorites based on how often they look them up using the bible app.  Since they have been releasing the data the results do not change much.  In 2017 the most popular scripture was Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”   That is a good one, but it is not my favorite.  I looked as far down as the lists would go, and my favorite was not on the most popular list.  It seems my favorite scripture, like my favorite pie, is a bit off the beaten path.   My favorite scripture which we heard this morning is 1 John 2:1, “My dear children, I urge you not to sin, but if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the father- Jesus Christ the righteous one.”   While this is my favorite scripture, it is also one that is powerful, encouraging, and can drive us to action.  

1 John 2:1 is not on many favorite scripture lists, but that is not a huge surprise because when it comes to books of the New Testament 1 John is a bit more of an obscure one.   On more than one occasion, teenagers at youth group have been surprised to discover that the gospel of John and the Epistle of 1 John are not the same thing.  Church tradition holds that the author is the same, but the setting is separated by decades.   John’s gospel records the events of Jesus life when John was a young man.  The letter of 1 John was written between fifty and sixty years later, putting John somewhere in his mid-70’s to early 90’s.   1 John is a letter written by an old man, and it kind of reads that way-in a good way of course.   The entire tone of 1 John has a grandfatherly quality to it.  We see that in this morning’s scripture when he refers to the original audience as “my dear children.”  In this letter John is passing down the wisdom gained from a life of faith well lived.   The tone of the letter is generally encouraging and it holds Christ in high esteem as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.   This morning’s scripture reading, and especially 1 John 2:1, do a good job at giving us a snapshot of the overall feel and message of the epistle.   While I appreciate the entire book of 1 John, that is not why this is my  favorite scripture.  No, the reason why 1 John 2:1 is my favorite is more personal than that.  Remember, we make lists, we pick favorites, because they define what matters to us; and this scripture matters to me a great deal.  It was this specific scripture that convinced me that I needed a savior, that I am lost without Christ.  

            As I have shared with you before, even though I grew up in a Christian household, I did not become a Christian until I was in college.   To come to faith I had a lot of apathy, a lot of doubt, and a lot of anger to work through.   We can save the details for another time, but throughout those years of a wondering faith, I can now see that God’s love, God’s prevenient grace, was a constant presence wooing me back to my creator.   The road to this point are stories for another day, but I did get to a point that the seeds of faith that many faithful disciples had planted with me over the year finally began to take root.   I got to a place where I did believe that God was very real.   The beginnings of a faith had begun to grow and I knew that God create me and God loved me.  However, at that time I did not know what to do with Jesus.  I did not understand why God could just not forgive me and call it even.  I did not understand why I needed a savior.   1 John 2:1 used the language that finally made it all click.

            The language of Jesus as an advocate, who comes to our defense, painted a vivid image in my mind.    I could see myself standing before God awaiting judgment.   I knew what Paul had written in Romans:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin are death.”   I imagined myself speechless in that moment.  After all, what could I say in my defense?  I knew that I was guilty, I knew that I had sinned, that time and time again I had willfully done things I knew wrong, done things I knew were against God’s wishes, and done things that I knew would cause others pain.   I had no excuse, I could offer no reason why I should be forgiven of all the sins I committed.    I knew that I deserved the just and right punishment for my multitude of sins, but then I had an advocate in Jesus Christ.   Out of a great compassion and unfailing love, Jesus says I am worth forgiving.  Even if I do not deserve mercy, I am too valuable to Jesus to lose.   And for Jesus these are not empty words, because he was willing to put his love into action, and take the punishment that I, that we deserve, on the cross. 

            Now I know that image was and is a little too simplistic.   God the Father and God the Son are perfectly unified.  It is not accurate to cast one as a non-lenient judge and the other as a compassionate defender.   God is God, and the love displayed on the cross is the love of God no matter how you look at it.   However, this scripture made me realize that I could offer nothing to save my self.  This scripture connected the dots for me that Jesus being fully human understands us, but by being fully God he has the power to intercede on our behalf and reconcile us to God.   Jesus is the advocate who according to our articles of religion is the “eternal savior and mediator who intercedes for us.”   This scripture made me fully realize that I could not save myself, but thanks to Jesus I did not have to.   He already did the work, he already save me.   I simply needed to accept him as my savior and my advocate.   1 John 2:1 is my favorite scripture of all time because it was the final piece of the puzzle that turned my heart to God and surrendered it to the Lordship of Christ.

            This scripture is a powerful reminder of who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us, but if we are serious about following Jesus then this also gives us an example to follow.   Out of a great love and compassion for us, Jesus is our advocate.   Even though we do nothing to deserve it and we cannot earn it, Jesus stuck up for us.   As it says in Romans, while we were still sinners Christ died for us.   Jesus is our advocate who personally sacrificed on our behalf.   The example given and the question that we are asked is who are we advocating for?  

            There are no shortage of people in this world who need advocates.  There are people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed who need someone to notice them.   There are people who are powerless and silenced who are waiting for someone with more power and privilege to speak on their behalf.  There are people who feel condemned, unwanted, and unloved who need someone desperately to have compassion on them instead of heaping more judgment on them.  The poor, the weak, the addicted, the cast out, these unwanted the all need an advocate.

              How are you being that advocate?   We can and we should pray for them.  That is a good start, but we can and we should do more than that.  After all, on the cross Jesus gave us far more than his thoughts and prayers.   Some of you go a step further and do things like support children through missions’ organizations.   That is wonderful work, and that is a great next step to being an advocate for others.  Those of you who do this practice, you are truly being a blessing to others.   How much further can we go though?  How can we follow being an advocate like Jesus?   We go bigger, we dream bigger, and we take serious putting others before ourselves.   

            There are many ways we can do this, and there are many ways that faithful disciples are doing this.  One specific example of how some followers of Christ are doing this is through foster care.  This is a serious “Jesus sized” way of being an advocate for some of the least advantaged in our society.   A lifeway study found that there is at least one person involved in foster care in 40% of churches, but collectively as the body of Christ we can do better.   As a state, Indiana is one of the places facing a real foster care shortage, which has been made worse by the recent opioid crisis.  A few of years ago a survey of Indiana’s foster care data found that there are 2,731 children in need of a permanent adoptive family.  In this state there are 9,204 churches.   If one family in only 1/3 of the churches in this state advocated for these children by adopting them then the crisis would be solved overnight.  

 Now clearly, not everyone is in the position to adopt these foster children and not everyone is called to do so, but we are all called to follow the example of Jesus and be an advocate for someone else the way that Jesus advocates for us.   If you already involved in advocacy or supporting those most in need then may God continue to bless you in your service.   If you are not though, or if you feel God is tugging at you to take the next step then may you prayerfully consider how you can be an advocate.  May you prayerfully consider how you can follow the example of Jesus.  May you “walk in the light as he is in the light.”   May you know that Jesus is your advocate, may you know he is the righteous one, and may you know he is the sacrifice for sins, not only ours but also the sins of the whole world.   May Jesus Christ, God’s only son, the Risen one, continue to be your absolute favorite savior ever. 

Basic Faith, Extraordinary Savior

Scripture:  Mark 16:1-8

            Have you ever sat and watched the credits for a movie?  Some movies, have started hiding extra scenes at the very end so I have.  Those credits go on for a while.  It does not matter if a movie is bad or good it takes hundreds of people to make it happen.  Given how many people are involved, how many moving parts there are, and how much money it takes to make a movie it is surprising how fluid the process apparently is.   Several major, well known movies had significant changes occur after production started.  For instance, the script for Return of the Jedi had Han Solo dying.  However, George Lucas was afraid the character’s death would negatively impact toy sales so he forced the issue to get it changed.  Pretty Woman, one of the standards for romantic comedies, did not start off as a rom-com at all.  It was supposed to be a gritty, dark movie about two deeply flawed and horrible people, but after it was cast the movie started to take on a different shape.    Perhaps the most dramatic change is in The Shining.   The original ending of the movie was in a hospital and showed that the mother and child characters had survived and were going to be OK.  However, Stanley Kubrick decided this scene was unnecessary, and he decided at literally the last second because he had movie theater projectionists actually cut the scene out by hand and mail it back to the studio.   Tinkering with the ending is nothing new.  In 1686 Nahum Tate created a re-working of William Shakespeare’s King Lear to give it a happy ending, and for 150 years, Tate’s version was the only version performed on the stages of London.  We even find that kind of tinkering here, in the gospel of Mark. 

 If you followed along with the scripture reading in the pew bibles then you might have noticed that we actually did not go to the end of the chapter.  You might also have noticed that before verse nine there was a statement that “the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.”   This is because the oldest copies that have been uncovered of the gospel of Mark stop at verse eight.   Somewhere in the first couple of hundred years after Mark was written the ending got expanded.   It needs to be stated that does not mean that verses 9-20 were made up.  Likely these were part of the oral tradition of Jesus that was being passed down in the church.  To keep these stories of Jesus from being lost to the sands of time, and to “improve” the ending some unknown early church leader included verses 9-20.   By 325 and the council of Nicea, there were not any objections to Mark and these verses, so by and large the church has always considered these additions to be inspired scripture.

This means though that as Mark wrote it, his gospel ends at verse 8.   It ends with “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”   I find this ending fascinating, because Mark could have gone on.  He did not have to end there.  He easily could have included stories of Peter running to the tomb, of Jesus appearing to the disciples, and generally ended on a much more positive note.   But as originally written, Mark did not.  Mark made an intentional choice to end on a down note, and I think that we can learn from that choice. 

            From the gospels about Jesus we get the impression that the first Easter must have been an extremely chaotic day.  A lot happened in a short time period, and there was not an assigned historian to record everything in meticulous detail for the record.   Because of that the four accounts of that early Easter morning are all slightly different from one another in the details they record.  The different gospel writers remember different details, but in broad strokes the story is the same.  For instance they all have Mary Magdalene going to the tomb early in the morning.   Mary was accompanied by several other women, but it seems not a single writer manages to name the whole group.  Salome for instance is only recorded in this morning’s scripture.  In all of the gospels the women find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty and speak with angels.  In the other three gospels, Mary Magdalene rushes to tell the eleven what she had seen.   But Mark implies that not all of the women did this.  Some of them at least, fled, and said nothing because they were afraid.   I think there are two things we can learn from the reaction of these women. 

            The first thing we can learn from this is related to why Mark chose to end the gospel in this fashion.   We have to remember that the gospels were not written in a vacuum, they were written to a specific audience and they are works of literature that use literary devices.   The ending of Mark is a fantastic display of this because it is asking the reader of the gospel a question.   Reading the gospel of Mark lays out the story of Jesus, his ministry, his teachings, and his claims about who he is.  After encountering the gospel, and being shown the truth of Jesus the end of this gospel challenges the readers to ask themselves, what about you?   Now that you know about the mighty acts of Christ, will you too be silent?    That is the question that should still challenge us today. 

            It should challenge us because the numbers bear out that as a whole we still seem to be afraid to testify the miracle of the resurrection.  LifeWay Research published the results of a five year study on church growth in 2017.   They found that the vast majority of church growth was not true growth.  The majority of it was transfer growth, where people just move from one to church to another.   The lowest type of church growth is conversion growth.  Conversion growth comes from some experiencing and accepting the life changing love, forgiveness, and salvation made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection.   TheLifeWay study found that only 6-7.5% of church growth is through conversion growth.   The only way that someone is introduced to the gospel is if someone shares it with them.  The numbers do not lie, like most of the women who visited the empty tomb, the majority of American Christians are silent and too afraid to say anything. 

            The question is why are we so silent?   Perhaps part of it is that many of us were raised to believe that good mannered, polite people never talked about religion or politics.   That’s garbage though.    There is wisdom in not arguing for the sake of arguing, but why is the truth of amazing grace relegated to the same category of debating the merits of taxes?   On the surface our silence does not make much sense.   If you consider yourself a Christian then that means you have experienced the forgiveness made available on the cross, you have rested in the assurance the empty tomb gives, and you known the depths of God’s love.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, those things are exciting!  They are life changing!  They are almost too good to comprehend.   Why then are we so silent about it?    If we watch a good movie, we tell everyone we know.  If we go to a great restaurant, we put pictures of what we are going to eat all over facebook.   If something is exciting, we usually are super quick to share that excitement with others.  We can test this fairly easily.  Baseball’s opening day was this past week, so find a Cubs or Reds fan and ask them how the team looks this year.  They will be full of hope, excitement and anticipation as they talk about their beloved team and the sport they enjoy.  We find it easy to get excited about a sport but that same level of excitement does not seem to apply to our faith.   That just does not compute, after all encountering Jesus and experiencing forgiveness of sins should be one of the most profound experiences of our lives.  There has to be a reason why we are so hesitant to share that experience with others.   The most likely explanation is that we are afraid. 

            What are we afraid of?   Perhaps we are afraid of other people judging us.  Perhaps we are afraid of messing it up or being asked a question that we do not know the answer of.  Perhaps we are afraid that someone will be confrontational.   The reason is almost irrelevant, if the result is the same.  That result is that we did not learn the lesson from the end of Mark we are like the women who are afraid and say nothing.   The first thing we can learn from this morning’s scripture is not to be afraid.   The message that Jesus is alive and that sins are forgiven is too important, too incredible, and too world-changing for us to keep it to ourselves.  

We cannot let fear quench that message.   We should be willing and able to proclaim that He Lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.   If someone wants proof, if they ask us how we know he lives, then we tell them he lives within my heart.  We do not need to have all the answers, we just need to share our experience with the resurrected savior.  On the first Easter the failure of the women who were afraid was to share the good news.  They did not have to explain the “why and how” of an empty tomb, they just needed to share what they experienced.   In the same way, may we be willing to share our testimony, or experience with the love of God made known through Jesus Christ, and may stop keeping our story quiet out of fear.   

Second I find the original ending of Mark fascinating because it captures human imperfection so well.   We do not know the story of these women, but they were part of Jesus’ disciples.  We do not know their stories, but we know just like the apostles they had to give up a lot to follow Jesus.  These women were not just groupies either, they were disciples.  We know that Jesus broke with Rabbinic tradition and he was willing to allow women to sit with and learn with his male disciples.   These women would have had a basic faith, but when push came to shove they gave in to fear.   Again, I think we can all relate to this.   We probably all have times in our lives when the going got tough, and we ran and hid under a blanket.   I imagine that even years later, the memory of this day, of being afraid, is one that the women would rather forget.   Again, we probably can all relate.  We have regrets that we probably still look back with shame and guilt wishing we did things differently.   We all have times where we were caught slightly embarrassed, because our imperfection was showing.

            The reaction of bewilderment, fear, and silence from the women reminds us of our own imperfections.   Which means, it should remind us of the greater truth in this morning’s scripture:  The tomb was empty!   This means that Jesus is who he claimed to be throughout the gospels:  the messiah, the son of God.   It means that Jesus defeated sin and death forever, that he offers eternal forgiveness, and that he has opened a way of reconciliation to God the Father.   The second thing that we can learn from this morning’s scripture is a constant reminder.  We may have a basic faith, but we have an extraordinary savior.   We may be imperfect, but our risen Lord is perfect.   On that first Easter, some of the women were bewildered, afraid, and silent.   The reminder though is that their failure, even then, is forgiven.  That because Jesus rose from the grave our sins are forgiven, our shame is erased, and our guilt can be released.   This morning’s scripture is a profound reminder that even when we are at our worst, God is still at God’s best.  And that my friends is good news!  

            It is the good news that we celebrate today!   The good news of an empty tomb, a risen savior, and an all-surpassing love is at the heart of our faith.   May we take the lessons of this morning’s scripture to heart.   May we remember that the stories of Jesus-its true, all of it.   May the assurance of that good news fill us with joy, excitement, passion, enthusiasm, and a deep-burning desire to share the good news with others.    May we stop being afraid to share the good news, but may we proclaim the truth that has for all eternity changed us:  Up from the grave he arose!   He arose a victor from the dark domain and he lives forever with his saint to reign.  He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!”          

                 

           

Passion of the Radical

Scripture:  Mark 11:1-11

            If you spend any time around me, then one of the things that becomes known very quickly is that I really like Star Wars.  That may not be strong enough, I love Star Wars.  My family might use the word obsessed, but that is a little strong.  In general Star Wars is known for it’s super fans, and the biggest of those put my little displays of fandom to shame.   For instance, Ian Martin makes his own replicas of props and set pieces found in Star Wars from scratch.   Some fans go to ocean-crossing lengths.  The original set used for Luke Skywalker’s home was actually built in the deserts of Tunisia, and it has been largely left to the elements for forty years.   So Mark Dermul took it upon himself to raise funds to go to Tunisia to repair and restore the set so people could continue to make pilgrimages to it.   One of the best known Star Wars super fans is Steve Sansweet, who is recognized as having the biggest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world.  His collection of Star Wars things has over 300,000 unique items.  It is not just Star Wars that has people who take being a fan to that degree.   There are Disney fans, Harry Potter fans, and sports fans who take their love of something and turn it up to eleven.   While, I do not reach their level-I get it.  To take being a fan to the lengths that many people do requires that they truly love it, that they are deeply passionate about it, and they are excited about it over the long haul.  It is easy for us to roll our eyes at the people who love their football team so much that they attend games in below freezing weather without a shirt and covered in purple body paint or who take the time to become fluent in a fictional language like Klingon.  However, I think as Christians we can learn from these super fans.   Their love of their thing is evident, their passion is contagious, and their devotion is radical.   We can learn from the super fans, because those descriptions should also be how we are able to describe our relationship with Christ. 

             Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God do and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of worship.   In the most basic terms worship is our response to who God is and what God has done.   A sentimental way to put it is that worship is how we tell God “I love you.”    Worship is and should be based in love.  As Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline, “Worship is our responding to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father.”   Through our worship our love of God should be evident.   This morning’s scripture demonstrates though that love is not the only characteristic that should define our worship.   Just like the super fans our worship should have a contagious passion and a radical devotion.  

            Palm Sunday kicks off the beginning of Holy Week and it is a day that we mark annually.   For many the story of Jesus entering the temple to the acclimation and palm branches of the crowd is a familiar one.  However, there are some oddities to this story we sometimes overlook, and I am not even talking about the fact that the story begins with what is essentially grand theft donkey.   The crowd that waived the palm branches and praised Jesus were not as innocent as we like to think.   The two most popular Palm Sunday hymns (which we are singing today) help paint an inaccurate picture.  Both of them focus on children praising Jesus on Palm Sunday creating a sweet, and innocent scene in our heads.  However, that is because both Tell Me the Stories of Jesus and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna were written for Sunday school and they were songs written to help teach children the stories of Jesus.  It makes sense they would include a child-centric focus.  The primary group that ushered Jesus through the temple gates was not a children’s band.  It was a rag-tag collection of radicals. 

            There were two primary groups that waved the branches and escorted Jesus into the temple on that fateful day.  The first were the disciples of Jesus, and as far as the good religious people of the day were concerned they were upstarts.   They were radicals who challenged and disrespected the traditions and the way things have always been.   They followed the teachings of a rabbi who broke with the way the Pharisees did things.   The second group that was there that day were the zealots. 

Jesus chose to ride a donkey to fulfill a specific scripture about the messiah.   It was thought in the first century that near one of the high holy days like Passover, the messiah might come riding a donkey and entering a specific gate into the temple.   Many people had gathered by the gate, just in case this was the year when the Messiah might actually come.   These people were zealots, Jews who actively wanted to see the Roman Empire overthrown and Israel become independent again.  This is why people were waving branches.   Palm branches were a symbol adopted by the zealots that represented Jewish sovereignty.  This is also why they shouted Hosanna, roughly translated means “Please save us”, and finds its roots in Psalm 18.   Like the palm branch, this is a phrase that was adapted by the zealots.   It was their rallying cry, it was their political marketing slogan.   

The disciples of Jesus and the zealots both worshipped that day.  Both the disciples and the zealots believed Jesus to be God’s chosen one, the messiah.  Waving the branches and shouting “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was their genuine, passionate response to what God had done.   In the crowd at Palm Sunday we see the same behavior we see in today’s super fans.   Their actions were both radical and passionate.   Again, when it comes to how we worship I think we can learn from that.  

What make something radical is that it goes above and beyond normal expectations.  That is what makes the super-fans radical in their fandom.  Not every Star Wars fan would finance an international trip just to restore a dilapidated movie set like Mark Dermul did.    The disciples of Jesus were radicals because they followed what the establishment considered a fringe rabbi.  The crowd on Palm Sunday were radical because they were the ones waiting to welcome Jesus.  There were a lot of people in first century Israel awaiting the Messiah, but only the most radical gathered at the gate in hopeful anticipation.   If worship is our response to who God is and what God has done; and if radical actions are those that go above and beyond normal expectations, then what would radical worship look like today?    

In considering what might be considered radical worship, I do not want us to get stuck on context.   For instance, in the context of a traditional worship service hootin’, hollarin’ and dancing in the aisle would be considered radical.  Yet, in the context of a charismatic church that would be normal and bowing in quiet reverence would be considered radical.   Worship can be radical in any context.  There are lots of ways that the way we personally worship can be radical, that is above and beyond expectations.  I do want to offer up one idea for what radical worship could look like today.   The way we can worship radically is to show up and worship together.    When polling is done and people are asked how often they attend a Sunday morning worship service, somewhere around 40% of respondents say they attend regularly.  However, a study that tracked actual attendance numbers at thousands of churches, used a statistical model to show that on any given Sunday less than 18% of the American population is at a church worship service.   The idea of regular church attendance has changed dramatically, and Church leadership author Carey Nieuwhof points out that even engaged and committed church members attend less Sunday’s a year than they used to.   Today, attending just monthly is considered by many to be a regular attender.   That is the standard for “regular”, which means gathering with the community of faith to praise and worship God more often is now radical.  

            Now please hear me on this, my intention in sharing this is not to make you feel guilty.  I get it.  Health issues can make getting out difficult, work schedules can be inflexible, life is busy and there are a lot of balls to juggle.  Just because you are unable to worship with us 50 out of 52 Sundays a year does not mean you are less of a Christian than someone who can.   The testimony of scripture is clear that worship is best experienced as a communal event.  One of the ways that we can worship radically, that we can go above and beyond is that we gather with other Christians to worship the living God and Jesus, the light of the world as often as we can.  How often we can, is different for each person.  For some of us as often as we can is every single week, and for others as often as we can is only monthly.  The point is not how many times in a given year we gather for worship, the point is that we do it as often as we can.   When we can, we do not make excuses, we do not treat worshipping God as just one options among many that we will do if it is convenient for us in the moment.  In a culture of unlimited choice where only 17% show up weekly, worshipping as often as we can is radical worship. 

            More importantly than being radical the way that we worship God should be passionate.   Passionate worship is somewhat hard to define, and it is easier to define by what it is not.  In his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase writes, “Without passion worship becomes dry, routine, boring, and predictable, keeping the form while lacking the spirit.  Insufficient planning by leaders, apathy of worshipers . ..contribute to an experience that people approach with a sense of obligation rather than joy.”  Passionate worship is worship that is full of joy.  When it comes to the super fans, the way they show their passion is through their investment and excitement.  The super fans have fully bought into what they love, and they are always excited about it.   These same two elements of investment and excitement are seen in this morning’s scripture.  The people spread their own clothes on the ground for Jesus to ride over, and the excitement in the shouts of Hosanna is so tangible it practically jumps off the page.

            We are invested in worship when we show up, not just physically but when we are fully present.  We are invested when we put our phones or mental to-do list away and engage in the act of responding to who God is and what God has done.  Even if we are unfamiliar with a song, or it is not our preferred style we still sing, as John Wesley instructed, “with a great courage. [Do not sing] as if you were half dead or half asleep.”   We worship with excitement when we are excited to worship God.   That challenges us to ask ourselves, are you excited to worship God?  My follow up question is how could you not be?   It is through worship we get to respond to God’s goodness and faithfulness.   It is through worship that we explore the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.   It is through worship we get to celebrate that our sins are forgiven, and it is through worship that we get to proclaim the miraculous truth:   Our God is greater than all, yet still knows us each by name.   Friends, again I ask, how do you not find that exciting?   When we are invested in the act of worshipping and we are excited to be doing it then our worship will always be passionate.  

            Worship is our response to who God is and What God has done.   I cannot speak for you, but when I consider all that God has done for me and all that I understand God to be, I have a whole lot of reasons to worship.   Super fans take their love for whatever they are fans are to the next level.   In the same way we take our worship to the next level.   Through how we worship may our love of God be evident, may passion be contagious, and may our devotion be radical.  May we be as invested and excited as those worshippers who greeted Jesus with shouts of Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”    

             

More Than Thoughts and Prayers

Scripture:  James 2:14-26

            German is a fun language, because if there is a concept that does not have a word to describe it, then Germans will create one by mashing other words together.   An example of this is zeitgeist.  This word is made by combining the German word for time and spirit.   The definition of zeitgeist is “the defining spirit of mood of a particular time as defined by the ideals and beliefs of that time.”   A couple of weeks ago there was an interaction that gave a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist of our current time.  At the very end of February director and writer Kevin Smith suffered an almost life ending heart attack.  I realize that you may not know who Kevin Smith is, but he is known for making niche movies that feature a lot of geek culture references and 80’s nostalgia.  Because we live in the Internet age, he announced he had a heart attack by posting a picture himself in a hospital bed on twitter.   In response to this Chris Pratt, an actor known for his roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, tweeted that he was praying for Kevin Smith.  Because it is the Internet, anyone can comment and give their unsolicited two cents.  The initial response to Pratt’s comments was overwhelmingly negative.  This backlash mocked the power of prayer, considered it a waste, and ineffective.  If you are like me, then your knee jerk reaction is to fight against that notion.  First, do not worry the Internet has you covered and the responses quickly devolved into a back and forth mud-slinging contest.  Second, I think this is an ideal opportunity as Christians to listen to the zeitgeist of the culture. 

            One of the early negative responses does a good job at summing up the growing cultural mood of the era.   A twitter user by the name of Joey Yeung responded by posting: “If you wanna help, actually help. Praying is just a way to feign helping so you don’t have to go out of your way.”   Now for the record, I believe Joey is wrong.  I believe strongly in the power of prayer, and I believe that when we pray God can and does change the fabric of reality to answer those prayers.   However, even though I disagree with Joey Yeung it is important to hear him, because his viewpoint is one that is growing in the world.    It has become a terrible cliché that whenever ever a tragedy of any type happens in the world, our political leaders (of both parties) respond by expressing their “thoughts and prayers.”   The criticism often leveled against these political leaders is that thoughts and prayers are meaningless if we are not ready to back them up with action.   Over the past several years, this discontent has grown, and it manifest itself has disdain for prayer that was seen in reaction to Chris Pratt’s tweet.  Again, as Christians I think it is important we hear this.   Right now what the world wants from the church is more than just our thoughts and prayers, they want us to act.   The world is not interested in hearing about our displays of faith, they want to see us back it up with our deeds.   As this morning scripture shows James, the brother of Jesus, would agree with that. 

            Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God do and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of acts of mercy.  For much of Christian history the church has divided things we do as Christians into acts of piety and acts of mercy.  The acts of piety, are largely what we have focused on the last few weeks.   The acts of piety are the things we do that connect us with God and strengthen our relationship with God.   The acts of mercy are the ways that we live our faith out with other people.   They are the deeds we do as the people of God.   The message of church tradition is the same as this morning’s scripture from James.  Authentic Christianity requires both faith and deeds.  

            This morning’s scripture has always been somewhat contentious, because it requires a bit more thought and insight than just taking it at face value.  On the surface level this scripture seems to be a direct contradiction of one of Paul’s writings.  In Ephesians Paul wrote “It is by grace you have been saved through faith . . . it is a gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Yet here James matter-of-factly states “faith without deeds is dead.”  Despite potentially seeming at odds with one another there is not a contradiction, because both ideas are true.   Salvation absolutely is by grace.  It is a gift of God offered to us without price.   We accept it by faith and it is not something that we can earn.    However, when we claim this free gift of grace it will change us, it will mold us, and it will absolutely drive us to action.  That is what James is getting to in this morning’s scripture.  He is not saying that we earn faith, through our actions.  Rather deeds is the natural result of faith.   A proper faith grounded in the grace of Christ will produce the fruit of deeds that serve and love others.   This is the one of the core beliefs of the United Methodist tradition.  Article X of our articles of faith state, “We believe good works, pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, spring from a true and living faith, for through and by them faith is made evident.”   Faith without deeds that naturally grow out of it, is not true faith.   Faith without the fruit of deeds is all talk with no game to back it up.   Faith without deeds is thoughts and prayers without any power behind it. It is just a façade, it is a veneer that might use church-y sounding words but has no true substance to it. 

            I think the negative reaction to thoughts and prayers is related to the fact, that too many non-believers have had too much negative experience with that kind of hollow, fake news faith.   The type of faith that the world is waiting to see from us is a faith that is more than thoughts and prayers.  As James states in this morning’s scripture. “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”   It seems today, that if non-believers are going to welcome and accept our prayers then they need to be dirty prayers.   By that I mean our thoughts and prayers need to be about things that we are willing to get our hands dirty in and do the work to bring about real justice, real restoration, and real reconciliation.  It seems that the zeitgeist of our current age seems to understand faith without deeds is dead.  So if we are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have turn our thoughts into actions and offer ourselves as living sacrifices that God can use to do good deeds that fulfill our prayers and transform this world.  

            In the Catholic tradition there are seven corporeal acts of mercy that Christians are to undertake in service to others.   Our Methodist tradition inspired by John Wesley, was inspired by this catholic tradition but it is a bit more open ended in how we define acts of mercy.   Methodist pastor, professor, and theologian Randy Maddox summarizes this viewpoint in his book Responsible Grace.   About works of mercy he wrote, “This designation covers the range of possible contributions to the welfare of others-from clothing and shelter, to healthcare and education to basic friendship.”   Works of mercy are the deeds we do because we are Christians.   These could be formalized and regular events such as visiting the sick and imprisoned, or they could be informal acts like taking care of lawn for a sick neighbor.   From our Methodist perspective it is less about what we do more, and more about why we do them.   We do these acts of mercy not out of obligation and we do not do them because we are trying to prove ourselves before God.  The reason why we should take on these acts of mercy is because of God’s all surpassing love.   Even though we do not deserve it and we cannot earn it, God still loves us.  That love should fill us to the very top, so that it spills out of our life.  Acts of mercy are the way we love our neighbor as ourselves because God first loved us. 

            There is saying that is often misquoted to John Wesley.  He did not say it, but his preaching inspired it and this quote evolved organically out of the Methodist Tradition.  So even though John Wesley did not say it, this quote and the ethos behind it belongs to us.  It goes like this: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”   This is one of the reasons why United Methodist is the expression of Christianity I resonate the most with.   Historically, United Methodist are doers.   It is embedded in our doctrine and church practice not to sit on the sidelines, but to be the church through actions we do.   Acts of Mercy should be one of the most prominent ways we display our faith.    In other words, they should know we are Christians, not because of our thoughts and prayers, but because of our love. 

            The message of this morning’s scripture is that acts of mercy must be part of our faith expression.   I suspect many of us know this, and we have a desire to show the love of God to others through our actions.  However, we sometimes need some help with inspiration, intentionality, and direction on doing this.   With that in mind here are a couple of challenges with how we can engage in acts of mercy.   We can do this through intentional acts and random acts.  

            Intentional acts are when we are involved with ministries, organizations, or missions that meet the needs of others.  These are planned times that we build into our lives to help people.   These acts of mercy are doing things like feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, giving to the poor, and sheltering the homeless.  These acts of mercy we do by volunteering such as serving at the food pantry, volunteering at a school, working with habitat for humanity, or providing fellowship and care to shut-ins.   My challenge to you, is how are you doing this?  I know for some of you, this is an easy answer.   You re setting a great example for the rest of us to follow.    However, if you struggle thinking of an answer, then I urge you to find a spot you can serve others and do it.   It should not be hard.  There is not a shortage of need in this world, so if you see need-meet the need.  If there is currently not a process in place to meet that need, then let’s sit down, talk about, and create a new way to serve our community together. 

            The random acts of mercy are not so much random, as they are unstructured.   These are acts we undertake in our daily life to be a blessing to others.  This is where we do good of every possible sort in small ways.   Again this is not hard, we simply need to take time to notice people around us.  When we truly notice them, then the ways we can bless them and show God’s love through our actions becomes incredibly apparent.  The second challenge is this:  I challenge you for the rest of lent to do at least one thing a day that brightens someone else’s day.  Do a small action, a small act of mercy, where you bring joy and show God’s love to another person through your actions. 

            May you get in the habit of doing that, so then you will show people your faith by your deeds.    Prayers are incredibly important and world changing, but may we be more than a church of thoughts and prayers.  May we be a church that embraces acts of mercy.   Being full of the love of God, may we love our neighbors through our actions.   May we show this world what a living faith looks like as we back up our beliefs of a loving God with loving actions.   May they know we are Christians by our love.   

Squad Goals

Scripture:  Ephesians 4:1-7

            There is an institution that is found all across this country.   It does not seem to matter what part of the county you are in, or what time of the year it is, you are sure to encounter this group wherever you are.   I am, of course, talking about the old men’s table at McDonalds.   If you do not know what I am talking about, then pick any McDonalds.   Seriously any of them, and I guaranteed if you arrive between 6:00AM and 8:00AM then you will find a table of gentlemen, usually older, who are drinking coffee and solving all of the world’s problems.  Throughout my life I have been in a lot of McDonald’s in a lot of different places, and it is uncanny how universal this is.   Presumably, these little groups arose organically.   Retired men were looking for cheap, hot coffee and that brought them to McDonalds.  Eventually they kept seeing each other, conversations began, and it did not take long before they had “their table” and others started joining them.   I imagine by and large that is how these little groups began, but it really is fascinating how common this occurrence is and how it naturally replicated itself in so many places.  I think one of the things that this really points to as that people are intentionally designed for relationship and community.   On the surface level, the biggest thing these guys who started gathering every morning was the fact they wanted to get inexpensive coffee daily.   That simple commonality is enough of a basis to build a community that gathers daily in thousands of locations. 

            A single commonality is all that is needed for community to form.  As many of you know, I love board games and many media of outlets have noticed I am not alone in this.  Several articles have been written about the exponential growth in the tabletop gaming market.   In all of the articles that have been written the number one reason stated for the growth of the hobby is that games are inherently social activities.  They involve gathering around a table and interacting with one another.   Games can serve as the common denominator that community builds around.   I have found this to be true, and it is more than anything why I enjoy gaming so much.   According to all of the articles that were written, it seems that a lot of other people are wanting to find common ground to build a community on and they are finding it gaming. 

            Humans, by nature, are inherently social creatures.   It is by God’s divine design we are created with relationship with one another.   We are made to live in life-giving community with one another.   It is for this reason that we gather for church.   Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”   From the very beginning our faith experience was not meant to be a solo-experience.   Faith is not meant to be between you and God, it is meant to be between us and God.   Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of community.   I believe it is important for us to get this right.   The greatest gift the church has to offer the world is the invitation to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior BUT the second greatest gift have to offer the world is the invitation to be part of Christian community- the body of Christ, the family of God. 

            In general today, people are less connected with one another than they used to be.   This is where, to back up my point, I could quote statistic after statistic at you to show how this is the case, but I am not sure I need to.  I think this is something that many of us feel.   People do not hang out in the front porch anymore conversing with their neighbors, instead if we are outside at all it is in a backyard surrounded by a privacy fence.   People do not gather in public spaces like they used to, but instead they stay home and watch Netflix.   When people are out and about they are less likely to interact with people around them and more likely to hide in the screen of their phones.   Of course one of the reasons for this is because we live in a disturbingly polarized culture.  It is hard to strike up a conversation with someone about something deeper than the weather, because today seemingly everything has a political connotation and most people have dead-set opinions about who is us and who is them.  I am not going to point fingers about why this, or even bemoan how things used to be better back in the day.  Any given time frame of human existence has its positives and negatives.  All of this to say that we live in a culture that increasingly polarized and isolating, which is why the message of this morning’s scripture is so relevant to us.

            Even though we may be created to be social and build community together, this morning’s scripture shows it is something that always requires some effort to make happen.  This morning’s scripture from Ephesians was written by Paul to the church in Ephesus.   The New Testament as several letters written by Paul to various churches, and many of them have sections like this one; sections where Paul encourages the church to live in community with one another.  There are a couple of very important strategies this morning’s scripture gives us to do that.  

            First, if in order to build a commonality, then this morning’s scripture gives us the ultimate commonality: “One Lord, One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  The commonality that Christian community is built on is Christ himself.   It is through Christ that we are united to God and therefore, united by God to one another.   If you consider yourself a Christian then we are brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.   It is that one faith in the One God with one Lord and one baptism that initiates us into one holy church that is the basis for our connection that is the foundation for Christian community.   Christian community should be the strongest, most loving, and most nurturing community there is because what unites us is so, so much greater than anything that could possibly divide us. 

            This is the gift of hope that we bring to this divided, polarized, and bickering world.  If the love and grace we experience as Christians was enough to overcome hell and death, then is certainly great enough to overcome our differences.  It does not matter what those differences are:   different culture heritages, Christ is greater.   Purdue or IU Fan, Christ is greater.  Orthodox or progressive, Christ is greater.   Democrat or Republican, Christ is greater. It does not matter our differences are, the ground at the foot of the cross is level.  We all stand together in the need of grace, and we should be united in that grace.  In a world that is so divided, it is only in the community of the church that two people who might disagree about every single political issue can stand next to one another and sing with one voice, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.   The tear-inducing beauty of the church is that despite our differences we can love one another because he first loved us.   May we never forget that truth, and may we strive to live into that reality. 

            The second strategy this scripture gives us, is the nuts and bolts in how we live into that reality.   This morning’s scripture beings by telling us how we can live in community as the people of God.   Paul wrote, “be completely humble and gentle; be patient bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  To do this requires a conscious choices because being humble and patient, do not come easily or naturally to most of us.   To be humble means we choose to focus on ourselves less.  It means that we check our egos at the door, and realize that this community of faith, this church does not belong just to you.  Because again, we all stand on level ground here.  Just because I am up here, does not mean this is more my church than it is your church.   If you have been a member here for thirty years, then this church does not belong more to you than it does to someone who has been attending for only three years.   It does not matter if you are eighty-five or five, we are all equally valuable members of this community and we all possess sacred worth because of who created us and who saved us.   As this morning’s scripture concludes in verse 7, we all bring unique graces to the community of faith in a way that no one else can provide.  We all belong.    When we make the choice to recognize this, then it becomes easier to be patient and bear with one another in love.   We choose to value the person valued by God more than we value whatever it is that is making us impatient.    When we make the choices as followers of Christ to value the people of God, then we are well on our way to being a Christian community.   I sincerely believe that belonging to this kind of loving community is something the world desperately craves.  

            While it is not explicitly stated in this morning’s scripture, there is a final piece to how we do community as Christians.   It must be an open community.  The common bond we share is Christ, and Christ died for the sins of the whole world.   This means we much be willing to let the whole world in.   Every church in the world believes they are friendly, but that is because they are friendly with one another.   They are friendly with the people who look like them, and act like them.    That is a good first step, but we need to do better.   Christian community should be an open table, a table where we are always willing to set a place for one more.   Christian community needs to be a bigger table.   Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz writes about this by relaying a story from his childhood:

“When gatherings were especially large, actual construction would be required.   My father would retrieve two massive rectangular pieces of wood for the garage.  . . we would all pull the table from either end and it would magically slide open and we’d drop those slabs in and add more chairs.  We quite literally expanded the table so that we could fit everyone. . . This was a regular incarnation of the love of God right in the center of our home, though we never knew to name it such.  This is the heart of the gospel:  the ever expanding hospitality of god.  Jesus, after all, was a carpenter.  Building bigger tables was right in his wheelhouse.” 

            As it has already been stated, we have to choose to live in community with one another, but the biblical message is clear.  As Christians we are supposed to be in community with one another and it is in the Christian community that we best experience, both the giving and receiving, of grace.   With that in mind, I do want to offer up two practical tips about how we can better live in community with one another.  First, we have to be willing to commit the time.   Being in community with one another is a shared relationship, and like all relationships that requires and investment of time.  Often, that requires more than just the shared experience of an hour together every Sunday morning.  That is why we offer additional times to gather together.   That is why we have Sunday school, weekly bible study, youth group, United Methodist women, United Methodist men, game nights, and euchre nights.   One of the functions that all of these things serve is to provide opportunity to be the people of God together, to spend time with one another, and to invest with one another.   I know we all lead busy lives, so if we currently do not offer anything during a time you can participate then let me know, and let’s work together to find a new way for us all to live in community together.  

            Second, we do need to always be mindful about making the table bigger.   This means that we never settle for how it is, but we are always willing to invite just one more to join us.  I celebrate this about Edinburgh UMC, in general you all are good about this.  I have seen the numbers, and the amount of people you invite is well above average for a church our size.  However, let us be mindful of this and let us always be willing to make the table a little bigger.  

            Look around, look behind you.   These people, the people here in this room with you, we are your squad, your tribe, your family, your community.   We are united by the one Lord and one faith.   We are part of the one body.   May we live like it.   May we be humble and gentle, treating one another with patience and love.   May we show the world, what true and authentic community looks like as we love each other the way that God loves us.  More importantly though, may we invite the world to come and join us at the bigger table of God’s unending grace.  

Give It Up

Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12

            It is amazing how fast a story can take on a life all its own.   For instance there is a well-known story about Gandhi, which is not actually true.   The story is actually an old proverb from India that somehow got morphed into a Gandhi story over the past forty years.  So even though this story is not an actual event that happened, it is one worth telling.  The story goes like this:   There was a boy who ate too much sugar.   He was absolutely addicted to the stuff.   He snuck, gorged, and hoarded candy all the time.   It was a real problem and no matter what the mother tried she could not get the boy to stop over-indulging his sweet tooth.   Out of options, she decided to take the boy to see Gandhi.   At this point he was revered for his wisdom, and she thought perhaps he could talk some sense into her son.  They walked for miles over the course of many hours in the hot Indian sun.   When they finally made it to Gandhi, the mother explained her predicament in detail and asked “Gandhi, my son consumes too much sugar- will you please tell him it is bad for his health?”   After listening to the mother, the only thing he says is “come back in two weeks.”   Perplexed the two leave, but two weeks later they dutifully make the same long journey under the sun to come back to see Gandhi.   When they come back Gandhi gets down on the boy’s level, looks him in the eye, and says “boy, you eat too much sugar.  It is not healthy.  You need to stop.”   The boy, who has great respect for Gandhi, takes his words to heart.   The mother is confused and ask, “Why could you not tell him that two weeks ago?”   Gandhi replied, “Because two weeks ago, I was eating too much sugar.”  

            I tell this story because of the subject we are exploring this morning.   Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of fasting.  Despite that, and I am being bluntly honest with you, I am terrible at fasting.  It is one of the spiritual disciplines I am the weakest in.   Every time, I try to fast and not eat, all I do is think about food.   Often it is taught that while fasting, and you feel hungry that is a reminder to focus on God, but all I end up focusing my thoughts on are donuts and pizza.   Once in college, I took part in a 72 hour fast that was meant to get over that hump.  The thought was that after 48 hours, the body begins to adjust and it becomes easier not to focus on being hungry.   Yeah, I spent three days with my thoughts focused more on pancakes than God.

            However, much like the fictional account of Gandhi, I could not in good conscious talk about fasting without doing it myself which is why this past Friday I followed John Wesley’s traditional Friday fast and why I have fasted from playing video games for the past two weeks.   Often when we think of fasting, we only think about food.   This morning’s scripture makes it clear though that fasting is more than just not eating, and it is more than just giving something up as a token of piety.   Fasting is not an optional spiritual discipline.   In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gave instructions on fasting and he said “when you fast. . .” not “if you fast.”    If this is something that our Lord and Savior expects of us then we should know what fasting is and why we should do it.  

            Fasting is an ancient biblical tradition.   We can find it all of the way back in the Torah, the first five books of the bible that is regarded as Jewish law.   In Leviticus where this practice is first commanded it is phrased as “you must deny yourself.”   In essence this is what fasting is.  Fasting is self-denial.    The opposite of self-denial is indulgence, and let’s be honest we live in a culture that is full of indulgence.  Fasting is the conscious choice to deny ourselves instead of indulge ourselves.   Biblically, this focus is exclusively in food.    However, today we indulge more than our physical appetites.   Proof of this is not hard to find.   We indulge our desire to be entertained.   The average American watches five hours of TV a day, and that says nothing about binge watching on streaming services.    We indulge our appetite to just have more stuff, which the number bear out.   The average American family carrying a credit card debt has a balance of $15,654.   There is value and spiritual reasons to fast from food, but we clearly can benefit from practicing self-denial in other areas of our lives as well.    This is why I know a few people whose annual Lenten discipline is to fast from social media for the duration of Lent.  This is why when I knew that I would need to be more intentional about fasting myself, I chose to spend a couple of weeks away from video games.   It was an area in my life that I was being too indulgent in.  

            Establishing what fasting is, the question is why should we do it?   In the bible there was a deep cultural reason for fasting.   For instance the mention of fasting in Leviticus is in the stipulations on how to mark the Day of Atonement, the Israelite community was to deny themselves and fast.  Throughout the Bible we see fasting applied elsewhere and in different ways.  Often when people seek God’s attention in the midst of suffering and tragedy the bible mentions fasting.  This is because ancient Jewish theology and practice put a strong emphasis on connecting the body and soul.   If there was an inward change or feeling, then it was to be expressed outwardly.   This is why there is an emphasis in the bible and ritual washing.  An outward act is done to signify an inward change.  Fasting was much the same way.  If one was to focus on God, then they literally denied themselves   Fasting is meant to be a physical expression of heart and spiritual desire.  Fasting also has several other deep spiritual benefits as well and they are reasons for why we should do it.  

            First, fasting as a way to provide clarity, focus, and put things in perspective.  For instance, fasting has a way to make us more grateful.  I grew up being taught that you pray before you eat, but until I truly fasted I did not understand why.   On multiple occasions now, I have participated in and led youth groups through an annual event called Planned Famine.  This event raises funds and awareness to combat world hunger, and it involves a thirty hour fast.  Often the teens emerge on the other end much more appreciative for the fact we have food.   I can honestly say that because of fasting when I pray before eating, I pray with great sincerity because I am truly thankful that we have food.  

            Because fasting is self-denial, the spiritual discipline also has a way to convict us of the ways we over-indulge.   When we are being about denying ourselves we are more attuned to the ways that we are not.   John Wesley noticed this  and he preached about in discourse 7 of Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.  Wesley preached bluntly, “Fasting will wean us more and more from all those indulgences of the lower appetites that naturally tend to the chain the soul to earth polluting and debasing.”   Wesley believed that regularly practicing self-deinal helps strengthen us in general to saying “no” when we are tempted to be indulgent in sinful ways.  

            A second benefit of fasting is an undeniable spiritual one.  Church tradition maintains that many God-fearing people have found that the act of regular fasting increases the depth and impact of one’s prayer life and relationship with God.    In his book Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster compiled a list of several great Christian thinkers and writers who advocated the spiritual benefits of fasting.  This list includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and of course John Wesley.  Again in his sermon on fasting Wesley preached that through fasting, “We also grow in earnestness, sincerity, discernment, tenderness of conscience, and deadness to the world.  Consequently we grow in love for God and in every holy and heavenly affection.”

            These first two benefits combine for the third undeniable benefit of fasting.   Fasting changes us for the better.   Methodist Pastor, professor, and theologian Randy Maddox points out that “Self-denial was indispensable for the Christian life.”    Maddox goes on to point out that in Wesley’s viewpoint the core of self-denial is “a willingness to embrace God’s will when it is contrary to our own.”   It is through fasting we learn to do this.   In fasting we practice small acts of self-denial and when we seek God in prayer while denying ourselves the Christian tradition maintains it is easier to discern and understand the difference between our will and God’s will.  In essence this moves fasting from being a spiritual discipline of piety to one act that is a catalyst to put our faith into motion and to “spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.”  

            That is what this morning’s scripture in Isaiah is all about.   This scripture begins by mentioning people who are fasting because it is an expectation.   They are going through the motions of fasting, of giving something up, because it is how things are supposed to be done.  Fasting is not a magical cause and effect, where we deny ourselves to get some sort of benefit on the back end, but that is how it is being treated in this scripture.  Fasting is not about doing the action for the sake of the action.   Fasting is an outward expression of an inward desire to deny ourselves, take up our savior, and follow Christ. 

            Fasting is meant to change our hearts and motivate our actions..   As this morning’s scripture says, “Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen:  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wander with shelter- when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away your own flesh and blood.” 

 Practicing fasting can change our hearts in a couple of ways.   When we go without we are in a better position to have solidarity with those less fortunate than us.   This was always why the youth planned famine events were successful, it allowed teens to experience real hunger in a very small way for the first time and it made them much more sympathetic to those who are hungry.   Fasting helps change our hearts to see the needs of others.  Also, since fasting is self-denial when we do it regularly we become better at focusing on our self less, which naturally makes us better at focusing on others more.  Fasting motivates us to put others first, not in theory but in our everyday actions.   

In our indulgent-filled culture, fasting is hard, but it can be the vibrant soil that nourishes a flowering faith.   Here are some thoughts about how we can fast.   First, for fasting to be effective, for it to change our hearts, and motivate our actions, it is something we should practice regularly.  John Wesley fasted every Friday, not eating that day until the evening meal.  He urged all Methodists to do something similar.   In the interest of full disclosure, I am talking to myself in this regard as much as to anyone else.  We, I, should find a fasting pattern that works regularly for us.   If for medical reasons, fasting is not feasible then you can honor fasting through abstinence.   You can be intentional about denying yourself certain foods like sweets.   Finally, self-denial does not have to just be food.  If there is something like TV, social media, your phone that you know that you have been overly indulgent in then take a fast from that.  Offer it up for a period of time as a sacrifice before the Lord and practice self-denial.

For most of us fasting is a hard spiritual practice.  It is one that requires us to be intentional about.  However, the rewards of doing so are immense.   Through self-denial we become more attuned to the cry of the needy and the will of God.   As the people of God, may we humble ourselves, may we pray, and may we deny ourselves in fasting.   Then as this morning’s scripture says, “your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you always.”         

By the Book

Scripture:  2 Timothy 3:14-17

            Nathaniel Greene was born into a well to-do Rhode Island family.  Though taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic Greene did not have much formal schooling because his father thought industrious work was the best teacher.   Nathaniel was indeed industrious, and upon the death of his father in 1774 he successfully took over and led a growing business empire.  However, war with England was on the horizon.  Nathaniel, an American patriot, turned his mind to military matters.  However, he did not set his eyes on being a solider but on command.   Which is what indeed happened.  By 1775, Nathaniel Greene was a Brigadier General in the Continental army.   He had only been a solider for six months, he had never been part of a military campaign, and he had never even set foot on the battlefield.    What qualified him for his high rank was his extensive knowledge of the military arts that he acquired almost entirely from reading books.   Before enlisting, Greene had used his considerable wealth to buy every book, treatise, and pamphlet on military theory that he could get a hold of.   As historian David McCullough writes, “It was a day and age that saw no reason why one could not learn whatever was required- learn virtually anything- by the close study of books, and he was a prime example of such faith.”   Despite the fact that his experience initially came from books, he was successful in his military career.  When America achieved victory in the war for independence he was second in command only under George Washington.  

            I find the idea fascinating that someone can learn virtually anything by studying books.  We believe books are important, but we do not believe they are the key to doing everything.  Imagine if I read hundreds of business leadership books and then applied to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, claiming that being well read qualified to helm the company.   I probably would not be taken seriously at all, but that is more or less what Nathaniel Greene did in his era and no one questioned it!   Even more crazy, it worked!  Believing in and then proving the power of books to that degree is amazing and almost unbelievable. 

            Of course as Christians, perhaps we should not find the power of a book to change lives to be that unbelievable.   John Wesley once wrote, “I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!  . . . Let me be [a man of one book].”   We believe that one book, the bible, does have the power to change lives.    However, we have to confess that by and large that belief is academic and not always based in experience.   Study after study has shown that biblical literacy in this country is decreasing.  Statistically speaking, even the majority of regular church goers do not have a deep understanding of the Holy Scriptures.   In 2014 the Barna research group reached a sad conclusion:  “Americans love the Bible, but they do not read it.”   Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of the bible.    

            The most basic question we can ask about the Bible is “What is it?”  There is a cutes-y answer to this question that has gained some traction.  I could not track down the origins of this so I do not know how old it is, but it turns the word Bible into an acronym that means Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth.   At first glance that seems clever, but it also could not be more wrong.   The bible is not an instruction book.   An instruction book is linear, dry, and efficient.   The bible is much more nuanced than that.  An instruction book is what we use to build a Lego set not live a changed life.   It is not right to call the Bible basic.  It is full of poetry, of wisdom, and of truth.  It is so much more than just a list of steps.   We do the scripture a profound disservice when we treat it like simple instructions that we only look at when we need an answer.  We do the scripture wrong when we proof text a scripture out of context and try to shoe-horn it into a situation in our life where the scripture does not honestly apply.  An instruction book is something we only use when we need it to fix a problem, and the Bible should not be used that way.  The bible is not meant to just tell us what to do, it is meant to transform us.  

            If the Bible is not an instruction book, then what is it?   As far as the United Methodist church is concerned, there is an official answer.   Our official doctrine states, “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for our faith practice.”   The Bible is not an instruction book but it is an authority.  The bible is the ultimate authority on the essentials of salvation, and in doing so reveals God to us.  This morning’s scripture puts it simply:   All scripture is God-breathed.   The simple and deep truth of the Holy scriptures is that from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 is that they are divinely inspired.   The scripture was written in three different languages, it was written over a period of hundreds of years.  Some of it existed as oral tradition to be compiled by editors, other portion have been preserved by the church since it was first written.    The context the scripture was written to ranges from an apostate nation of stiff-necked people, to Greeks needing to be convinced of their need for Jesus, to start-up churches struggling with doing life together.   Church tradition, our own experience, and scripture itself confirms that the one thing tying all of scripture together is the divine inspiration of God.   This means that for “what the bible is”, it is our primary source of knowledge for knowing God.   It is only through the scripture that God has revealed Godself.  It is because and through the scripture we know of God’s everlasting mercy and love.   It is because of the Bible we know the story of God’s grace.  It is because of the Bible that we know Jesus Christ is the source of salvation that reconnects us with our heavenly Creator.   What is the Bible?   Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is the fount of truth that reveals how our souls are saved and it is one of the key ways that God transforms our hearts.  

            This is why the Bible is so important.  Not only does it contain everything necessary for salvation and reveal that to us, but the Bible transforms us.  This morning’s scripture goes on to state that  scripture is useful teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped of every good work.  If we break this down we get a glimpse as to what makes the Bible so transformative.

  First we are to use the scripture to train in righteousness.   The concept of training implies an ongoing work.   I do not know about you but we have watched a lot of Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks, and training for those games is as intense as you can imagine.  Olympic athletes tend to train six to seven days a week, and their training regiments often take up between three and six hours of their day.   That is the kind of dedication it takes for an Olympic level athlete.   We may not be able to immerse ourselves in the scriptures six hours a day, but that kind of regular, intentional, and daily training is what is being talked about here.  That kind of training makes Olympic athletes the best in the world, and a similar type of dedication to the scripture can transform us.  

This morning’s scripture also points out that scripture is useful for correcting and rebuking.   Now this is a harder pill to swallow.  To be corrected means we are doing something wrong, and to be rebuked means we are doing it wrong enough that we need to be called out.   However, if we never fix our mistakes, errors, and short comings then we never grow, improve, or change.   Being corrected and rebuked is hard, sometimes ugly work but it is necessary for us to become the people of love, compassion and purpose God made us to be.   The bible is indeed very good at rebuking and correcting us.  One of the things that makes the Bible unique compared to other ancient literature is that the people contained within are not perfect.  From Abraham to Moses to David to Peter to Paul all of these people are portrayed as deeply flawed and imperfect.  When we read and immerse ourselves in their stories, our own flaws and shortcomings become apparent.   When Paul writes in his letters of the ways the churches fail to love one another or live a Christian lifestyle it can sometimes hit to close to home.   The Bible is good at pointing out what we need to correct, and it often points us in how to do it.   The Bible transforms us when we study it, and allow its eternal truth and wisdom to rebuke our pride and change our behavior.   Doing this is a lot easier than we tend to let on.   19th century Philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard accurately diagnosed this when he wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand.  But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.  We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”  

Nathaniel Greene became an army general because he read books.   These books were not just instruction books, but they were knowledge that he internalized and claimed.  He allowed the books to mold and shape him.  He made what they contained part of who he was.   This is what we should do as Christians, this is what it means to train in righteousness and this is how the Bible corrects and rebukes us.    The scriptures are God-breathed and as such they do transform us.   When we internalize and claim the eternal truth of scriptures, when we allow the one book to mold and shape us, it becomes part of who we are.   And who we become is more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom the Holy Bible has revealed and made known to us.  

The final basic question to briefly consider is how we go about reading the Bible.   Quite simply we read it.  That has to be a starting point.  We have to stop being a nation that loves the Bible but does not read it.   When it comes to reading it I do have four tips to help you with that.  First, get a Bible you enjoy reading.  If your Bible is a translation that you do not like then find a different one.  We are so spoiled in that regard, and if you need help finding one we have a lot of second hand bibles we have collected here to share so just let me know.    Second, be strategic in how you read the Bible.  Do not start at Genesis and try to read cover to cover.   That tends not to be a great way to approach the Bible.  If it has honestly been awhile since you have read the Bible on your own then start with a gospel like Matthew or John.   If you want more structured guidance there are a lot of read the bible in a year plans.  I know it is the end of February but if you start now you will still get through most of it.    Third, read with paper nearby.   The Bible is inspired by God, and I sincerely believe God speaks through it.  If something sticks out or a thought is triggered write it down.  If there is a question you have write it down, look it up, or if you prefer ask your pastor to look it up for you (we seriously LOVE it when people do that).  Finally and most importantly, whenever you read the bible pray first.  Ask God to reveal the truth of the scripture to you, ask God to transform you through the scripture.  It is my experience that God is faithful in answering that prayer. 

Whether you are a longtime student of the scriptures, a relapsed student, or a new student may you continue on in what you have learned and have become convinced of.  May you love the Holy Scriptures and may you allow God to speak to you through them.  May you realize that the Bible is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  May we all be a people of One Book, thoroughly equipped for good work to the greater glory of God and to his son Jesus the Christ.  

Living on a Prayer

Scripture:  1 John 5:1-20

It is one of my mom’s favorite stories to tell.   I was somewhere around the age of five, and we were at my grandmother’s house.   While doing some cleaning they found a picture of my dad from his senior year of high school.   They showed it to me and asked if I recognized the person, which I did not.   They told me who it was and then said “someday you may look just like that.”   Upon gazing at the picture again, my response was an exasperated prayer, “Oh God, I hope not!”   Kids, it seem pray the darndest things.  If you are having a bad day and want a way to lighten your heart then use google to look up funny kid prayers.   The prayers of children tend to be innocent, sweet, and honest.  For instance one I ran across was Dear God please change the taste of asparagus.  It’s gross. “   Another food related prayer that a mother reported was every day their son would pray, “Dear God, please make this taste good.”  However, my favorite story of kids’ prayers that I ran across was relayed by a mother and it happened after giving birth to their third child a boy.   The two older children came to the hospital to meet their new baby brother.  The oldest, a six year old girl was disappointed and whined “but I prayed for a girl.”  The now middle child, a four year old boy, a matter of factly replied, “I prayed harder.”  

            In churches we tend to do a decent job at teaching children about prayer.  I know this because it is one of the default answers.  I have taught teens in youth ministry for almost fifteen years now, and I know that it does not matter what the scripture we are studying is or the topic we are discussing if I ask a question that involves some form of how we can put our faith into action someone will always say “pray”.   Now technically, they are right.  It is very rarely not appropriate to pray, but I have to wonder how much thought most of us have put into prayer.   We know we are supposed to pray but how much do we know about why we pray, how to pray, and what to pray?   Once someone accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, we tend to assume people just know how to be Christians.   Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of prayer.  

            The most basic and perhaps the most important question to answer about prayer is why we pray.  This is such a fundamental question that some of the best Christian thinkers in history have weighed in on it.   The great reformer Martin Luther wrote, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”   We pray because it is one of the most basic expression of our faith.  The reason for this is reminded to us by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon who preached, “True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise nor a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that - it is spiritual transaction with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”   He reminds us that prayer is more than inspiring words and it is much more than thinking good thoughts or sending positive vibes.  A “spiritual transaction” is a 19th century way of saying encounter.   When we pray we are encountering God.   As this morning’s scripture puts it, we approach God.   Catholic saint Mother Teresa explained the encounter with God that we have in prayer in very intimate terms when she stated, “Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”   When we pray in this way, we truly put ourselves in the hands of God and listen to for God’s voice in the depths of hearts something truly remarkable happens.   The hugely influential 19th century theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard plainly stated, “Prayer does not change God but it changes [the one] who prays.”  

The collective wisdom of the voices out of Christian tradition paint a consistent picture of why we pray that aligns with scripture.    The reason why we pray is to build and continue a relationship with God because it is in prayer we directly interact with God.   Now I know for those of you who are routine church attenders, that is a standard statement, you know that already.  However, I do not think we truly appreciate the epic scope of that statement.   We are saying the creator of the known and unknown universe, the God who sees and knows all things at all times,  and the God who is infinitely power gives us the time of day whenever we seek it.   For that reason prayer absolutely should change us and that is also one of the reason why we pray.    In this morning’s scripture John wrote in verse 18, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe and the evil one cannot harm them.”   John is writing about the ideal, to reach a place in life where we do not willfully sin and fully love God with all of our being.    Why we pray is because reaching that state of Christian perfection is only possible by God changing us as we interact and changed by God in prayer.  

             The next basic question, which is the primary focus, of this morning’s scripture is what we pray about.   In some ways understanding what we should pray about is just as important as understanding why we should pray in the first place.    Perhaps, collectively as the American church this might be one of the most areas we need some guidance and help.   I do not know if you have noticed but our prayers can be kind of selfish.   Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton noticed this and wrote about it in their influential and prophetic book Soul Searching.  They identified that by the approach many take to prayer they treat God “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”   In other words, what we pray about is ourselves and how God can make our lives better in the most comfortable way possible.  

            That way of praying is not really supported by scripture including this mornings.   At first glance it does seem that this morning’s scripture might support the idea that God is always at our beck and call ready to bless us.  Verses 14 and 1 do state: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God:  that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know he hears us-whatever we ask we know that we have what we asked of him.”   Again, at first glance it does seem this scripture supports a “name it and claim it” idea.   But there is a huge qualifier in verse 14.   It says if we ask anything according to God’s will.  We can confidence that God will hear and answer our prayers if our prayers are in accordance with God’s will.  

            In this morning’s scripture John is very helpful because he gives us example of the kind of prayer that would be in God’s will.   In verse 16 John writes about seeing a fellow Christian sin and praying that God will give them life and lead them to repentance.   That is the kind of prayer that is in accordance with the will of God.   This is why the TV preachers who peddle prosperity and treat prayer like an unscratched lottery ticket are so odious.   Prayer is not about taking our wish list to God and demanding we be given what we want or think we deserve.  Prayer is not about what we want or our will.   What we pray should always be rooted in God’s will.   This is why every single Sunday we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”   Ultimately what we pray should be informed by why we pray. 

            Again, the reason why we pray is to maintain and grow our relationship with God, and doing so should and will change us.   In Romans the apostle Paul wrote about this change. Paul wrote “be transformed by the renewing of your mind then you will able to test and approve God’s will is- his good, pleasing and perfect will.     Prayer is more than just asking God for things, it is a communication with God that aligns our will with God’s will.   We can get to a place in our faith where pray “your will be done” and have a good idea what that will be.   For when we are not to that point, I do have a suggestion then for a good starting point about what we should pray.   To modify a quote from President John F. Kennedy, in prayer we should not ask what God can do for us, but ask what we can do for God.   Part of what we pray should not just be us asking from God, but we should ask what God wants from us.  Then, the most important part is we then go and do it.    That is how prayer transforms us and how we in turn transform the world.   

            The final basic question about prayer is how we pray.   Now as a lifelong United Methodist, I have gathered that the answer is as silently as possible.  Nothing mortifies a room of Methodists like asking someone who is not a pastor to pray out loud.   Jesting aside, if the reason why we pray  is for the right reason and what we pray for is what we should be praying for then the  how is a matter of personal preference.   Again, there is no shortage of advice here on how to pray, and the answer is to pray in the way that feels most authentic for you.   It is commonly said to pray to God like you are talking to a friend, if that works for you then pray that way.  There are others who feel like they need a little more structure and they follow a prayer model such as the five finger prayer.  Because you are going to ask, this is a model of praying for the needs of others that uses your hand as a reminder: 1.  Pray for those we love (family and friends)  2.  Pray for those who teach us.   3.  Pray for those who govern and hold authority.   4.   Pray for the sick and the weakest   5.  Finally pray for yourself. 

            Then there are those who prefer a lot of structure and enjoy guidance by following along with prayers from a devotional book or a daily prayer ritual.   As long as our prayers are authentic and driven by a deep desire to connect with our heavenly father and pray according to his will then the how of how we do it is not that important.  The substance of our prayers is vastly more important than the form.   You pray how you pray, because you can have confidence in approaching God.   The one piece of advice that I would offer up in how you pray, is allow space for God.   Prayer should not be a one way conversation but we should pause, breathe, sit in silence, and give space for the Spirit of God to move, lead, mold, and guide us.  

            The song is probably dated now, but several years ago one of the debut hits of the band Casting Crowns was “What if his people prayed?”   The chorus of the song ask the rhetorical questions “What is his people prayed?  And those who bear his name would humbly seek his face and turn from their own way?”    What is clever about the song is that they do not actually give an answer to their question.   They leave it up to their listeners to determine what the outcome would be if the people of God prayed to seek the face of Christ, sought the will of God, and prayed to be used by God for God’s purposes?   Just what would happen if Christians prayed in that way?   Edinburgh UMC, let’s find out.   

Fireworks

Scripture:  2 Corinthians 4:3-10

            I was young at nineteen, and I was the oldest one there in the collection of 17-19 year olds.   It was the summer around the 4th of July.  This means fireworks were involved.  Given the young age of all present and the presence of explosives our decision making skills were not at our best.  So after close that evening, we were setting off fireworks in the parking lot of Pizza Hut.   Today, the Mortar tube fireworks that shoot a ball high in the air to explode in a shower of sparks are common but back then they were new, and we launched one up.   Back in 2000 when this happened, Indiana had some weird firework laws.   It was legal to buy explosive fireworks in the state but it was against the law to actually use said fireworks.   This is something we all knew, and it became keenly relevant.  It was right about the time the third one was going to be launched that the police officer showed up.    The owner of the fireworks snatched the mortar tube and very un-smoothly hid it behind his back.  The officer rolled down his window and asked “were you boys launching fireworks?”   Me and another person said yes.  At the same time, the two other people said no.   That led to a very awkward moment of silence.   Knowing we were busted, the two fibbers changed their answer to yes and waited for the officer’s next move.   He continued, “I just wanted to know what they were called and where you bought them at?  I need them for a party in a couple of days.” 

            Fireworks have a way of attracting our attention don’t they?   In some ways if you have seen one firework show, you have seen them all.   Yet, every time they start they just grab our attention.   Chinese folklore claims that fireworks were invented by accident.   The story goes that roughly 2,000 years ago a Chinese chef was experimenting with new spices in doing so he mixed charcoal, Sulphur, and saltpeter.  The mixture burned well, and it was discovered that when compressed the mixture became explosive.   The firecracker was born, and the Chinese would go on to develop true fireworks.   It is impossible to verify the accuracy of the story, but I really like it because the legend is the kind of story that touches on deeper truths.   The story involves common elements that on their own are not special.  However, when combined they become something explosive that can capture everyone’s attention.   We find a similar message in this morning’s scripture. 

            It is easy for us to forget when reading Paul’s writings in the New Testament just what is we are reading.  We are so used to reading them as scripture, that we can forget that Paul originally wrote them as letter to specific churches to address specific problems.   From what we have recorded in the scriptures, the church in Corinth was one of the more problematic churches that Paul worked with.   However, it is sometimes hard to tell exactly what Paul is addressing and this morning’s scripture is a good example of that.   This morning’s scripture comes from a section of 2 Corinthians that biblical scholars call the “great digression” because it seems that Paul rambles on a bit.  The fancy term we might use today to explain the section this morning’s scripture is “narrative theology.”   This morning’s scripture has a lot of theological truth in it, but like all of the “great digression” it is in the context of Paul’s ministry.   We kind of get a sense that this section gives a glimpse to how Paul’s experience as a minister of Christ has informed his beliefs.   This is a concept that might be comfortable for us, because this is a very Methodist concept.  One of the unique hallmarks of Methodism, is the emphasis we place on our faith being experiential.   Faith is not a passive activity but something we experience and live out in our lives.  In turn are experience then becomes a lens through which to better understand our faith.   There is a strong sense that Paul is doing something similar in this section of scripture, and perhaps many of us can relate to the experiences that Paul has seemed to have. 

            There seem to be two experiences that really informed Paul’s writing of this morning’s scripture.   The first, is that there are some people who just do not get it.   As Paul writes, the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  Paul was writing in a context that is over nineteen centuries old, but verse 4 of this morning’s scripture is as relevant in 2018 as it was in 55: “the god of this age (the devil) has blinded the minds of unbeleivers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.”  

            That rings true today, and I realize that for some of you it may ring true because it hits too close to home.   I realize that for some of you, a person you care for is one of those people who’s mind is blinded to the light of Christ.   You have no doubt shared your faith with them, you have testified to the miracles in your life, and you have pointed the works of God happening all around them.   Perhaps you are at your wit’s end because it does not seem to matter what you do or say, there heart is hard and their mind is blind to the Truth that is easy for you to see and that is staring them in the face.  

            If that is your experience then I think there are two take aways from this scripture.   First, if the people you care about have not yet turned their hearts to God.   It is not your fault.   This morning’s scripture states, “for what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”   Hear those words, it is not on you.    If you have shared the gospel, if you have proclaimed the salvation offered by Jesus Christ to those you care about that do not believe, then you have “let your light shine out in the darkness.”  It is not your job to save them, that is Jesus job.   Which is the second take away to remind ourselves.   Jesus works miracles, including giving sight to the blind.   If our Lord Jesus Christ can rub some mud on a guy to allow someone who has been blind from birth to see, then Jesus has the power to open up any mind to his love.  

            The second experience of Paul’s that seemed to inform his writing in this morning’s scripture is the hardship that he experienced.  When Paul wrote about being hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and stuck down he was speaking from a place of deep experience.  The book of Acts records time after time when he was threatened, beaten, and imprisoned.   His letters record times he was betrayed and disappointed.   The life of a traveling missionary was not an easy one in the first century.  There were times of being hungry, exposed to the elements, and left uncertain what is happening next.    

            Again, many of us can relate to Paul’s experiences.   You too have hardship and suffering in your life.  While you may not have experienced true persecution many of us have had experiences where we feel hard pressed by too many things pushing on us all at once, we have had experiences where we feel perpelexed between a bad choice and a worse choice, and many of us have felt like where have been struck down.   Something happens that leaves us feeling gutted and collapsed on our knees unable to breathe by the shock, the pain, and the enormity of it all.   Yet in the midst of Paul’s experiences that were that way, he never despaired, he never felt crushed, and he knew that he was never abandoned.   No matter how bad life got, his hope never faltered because he know the all-surpassing power of God was with him.   His hope was in the death and resurrection of Jesus, for that reason he did not lose heart because he knew his hope was secure and that no amount of hardship could ever diminish or strip that hope away.  Those who have faith in God through Jesus Christ have that same hope.   No matter what happens in life, no matter how uncertain things seem, or how much our heart hurts we can have the assurance that we are forgiven, we are loved, and we children of eternity.   

            Paul’s experiences helped give validation and focus to his faith, they were a lens that better helped understand his beliefs.   In the same way we can see God through the lens of our own experiences.  Doing so will help strengthen our understanding of faith, but it can also bring separate elements together and make connections.   For instance,  I think this morning’s scripture gives us the recipes for spiritual fireworks.   

            Remember, according the legend fireworks were first created by mixing separate ingredients and applying a little pressure and heat.   We find the separate ingredients in this scripture, and again you own experience might validate these ingredients in your life.   First we have a desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who are blinded by it.   The second ingredient we have is a hope found in Christ, a hope that causes us not to lose heart no matter what.   These treasures, are found in as Paul writes jars of clay.  A clay jar is an ordinary, everyday vessel and he uses that expression to mean us, ordinary everyday people.    However, when we mix those two elements and then add the all surpassing power of God found in the fire of the Holy Spirit, fireworks happen!   

Shane Claiborne is a Christian advocate and community leader.   In his book The Irresistible Revolution, he tells a story of an encounter he had that shows what these kind of spiritual fireworks look like .   He lived in a fairly run down part of Philadelphia.   Shortly after moving into this neighborhood he and a friend needed to go to the grocery store and walking there took them under a bridge where many of the cities more undesirable residences gathered.  They specifically noticed a woman who looked to be specifically down on her luck.  On their way back, she was still there, and they invited her to come eat with them.   At their house, after the meal, the woman asked “You are Christians aren’t you?”   When they replied they were, she said could tell, because they were shining.    Fortunately, the story does not end there.  A couple of years later, Shane Caliborne was talking about his ministry at a Christian conference, and a woman came up to her.   Shane did not recognize her at first, but it was the same woman  from under the bridge.   She told him, “I know you do not recognize me now, because I am different.  Now, I am shining too.”   Shane concludes this story by affirming that she indeed was. 

We truly do shine out like a light in the darkness.    Our desire to share Jesus with those who do not see, moves beyond our wishes and words.   We become living testimonies.    When our world should be falling apart, but we are not crushed, in despair or destroyed we are powerful and undeniable testament to the power of God.   Just like a firework cannot help but draw the attention of everyone who sees it, that kind of faith garners attention.  As Paul wrote, the “life of Jesus is revealed in our body.”    When our lives are defined by the hope we have in Christ, then we shine.  

May you remember that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”   May that knowledge be a source of unending hope in you.   May you live that hope out, and be a living testimony.   May that hope, which can only be found in Christ Jesus, shine out in your life.   May the testimony of your faith light up the sky like a firework, that brings sight to blind minds, hope to the hopeless, and glory to God. 

                

           

Can't Even

Scripture:  Mark 1:29-39

            Americans are always in a hurry.   French Political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the hurried pace of Americans all the way back in the 1840s.   It seems being hurried and busy is a constant in our American way of life, and most people feel busier now than ever before.   However, this is odd because the numbers do not back it up.   While it is true that full time workers in America spend more time working than in any other developed country, the average amount of time spent working has only up ticked slightly in the past 30 years.  In the same way, the majority of parents today believe that being too busy has made it so they cannot spend as much time with their children as the want, but statistically parents today spend more time with their kids than previous generations.   Apparently we have always been in a hurry but we have not always felt this busy.   The reality is that there are some people who are busier, but as a whole we are not any busier than were in the 70’s and 80’s.   This has led several social scientists and psychologists to do studies and publish theories on why we feel this way, and there are two leading schools of thought.

 Without getting into the nitty-gritty details as to how this happened, one of the leading thoughts is that we monetize time.  It has become engrained into our cultural ethos that we treat time as money.  An experiment was done to show this.  They had people listen to a piece of classical music.  However, one group was asked to calculate how much they make an hour.  That group was much less likely to enjoy the song and thought it lasted far too long.   The theory is when we end up thinking of time as something with a financial figure attached to it, we are more likely to force ourselves to make our time financially productive.   This creates a constant feeling of being busy because to not be busy is to waste time and thus loose financial wellbeing.    The second major theory as to why the feeling of busyness has increased is related to this.  At some point in the past fifty years or so, the idea of being busy became a status symbol.   We tend to view people who are busy as being more successful, so this means that people tend to chase down being busy and actually make themselves busier so that they can feel and be viewed as more successful.   Yet these feelings of busyness also bring feelings of stress and being overwhelmed.    The ways to overcome our feelings of busyness, slow down, and enjoy life have less to do with what we are doing (because remember we are not much more busy now than we used to be) it has to do with our attitudes.   When we are feeling overwhelmed and so busy that we can’t even the best thing we can do is actually step away for a moment and refocus ourselves on what is important.  That is what the research and psychologists of today tell us, and that is also the message of this morning’s scripture.   

This morning’s scripture picks off right where last weeks left off.  After recruiting his first disciples, Jesus goes to Peter’s hometown of Capernaum and teaches in the synagogue.   He teaches with authority and drives out an impure spirit.   As Jesus goes to the house of Peter and Andrew, I like how casually he heals Peter’s mother in law.   He just helps her up and like that the fever leaves her and she is good to go.   From there though, things escalated quickly and Jesus gets very busy.   I imagine the story of what he did earlier that day in the synagogue with casting out the impure spirit spread quickly.   In the same way, I wonder if the story of healing Peter’s mother in law spread.   Capernaum was not a very big town, did Peter’s mother law or even Peter himself happen to step outside for a moment and mention the miraculous healing that has just happened to a neighbor?   In either event, people seemed to get the message of Jesus fairly quickly and by the evening the whole town was crowded around a small house to see what incredible thing Jesus would do next.  

            We have to put this scripture in perspective.   This is more or less the official start of Jesus’ ministry.   Capernaum was the launching point for Jesus, and he found instant success and an audience eager to hear him.   One of our core beliefs as Christians is that Jesus is fully God but he is also fully human.   Being human Jesus experienced much of the human experience that we go through.  I cannot help but wonder here, if Jesus got overwhelmed.   If seeing all of these people eager to be healed by him was more than he was expecting.    This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and it seemed that it could not have gone any better.

            After this first day Jesus was busy.  He probably could have stayed busy.   He could have spent the whole day healing every minor ailment.   As the news spread, he could have established himself in Capernaum.   Set up a process to schedule healing appointments, while establishing regular teaching times.    He could have kept busy and transformed the synagogue in Capernaum into a Mega-synagogue.   Doing so would have made Jesus a huge success by both our ancient standards and our modern standards.    Jesus could have double downed and committed himself to a lifestyle of busyness and success, but instead he did the opposite.  He withdrew.   When Jesus was overwhelmed he left all of the busyness behind to see out God in prayer.   We get an impression from the disciples that this was not a popular move.  We get the impression that the assumption is that Jesus would commit to being busy because everyone was looking for him for that very purpose.  

            However, that is what Jesus did.   When things picked up steam, he put on the breaks.  When he was busy, he dropped everything.   When he felt overwhelmed he did not frantically work out of it, he sat still.   In other words, Jesus did the exact opposite of what we (or at least what I) probably would have done.   Jesus sought out God in prayer, and doing so gave Jesus focus and direction.   It reminded him that he was not sent to earth to be a successful healer, he was sent to preach the good news.  

            I think we can learn from Jesus example, because from time to time we all get overwhelmed.  Even if it is true that much of our perceived busyness is by our own design and perspective that does not mean it cannot be overwhelming.   There is always something else that needs to be done, something that must be tended to, and the entire time the dishes pile up in the sink.   We live in a culture that for better or worse values busyness, and it is our cultural expectation that successful people thrive the busier they are.   That is a lie.  It is OK if there ae times you feel like you can’t even.     If just the pace of life feels overwhelming to you right now, that does not mean you are a failure.   Even Jesus, who had the power of God, felt overwhelmed at times.   When the pace of life feels to fast and when the grind of daily life feels like it is going to reduce us to dust, we should follow the example of Jesus.  We should retreat.   Jesus went out into the countryside, and if that is not an option then we can close ourselves in a room without our phones and make our own solitary place.  Jesus sought God in prayer and it made a real difference.   It can still make a difference for us today.  Often when we overwhelmed by the pace of daily life it is because we feel tired, we feel weak, and we feel there is to much to handle.    Psalm 46:10 puts it this way, “Be still and know that I am God.”  When we are still then all of our worries and stress is left behind.     When we take time to seek God in prayer, when we connect with God then we are reminded that we are in God’s hands.   We are reminded that the Creator of the universe, the one who created trillions of stars as well as every grain of sand, knows us by name and cares for us    We are reminded that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.   We are reminded that even though we can’t even God most certainly can.   We are reminded that with God all things are possible.  Brothers and sister in Christ, there is strength and there is real power in those reminders.   The great reformer Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”   While the thought of praying for three straight hours might be a bit much for most of us now, I think we can take his point to heart.   Prayer centers us with God, and when we are centered with God we lift our cares, our schedules, our busyness up to God.   It is remarkable how when we do that the things that seemed overwhelming are now manageable, and the thought “I can’t even” is replaced by I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  

            Sometimes though we are overwhelmed by life, not because the grind of it gets to us but because sometimes life is honestly overwhelming.    All of us have had times in our lives where it seems like when it rains in pours and no good deed goes unpunished.   We all have or will go through times when the job fell through, when the diagnosis came back not good, or when the one unexpected event we never thought we had to plan for is exactly what happens.   During those times, we feel overwhelmed.  We feel overwhelmed not because we are busy but because we are lost.   We are disoriented, we do not where to turn and we do not know what to do.   In those times, then we can still follow Jesus’ example and find God in a solitary place.   This scripture does not record exactly what words Jesus prayed, but it seems to indicate he was seeking direction from God, and he got it.   When his disciples finally found them, he knew what he had to do.    In the same way, I am a firm believer that God guides us and directs us.   It may not always be on the time table we want and God may not provide guidance the way we are expecting, but in those times when we are unsure what to do we can let God be our guide.   We can trust that God will lead us.   

            Life can be busy, it can be tiring, and it can be just down right hard.    Far too often in those times we either make ourselves sick with worry or we seek to just set all aside while we binge on some sort of TV marathon.   May I suggest a third option?   When life is hard, when we are tired of being busy, when we can’t even, may we turn to God.    May we find a solitary, quiet place and seek the presence of the Lord.  Sometimes we do not need to even say anything.  If you are anything like me, then we should probably say less in prayer and listen more.  We can rest in the Lord.  We can find a peace, a contentment, and a strength that is not possible to attain in any other way.   

            I urge you to truly consider doing this.  We are ten days away from lent starting.   One of the focuses in lent are spiritual disciplines, the actions we do regularly to strengthen and deepen our faith.   This lent please consider taking time each day to find your solitary place and seek God in prayer.  I challenge you to do this, and see if spending time in prayer in this way makes the busyness and trials of life more bearable.   There is an old hymn that describes what happens when we do this.  It goes like this, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” 

Ban Hammer

Scripture:  Mark 1:21-28

            In general, I am fascinated by sociology, the social sciences that explores what motivates us as a society and what kind of social pressures influence our behavior.   I am especially fascinated by the way this plays out in the new frontier of social media.   For instance there was a Facebook post that made the rounds last month that stuck out to me.  It has a Christmas card picture of the Nativity with the caption, “Facebook is trying to get people to remove this picture from their profiles because it is offensive. Let’s band together and prove them otherwise.”  This is, of course, not true.  Facebook has never intentionally removed or banned a user for posting any kind of traditional religious imagery.   However, similar shareable post can be found claiming that facebook is trying to block military logos, protest signs, or oddly enough bacon sandwiches.   The reality is major social media sites do not ban people for their normal opinions and preferences.   These sites have clearly defined terms of usage and in order to be banned behavior needs to be excessively vulgar, obscene, hateful, or dangerous.   Given how monolithic social media web sites are, it is odd to think a harmless and regular image that one feels someone else might not like is worthy of being banned.  I think the source of these posts that keeps popping up harkens back to an earlier era on the Internet.  Fifteen plus years ago, social media was not a thing.   So social interaction via the Internet came through chatrooms and forums.   In those days, Admins ran the forums and they had the ability to ban people.   All of these forums had rules of usages and theoretically only breaking those rules should lead to a ban.  In that era of the Internet it was not uncommon to be banned for a minor offense.  The liberal use of banning even created a phrase:  The Ban Hammer.   The admins had the ability to wield the ban hammer, and it is what established them as the ones with authority.   These admins had absolute authority over their domains and some ruled their corner of the Internet like tyrants.   Power it seems, even minor digital power that only existed on a small forum, can still be a corrupting influence.    As a whole, people tend to be obsessed with authority.  Often we keep subconscious tabs on who is in charge, who has the most seniority, and what the chain of command might be in any situation.   There are also many people who desire authority, but as anyone who has ever had a terrible boss can attest a lot of people do not know how to use authority well.  This morning’s scripture is all about authority, specifically the authority that Jesus wielded.   The scripture can teach us what kind of authority Jesus had, how he used that authority and what we can learn from it. 

            This morning’s scripture begins in the synagogue of Capernaum.   Now often we read synagogue as Jewish church, but that is not entirely accurate.   The synagogue of Jesus day was a place of worship and prayer, but it was also the community forum.  In Jesus day synagogues did not have a rabbi assigned to them that functioned as a pastor.  There were synagogue leaders and they would regularly open up the synagogue to traveling teachers or to the Pharisees who had something to say.   It was under the banner of a traveling teacher that Jesus taught in the synagogue.  I love how Mark puts it in this morning’s scripture and it is a smart way to phrase it “the people were amazed at his teachings because he taught them as one who had authority not as the teachers of the law.” 

 

            This is really some master level snark that the gospel author is throwing here, because when it came to the Hebrew scriptures, the teachers of the law were supposed to be the ones with authority!   The Pharisees had devoted themselves completely to studying and knowing the scriptures.   They would memorize the scripture, they would familiarize themselves with the traditional interpretations, and they built a hedge around the law.  This meant the created additional rules to follow to ensure that God’s law was never broken.  If 24-hour news was a thing in Jesus day, then the Pharisees would have been the pundits brought into as the “authority” on any religious matters.   Yet, compared to the teachings of Jesus these religious authorities looked like amateurs.  

            Now unfortunately, we do not have transcripts to compare the words that Jesus said on this day in Capernaum against the typical teachings of the Pharisees to see the difference.   We cannot know for sure why the teachings of the Pharisees lacked authority compared to the words of Jesus, but when we consider the entirety of the gospels we can begin to form a good guess.   Jesus talked about loving God and the Pharisees talked about following rules.   We get the impression that the Pharisees loved the idea of following God more than they loved God.  They elevated the rules above knowing God, but Jesus did not.   Jesus spoke of God as his Father, he spoke with the authority of a son.   Hearing the Pharisees teach may have been as exciting as some reading the tax code, but Jesus would have spoken with conviction and experience because he spoke from a place of deep relationship.   The Pharisees tended to treat people who did not meet their strict standards with judgement and condemnation.  The Pharisees said it was important to love your neighbor as yourself, but their actions did not back up what they taught.    Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, and he backed it up by having compassion and showing care for everyone, including those that others ignored or forgot about.   Perhaps this more than anything is why people were able to pick up on Jesus’ authority.   It was obvious to them that he believed what he preached, and practiced what he taught.  

            This morning’s scripture goes on though that Jesus did more than just teach with authority, but it established that he had real power.  It establishes that Jesus wields a spiritual ban hammer as he cast out an impure spirit.   In Jesus’s day traveling teachers were not uncommon.   Traveling healers were rare, but not unheard of.  One of the things that made Jesus unique in the time he walked the earth was his ability to drive out demons.   Now today there is a lot of debate.   Some people read scriptures like this morning and take it at face value, that Jesus drove demons and impure spirits out of people.   Other modern day readers are quick to associate the demonic activity reported in the bible with mental illness such as schizophrenia.  On one level though it does not matter which interpretation we go with.  It does not matter if what torments these people is a demonic influence or a chemical imbalance, the result is still the same.  A miracle is still performed.   Jesus heals and restores the afflicted person back to their normal selves. 

            This morning’s scripture clearly establishes that Jesus is a person of authority, and this a common theme throughout the gospels.  Even though the people of Jesus day did not always acknowledge the authority Jesus held, we do today.   When we gather in church we sing proclamations about how majestic the name of Jesus is.   We declare him the king of kings and the Lord of lords.   To tell you all that Jesus has authority is a pretty much preaching to the choir.  So given that, what do we do with scriptures like this morning, scripture that’s main point seem to be establishing the authority that Jesus has?  

            To properly answer that question we have to turn to a different scripture.  In John 14 when Jesus is giving his final words to his disciples he says this in John 14:12,”Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.”   Let the full weight of that scripture sink in.  Jesus taught and acted as one with authority, and he said that people who believe in him will do the work that he has been doing.  That means that this morning’s scripture is less a display of power for us to be in awe at, and it is more of an example for us to follow.  

            The Pharisees knew their stuff, but they did not teach with authority because they did not put their knowledge into practice.   Jesus taught from a place of authority because he knew God and he lived out what he said.   We can absolutely follow that example.   Because of the salvation offered by Jesus we can know God as our heavenly Father.   We also can practice what we say we believe.   We do ourselves a dis-service when the way we live and the way we believe do not line up.   Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”   In other words, they will see us like the teachers of the law who are all talk but whose words have no real authority.  If we say that everyone is created by and loved by God, then we treat everyone as if they have sacred worth.   If we say to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we show as much care and concern for their wellbeing as we show for our own.   If we say Jesus is Lord, then we treat him like the number one priority in our life.   When our actions, words, and beliefs are aligned then we have a faith that radiates authority.   Even if someone disagrees with our beliefs they will listen and respect our viewpoint because they know it is authentic and comes from a place of deep conviction.  

            Of course, Jesus in this scripture Jesus then goes on to heal the man with impure spirit as a further display of authority.   If Jesus, stated we will do the works he has been doing, does that mean we will do that?   I imagine most of us have a hard time picturing ourselves doing exorcisms.   However, if we dial it back a degree, then we can state what Jesus does in this morning’s scripture is a miracle where he restored health, he returned dignity, and he gifted a new lease on life.     I do not know about you, but I absolutely believe that miracles still happen today, and I believe that through the indwelling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit God can absolutely work through us to make those happen.   When we faithfully seek to follow and serve God, when we make it our life mission to join in God’s mission to transform this world, then the miraculous can happen.   Just like in this scripture people can be renewed and restored.   Dignity can be restored to those who have been stripped of it, and we can gift people who feel doomed and condemned to a second chance and new life.  

            Back in the heyday of internet forums, the admins who wielded the ban hammers were often volunteers.  They were users that the site’s webmaster invested with authority.    In the same way as followers of Jesus we have been given authority by God through the empowerment and workings of the Holy Spirit.   May we claim that authority, and may we live authentic lives of real faith; lives where our beliefs, our words, and our actions are in sync.   In doing so may we live out our lives, trusting that God can and will use them.   May we believe that miracles are possible, and that God can use us to bring those miracles about.   May we follow the example set forth in this morning’s scripture.  The example of Jesus, our ultimate authority.

Going on an Adventure

Scripture:  Mark 1:14-20

“This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.”   That is the way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s book the Hobbit begins.  If you are not familiar with it, the Hobbit is a short novel that tells the story of how the unassuming Bilbo Baggins joined the company of Thorrin to journey to the lonely mountain in order to reclaim the treasure and Dwarven stronghold from the dragon Smaug.   The story is whimsically narrated which fits the character of Bilbo as the sheepish hero.   A few years ago The Hobbit was adapted into movies.  Overall, the lasting reception of these movies has not been great because they took a small book and stretched it out over three movies.  Doing so involved a lot of filler and slow pacing.   When it comes to the Hobbit I am in the “book did it better” camp.  However, there are some scenes and images that the magic of movies can capture and convey better than words on a page.   I think the moment that Bilbo decides to join the company is one such moment:

  Bilbo is a character that a lot of us could relate to.   When Biblo was first approached in the book about going on an adventure he said they were nasty business because they tended to interfere with dinner.   He had a nice house, which he had decorated just perfectly with family heirlooms.  Bilbo was content with life, and he was comfortable.   A lot of people can identify with this.  We tend to expend a whole lot of energy to ensure that we are content and comfortable.  Yet like many people who are comfortable, there is a part of us, a part of our heart that longs adventure.   We want to explore the great wide somewhere, and we want more meaning and purpose than what a comfortable life can offer.   We want to go on an adventure.   In the Hobbit, Biblo is invited by Gandalf to go on an adventure.   This morning’s scripture is our invitation to adventure, because the time has still come, the kingdom of God has come near, and someone still needs to proclaim “believe the good news!” 

 In the gospel of Mark this scripture kicks off the public ministry of Jesus.   So Mark begins by essentially stating Jesus’ thesis statement.  Verse 15 summarizes the primary message that Jesus taught and proclaimed:  “The time has come.  The kingdom of God has  come near.  Repent and believe the good news.”  There is a lot in these three sentences.  For instance, the first sentence “the time has come” is one that is loaded with meaning.    Many of the prophets write about the day of the Lord.   They write of a time of reconciliation and restoration.   They write of a time of when a messiah will come, and they write of a time when sin will no longer reign.   Jesus is proclaiming that time has come.   That through him the words of the prophets will be fulfilled. 

  The next part is extremely interesting.   The old King James translation renders this “The kingdom of God is at hand.”    However, all of the more recent translations have it as “The kingdom of God has come near.”   This is an important distinction, because the more modern and accurate translation, makes it clear that Jesus is referencing himself.   The kingdom of God is the new reality that Jesus brings about.   The kingdom of God is the defeat of sin and death forever, it is the offering of forgiveness for all, and it is reconciliation with our Creator.  The kingdom of God is the establishment of God’s rule in the hearts and lives of his people.   The kingdom of God is the start of a renewed creation, where those who have received God’s grace are made new creations.   The kingdom of God has come near, because Jesus was present.  It is only through his mighty acts of salvation that this was opened up.   Jesus himself never shied away from this fact either.  He boldly proclaimed that he is the way, the truth, and the life. 

            The final part of Jesus’ message was repent and believe the good news.   To repent is to turn away from, it is to do a 180.   When Jesus says repent he is saying to turn away from the old way of life and instead turn to the kingdom God, which is good news!   The gospels are full of parables, miracles, and teachings of Jesus.   However, if all of that was to be summed up into only three sentences about what the core message of Jesus is, it would be hard to do a better job than is presented in this morning’s scripture. 

            Right after we are given this mission statement of what Jesus is all about it is followed up by an invitation.   Jesus invites Andrew and Peter to follow him.   He tells them he will make them fishers of people, or in other words they will join Jesus in sharing the good news so that people can find new life in the kingdom of God.   As a child I always found this story kind of confusing.  This scripture (or the version found in Matthew) was a popular one in children’s church and vacation bible school.   However, the way I pictured it as a child did not make much sense to me.  I envisioned this as a sort of cold call, where Jesus out of the blue shows up and simply says follow me.  With little to no explanation as to who they are following or what they are doing they just leave their whole life behind.   The whole thing struck me as if something was missing.  

It turns out something was missing, Jesus had met Andrew and Peter before he fatefully called them out of the boat.  In the gospel of John we are told that Andrew spent a good part of a day with Jesus, and afterwards he immediately introduced his brother to Jesus.  This means Jesus was not just calling his disciples at random.   He must have had a good idea that Andrew, Peter, James, and John were good disciple material.   Perhaps Jesus knew that even though they had content and comfortable lives, they were willing to go on an adventure.   In the same way, when Jesus called his first disciples in this morning’s scripture, they had some idea of what they were committing to.   They knew there was something that about Jesus that was worth following.  However, it is probably fair to say that they had no idea just how much of an adventure they were in for when they left their nets and stepped out of their boats. 

The difference between Christians and non-Christians is simple.   Christians acknowledge that the kingdom of God has come near, we repent, we believe the good news, and we have responded “yes” to when Jesus said follow me.  Following Jesus, should always lead to an adventure.   The byproduct of following Jesus is that we should go to unexpected places and do unexpected things.   It is not hard to find to stories and biographies of regular Christians doing extraordinary things and having the most amazing adventures.   From Mother Teresa to Billy Gram to John Wesley to the countless missionaries who have traveled the world in the name of Christ, they all have one thing in common.   They cared more about sharing the good news than being content and comfortable.    If we want our faith to be an epic adventure worth re-telling, one of the first things we have to do is sacrifice being comfortable.  

 Many believers do not enter into faith looking to be comfortable.   Often when someone first has an encounter with the living Christ they full of passion to follow God, full of urgency for the lost souls of others, and compassionate on the downtrodden.   Yet, far too often the flames of a burning hot faith cool to embers.   I have heard numerous call stories of fellow clergy members, and a lot of second career pastors have similar stories.   The details are, of course, different but there is a similar thread.   When they were young, when they first accepted Christ or they claimed the faith as their own they felt called to ministry.  They were invited on an adventure, but they said no.   They lived a different life, one that was comfortable but they were never truly content.   No matter how many years they ran, there was a restlessness in their spirit because Jesus kept saying “follow me.”  

 Far too often we have been invited on a faith adventure, but we have chosen to pursue being comfortable instead.   There is a scene in the Hobbit movie that draws a lot of inspiration from some of Tolkien’s words in the book.    Bilbo Baggins is very comfortable in Bag’s End, and Gandalf challenges him.  In the scene he says to Biblo: “You've been sitting quietly for far too long. Tell me. When did doilies and your mother's dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. He'd stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would've liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It's out there.”

 I feel like for some of us Jesus could say the same thing to us: “You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long.”    In the same way, I greatly value corporate worship and bible study, but a life changing faith will not be found just in our hymnals and bibles.   It’s out there.   It is not enough for us to know about God’s love, we have to practice that love.   We are to be conduits of that love, so that through us other people know and experience God’s love.   We are to share the love of God by being the hands of Christ that serve a needy world, and we share the love of God by being the feet of Christ that bring the good news to a lost world that the Kingdom of God has come near.  It is only when we do that we get to truly experience and grasp, even in a small detail just how deep God’s love for all creation truly is.   When we stop sitting quietly, when we get out of our proverbial boats, and follow Jesus wherever he is leading, then we will be going on quite an adventure. 

 Of course it has to be said that going on an adventure is an exciting idea it can also be an anxious one.   The scene where Gandalf continues urges Biblo to stop sitting quietly continues with Bilbo asking “And you promise I will come back?”   Gandalf replies “no, and if you do you will not be the same.”  

 Often the reason we end up pursing comfort is because it is comfortable, it is a safe quantity.   An adventure is anything but safe.  It is risky, and it will always leave us as different people than when we started.   While I have nothing against Christian music, I think far too often we settle for a “Christian radio” faith.   Every Christian radio station makes the same claims about themselves, usually in a jingle.  They all claim to be safe, positive, and encouraging.   Which is fine for music I suppose, but we have bought the lie that safe, positive, and encouraging should be the only words that describe our faith.   Faith in Christ is not about feeling safe and being told how good you are, faith in Christ is about knowing that no matter good you are not, God still loves you.  Faith is about repenting and turning to that love, and then going on a great adventure to tell others through our words and deeds the good news, the Kingdom of God has come near, and the savior is here. 

 Faith is meant to be an adventure.  Adventures, by their nature, are stories that worth telling.   If you have been setting quietly and comfortable for too long, then may you go find your story.   Jesus still calls out to the people who will make great disciples, “follow me”.   May you follow him.   It will be risky, you will do unexpected things, but it will be the adventure of a lifetime.   May you go on an adventure!

The Cure

Scripture:  John 1:43-51

            For as long as there has been commercialism and advertising the holy grail of marketing has been word of mouth.  The best way to sell a product is to get people to talk about it.   In the digital age this has become both easier and harder.   On the one hand it is easier because it is so much easier to connect with customers than ever before.  Even fairly small brands and   companies have professional social media manages or community managers whose job it is to interact with potential customers on the internet directly.   However, it is harder because we are bombarded by more information now than at any point of the human experience, and we have all developed great filters at weeding out the stuff that does not appeal to us or seems like blatant marketing.   In order to generate word of mouth in the digital age, there are a few strategies that companies have turned to.   The first is to get people to advertise for you.   Netflix has been one of the best at this.   For instance, they purposely premiered their original show “How to make a murderer” in December of 2015 right before a lot of people would have time have to binge watch it.   Many of the people who did this then posted about the show on social media.   In the same way, even if you do not have Netflix there is a decent chance you have heard of Stranger Things at this point.  Creating content that inspires people to make social media posts about it, has worked really well for Netflix in just three years between 2014 and 2017 they saw their number of subscribers nearly double.    Another strategy is to make your brand something that people want to follow on social media.  Wendy’s is a shining example of this. The Wendy’s social media manager is a mastermind at throwing shade on their competition.  In one exchange that gained 15 seconds of internet fame, The Wendy’s twitter account posted a typical advertising post showing a picture of their 4 for $4 meal.  In response Burger King posted a picture of their food with the caption 5 for $5 because five is better than four.   When a twitter user then asked for Wendy’s response the Wendy’s twitter account simply replied “edible food.”   There are countless marketing strategies but they all have the same goal which is to convince us that we want their product in their life.   Most marketing strategies tend to do this by creating brand awareness and they seek to make their product something we will share with others.  

            One of the phrases that I understand the necessity for but really do not like is “church marketing.”  I get it and it is a necessity to create presence and awareness, but it is problematic as well because marketing implies that we are selling something and that is not true.    The goal of marketing is to get money.  It is to convince people they want something, make that want seem like a need, and then get them to buy the product.   That is not what we are about, or at least it absolutely should not be.  We are not selling anything, we should be giving the gospel away.   We should not be manipulating people to close a deal, but we should be inviting people into a loving community bound by grace.   We should not be trying to manufacture a need, because everyone already desperately needs Jesus.   Despite those differences there are some similarities between traditional marketing and sharing the gospel.  Namely, word of mouth is the most effective way to succeed.   The only way the gospel spreads is if we are willing to say “come and see.”  

            The word we use to describe for sharing our faith is evangelism, and this morning’s scripture contains what might be the first example of that in the Christian faith.  This morning’s scripture takes place fairly early on in the ministry of Jesus.  He is just getting started, and according to the gospel of John, Jesus has not gone public yet.  He had yet to do any major miracles or do anything to start garnering a crowd.   Yet, in the interactions Jesus was having, he was making quite the impression.   We do not know Philip’s backstory.  Given that Bethsaida was a small town, he probably knew Andrew and Peter.  Some scholars think the original Greek even implies that it was Andrew or Peter who brought Jesus to find Philip.  It feels like we only get a part of the story in this scripture.  We are not getting the blow by blow account, but rather the little news ticker summary.   Something must of occurred that made Philip a believer, there was a reason why he said yes when Jesus said “follow me”, and there was a reason why   he then sought out Nathaniel to tell his friend that they had found the Messiah!  

            Now Nathaniel is a disciple that I think many of us can relate to.  If at least not personally, then we all know a person like Nathaniel.   He is a skeptic.   His very first instinct upon hearing about Jesus is to sarcastically ask how anything possibly good could from Nazareth.   I like to imagine that Nathaniel was just getting warmed up.  The scripture does not record it, but I imagine that Nathaniel was getting ready to tell his “you might be from Nazareth if.. .” joke when Philip does not back down.   I love the way that Philip responds to Nathaniel’s skepticism.   He invites.  Philip does not argue with Nathaniel, he does not belittle him for being so close minded, and he does not give up on him.   He simply says “come and see.”  

            I think it is for easy for us to undervalue the word of mouth buzz that Jesus was generating.   Philip said he was the messiah from one meeting with Jesus Philip believed that he was the one that Moses wrote about, that the prophets promised.   Philip believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of proclamations that were over a millennium old.  It is no wonder that Nathaniel was skeptical, that was quite the claim.   However, Philip believed this with such conviction and assurance that he could say “come and see” knowing that Jesus would not disappoint.   That is exactly what happened!   Jesus did not disappoint.  Again, it feels like we only get the briefest summary.  There has to be more to the interaction between Jesus and Nathaniel.   It ends though with Nathaniel declaring that Jesus is the messiah and becoming his disciple.  

            From this point in the gospels, the reach, influence, and touched lives of Jesus spreads.   He does it all without social media accounts, an advertising budget, or a marketing team.   In the gospels, people were attracted to Jesus by word of mouth.   They came to Jesus because someone else invited them and said “come and see.”    The early church grew by the exact same model of “come and see.   As churches we are not into marketing, we are into inviting.  We are about telling people to come and see.    As David Crowder sings, we are inviting people to come and see Jesus.  “He is the One who has saved us.  He is the one who embraced us.  He is the one who has come and is coming again.   He is the remedy.”    Yes, Jesus is truly the cure for what ails us.  

            When we think of it in those terms, it becomes bewildering why everyone is not a believer in Christ.   Jesus is the cure for what ails us.   All people at some point experience feelings of insecurity,  feeling unlovable, and of wanting to know are we worth anything.   Jesus assures that we are so valuable and so loved, that we, you and me are worth dying for.   With maybe the exception of the most evil people who have ever lived, we all struggle with our own darkness, we run from the guilt of knowing we have done wrong, and we regret the times we have hurt others.   Jesus forgives us, reconciles us, and lets us know that our ledger is clean, our sins have been erased.   At some point in life we all face loss, loneliness, and uncertainty.   Yet Jesus promises, that I will be with you always.   For Nathaniel, Jesus did not disappoint, and today Jesus still does not disappoint.  For every person who is hurt, broken, and lost Jesus does not disappoint.   For every person who simply is, Jesus is exactly what is needed.   Jesus is the cure for what ails us all. 

            Moreover Jesus is free.  This is why marketing does not quite work in the church, our greatest “product” if you can call it that is the good news of Jesus Christ and we literally giving it away.  Salvation and the forgiveness of sins is a free gift given to all.  There is nothing we can do to earn it, and there is nothing so wrong that it will ever be rescinded.  The price has already been paid, the gift has already been given.   Given all of this, it raises the question why are there still people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and savior? 

            Now Jesus himself addressed this.  He said the gate is narrow, and he pointed out there will always be those opposed to him and his followers.   However, I do think it is far too easy for us to say that those who do not yet know Jesus are just “those people” and wash our hands of them.   To follow Jesus we are to make disciples of the nations and care for the least of these, so he did not really give us that option.    Nathaniel came to be a disciple all because Philip said, “come and see.”   This morning’s scripture really challenges us with the question, “Are we telling other people to come and see?”  

            “Come and see” is the word of mouth that has caused the church to grow and the gospel of Jesus to change lives from the very beginning.   It can not be over stated, this is still the most effective way to spread the gospel.  Of course, in Jesus day it was very easy to say come and see and then show them Jesus in the flesh.    Today when we say “come and see” what should we be showing people?   We should be showing them that Jesus is the cure, and the way we do that is that we live like people who have been cured.   If you consider yourself a Christian then you have encountered the risen Christ, and you have experienced Jesus as the cure for what ails you.    All disciples of Jesus Christ should have a story of how our Lord and Savior has been a cure for the great sorrows, pains, and heartaches of life.  We should have a story of when we were low Jesus lifted us up, when we were lost he found us, when we were tortured by guild he absolved us, or how when we were in despair he brought us great hope.   For four years I have stood up here and told you parts of my story, and there is no need to repeat it all today.  However, if that is a story you want to hear, then I would love to sit down and share it with you someday.   In the same way, I am very interested in hearing each and every one of your stories of how Jesus has changed you.    However, we are not the ones who need to hear each other’s story.   It is the people that are not inside these walls that need to hear our stories, because they too need a savior, they too need a cure for what ails them, and our lives should be a testimony that say “come and see what the Lord has done for me.”  

            Having our hearts transformed by Jesus is not a onetime thing.  As the old hymn says, “morning by morning new mercies I see.”   Part of discipleship and faithful Christian living is learning just how sick we truly are and just the depth to which Jesus is the remedy.   This means that when we say “come and see” not only do we have a story about how Jesus has changed us, but our lives are living testimonies.   People should be able to literally see us as changed people, who are living differently because of the grace of Jesus Christ.   Which is the final question this scripture asks us.  Nathaniel declared Jesus the messiah, and it changed his life.  This scripture convicts us to answer the question “How has following Jesus changed your life?”

            May you be able to find the answer to that question.   If you struggle to find that answer, then I urge to come to Jesus because he is the cure for that which truly ails you.  He is the remedy that your heart and soul long for, and when you accept him as Lord and Savior I promise it will change everything.   If you do find the answer to how Jesus has changed your life, and how Jesus has been the cure in your life, then may you be willing to say “come and see.”  May you share your story and in doing so share your savior, the Son of God, with others.   Because in the end it is only through that kind of word of mouth evangelism that minds, hearts, and souls are going to be transformed for the kingdom of God. 

 

New Year, NewYear

Scripture:  Mark 1:4-11

Several years ago now we belonged to the Hendricks County YMCA.   I was not the most faithful of exercisers, but we utilized the facility just barely enough to justify a membership.   One of the services they offered was free child care, and I did use that.   It was January 2nd, 2013.   Connor’s day care was still closed, Abigail had meetings, and I had work to get done.  So I took my computer to the Y, and worked in the lobby while he was in the child care area.    The place was extremely busy, and at first I did not realize why.  I eventually put two and two together, and realized it was January 2nd, and a lot of people were trying to make good on their resolutions.  At one point, I guess the child watch area had reached capacity, and a little girl did not understand why she could not play.  I overheard the mother tell her daughter, “A lot of people want to be healthy right now which is why it is so busy, but in couple of weeks they will not want to be healthy anymore and it will be back to normal.”   That mom was not wrong.   Every year thousands of people make New Year’s resolutions and the most common ones involve exercise in some form.    However, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February.  While some people are able to make it past the second month of the year, when it is all said in done the estimate is that only 8% of New Year resolutions are kept and succeed.   That sounds really low, but consider what it is stating.   Often the greatest reason New Year’s resolutions fail is because they are too big and sweeping.  People resolve to completely change how they live their life.   When we consider that then for 8 out of every 100 people to make the conscious choice to completely change their life and then actually do it is kind of amazing.   So many people start off a new year with the manta “new year, new you.”  However, the gap between saying that and doing it is large.    In an article about making resolutions stick nutrition professor Dr. Roberta Anding was quoted, “January 1st, is a new beginning.  However, each day allows for a new beginning, and hence is a reset.”    Her idea is that instead of declarative life changes that we will fail out, we make change by making each day its own goal to achieve.  If one day is a fail, then there is always tomorrow to reset and succeed again.   This sort of approach is helpful for lifestyle change but it is also a smart approach to faith.  There is a lot of emphasis at this time on a “ new year, a new you”, but for those baptized and following Jesus Christ we have already been made new, and we have the daily choice to follow it or not.  

            From the very beginning baptism has been a part of the Christian faith.  All four gospels have, in their way, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.   Baptism is embedded deep in the Christian tradition, but it has Jewish roots.   In the ancient Jewish tradition immersion in water was common place. Immersion was a physical act to symbolically show cleanliness.   In ancient Judaism this was done through a ritual bath called a mikveh.  In Jerusalem, outside of the ancient temple steps, there are the remains of several of these mikvehs.  When the Israelites would go to the temple, they would first bathe in one of these as an act of worship to present themselves clean and unblemished before God.  A mikveh has steps that lead down into the bath, and there is a clear division on the steps indicating two sides.   A person would walk down on one side, unclean, immerse themselves in the waters and come up the other side clean.   The water was a symbol that was meant to mark a spiritual change within a person.    It is out of this tradition, that John the Baptist did his ministry.   John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.   The people that John baptized were essentially making a new year’s resolution.   They were starting over, they were essentially saying “new year, new you.”   John’s baptism was a physical act that represented a spiritual reset button, the start of something new.     

            This is why Jesus sought out being baptized by John.   It was not that Jesus needed to repent or be forgiven of sins.  Jesus was not baptized because he needed to repent and turn back towards God, but Jesus was baptized as a way to symbolically show that he was beginning something new.  Baptism symbolically shows a change in a person.  Up until this point of his life, Jesus had lived as the son of a carpenter in the small and obscure village of Nazareth.  Yet, when Jesus emerged from the water he embraced his identity as the Messiah, the son of God.  This is fully confirmed as the Holy Spirit descends and God the father declares “this is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”   Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, it marks the beginning of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness by starting the path that enables us all to live righteously in right relationship with God.  

            In the Christian tradition, the sacrament of baptism is a complex one.    It is immersed in deep symbolism and shrouded by denominational differences.   It does not matter though if one was baptized as an infant and then confirmed later in life or if one was dedicated as infant and baptized as a believer, in either event one the great emphasis found in baptism is living a new life.  To be baptized is a declaration of God’s love, acceptance, and provision over the person.  It is the acknowledgement of living a different life, a new life clothed in Christ.   This is true for infant baptism as well.  When a child is baptized the parents and the whole church community make a sacred promise and take a holy oath to provide an environment where so that the child will be raised in a place where they know and experience God’s love for them, an environment where grace is more than just a word, and an environment where they can know Jesus as savior and friend.    When we baptize an infant we are promising that we will provide a place and a community that shows them through our lives what it means to live differently from the ways of the world.  We will provide a place and a community that is a living example of what it means to follow Christ and love God with all of our mind, heart, and soul.   That way when the child reaches an age to confirm the faith as their own they have a good idea of what that means.   Even though they may not literally remember their baptism, they can remember they are baptized and be thankful because the community of believers has proven just what it means to be baptized. 

            As the baptized we are supposed to live differently.   We are to live as the ones who know that Jesus is the beloved son of God.  Baptism is an outward symbol that marks an inward change.  We are to live as people who have been changed; people who have been changed by the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  This is not a theoretical.   As the baptized we are supposed to more willing to love, quicker to forgive, kinder, gentler, and more patient than those who have not been baptized.   We are meant to be this way because through baptism we are new creations in Christ Jesus.   We put off the old robes of sin and death and we are now clothed in Christ.   It does not matter how long ago you were baptized, we all can joyfully claim life as a new creation, remember our baptism and be thankful.  

            That is the ideal, that as the baptized we are set apart, we are different, we are new creations.   We do not always reach that ideal.    We often have to confess that our actions are often not much different than the non-believers around us.   We often are not more loving, not more kind, not more giving, not more forgiving, and not more patient than those who have never been baptized.  Much like the people who do not hold to New Year’s resolutions, we struggle with true life change.   We struggle with truly being more Christ like in our everyday interactions.   This is why I think the advice about keeping resolutions by making every day a new beginning is so helpful.   Because there will be days where we lose our temper, where we say unkind words, where we think hateful thoughts, where we fail to be an obedient church and we do not hear the cries of the needy.   Those days do not define us.    What defines us are we are the baptized, we are the ones redeemed by God, clothed in Christ, and full of the Holy Spirit.   When we have a day, a week, a month or even a year where we fall short of that, we remember that today is a new day.  It is a reset, that today is as a good of day as any to resolve to be more kind, more patient, more loving and more Christ like. 

            Sometimes though it is important to re-state our intentions.   Sometimes it is not enough to just reset for a new day.    Sometimes it is important to remind ourselves that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.   There is an old Methodist tradition that affirms this.   It came to be known as a watch night service, but it was a tradition instituted by John Wesley himself in 1755 in Spitalfields, England.   Wesley, relying on an older written work he cherished, shared with the Methodist society there a covenant renewal prayer.   According to Wesley’s account, upon reading the line “I will be no longer mine own but give up myself to thy will in all things” 1,800 gathered Methodists, moved by the Holy Spirit stood up in a “testimony of assent.”   Wesley soon formalized the covenant renewal service in a pamphlet and he considered it best practice for the people called Methodists to renew their covenant with God once a year.  After Wesley’s time it became tradition to do this covenant renewal on New Year ’s Day right at midnight and that became watch night.  

            There is wisdom to doing this annually.   Renewing our covenant with God is an active to remind ourselves that we are the baptized and that we are to live differently as we seek to follow the example of Jesus.   A version of the covenant renewal prayer is still in our hymnals.   It is page 607 and I invite you to turn and look at it now.  

            It is a powerful prayer that reminds us that we are God’s people and God is our God.  It is a powerful prayer that reminds us that as the baptized, as the people redeemed by God’s love through Christ Jesus, we are called to live differently.   This prayer is a promise that each and every day we will humbly submit each day before God as a new opportunity.   Whether we are to be full or empty, have all things or have nothing, this prayer is a pledge that we have been changed and because of God’s unending grace we are being made new.  

            If you are willing to make that promise, then I invite you to pray the prayer found on 607 in the hymnal with me:

I am no longer my own but thine.  Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.  And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen. 

It Is Your Destiny

Scripture:  Luke 2:22-40

My son Connor holds, what is generally considered a minority opinion.   He loves snow.  By late August he tends to start asking when the leaves are going to start changing colors because he knows that means winter is coming.   He usually celebrates the first frost of the season because that means the temperature is getting low enough that snow is possible.   If you ask him why he like snow, he will tell you it is because he was born during a snow storm.   It is true.  On December 22nd, 2009 when he was born central Indiana did get a healthy amount of snow.   In his mind, he was destined to love snow because of those circumstances that surrounded his birth.   Perhaps his love of snow is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  From when he was very young we would tell him when it snowed about how we was born during a snow storm.   Doing so could have created an increased expectation that he likes snow, and so thus he likes snow because he knows he was born while it was snowing.   This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is an actual psychological phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect.  This effect has been well studied and the results duplicated in multiple experiments.  The most common experiment for this involves telling a teacher that a small number of students are especially gifted or have a higher IQ than the rest of the students.   A competency test will be given to the class at the beginning of the experiment and then at the end.  The students that were highlighted as being gifted of smarter always preform at a much better rate of improvement than the rest of the class.   The things is though, is the highlighted students were not really more gifted or intelligent than the group.   They were, in fact, chosen at random.   The difference in performance was less based in the ability of the students but rather based in how the teacher treated them.  This is the Pygmalion effect.  Higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.  The teacher believed the highlighted students were better and treated them as such.  The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy where they really did become the highest achieving students in the class.   If high expectations lead to increased performance, then it would be hard to get higher expectations than Jesus has placed on him in this morning’s scripture.  The Pygmalion effect may help describe our behavior, but I do not think it can be applied to Jesus.  It was not high expectations that led Jesus to be God’s salvation, it was his destiny.  

             This morning’s scripture is a fascinating one.   We are told in the gospels that Mary and Joseph were righteous people, so they would have taken seriously the Jewish laws.   This morning’s scripture starts off very mundane with them observing these laws flawlessly but then it gets incredibly more interesting.  We are introduced to two fascinating people in this morning scripture.   Simeon and Anna only appear in this single story, but it feels like each of them have an amazing back story of their own.   I am left with so many questions about who these two people are.  For instance, what were the circumstances that led Simeon to getting a promise from God that he would live long enough to see the Messiah?   In the same way, Anna must have an amazing story to tell.   She must have been something of a local celebrity.   Unless she married late in life, she would have been widowed somewhere in her twenties.  This means she could have spent up to 60 years around the temple non-stop.  She would have been a fixture that people know and came to expect.   While prophetesses occurred in the Old Testament they were rare.  Yet, Anna appeared to earn that title.  In this morning’s scripture she starts preaching about Jesus then and there.   We have to remember that this was a patriarchal culture.  The fact that people apparently listened to Anna, shows how powerful, convicting, and full of truth her words had to be.   Simeon declares to Mary and Joseph how special their son is, and then Anna declares to all who will listen that the baby Jesus has a special destiny. 

            This story of the visit to the temple occurs only in the gospel of Luke.  It is easy to step back and from a bird’s eye view examine this scripture from a literary perspective.   From that perspective, this story serves as an epilogue of sorts to the birth narrative.   It reinforces that Jesus was not just another messianic pretender, but from the very beginning he was marked for a special destiny.   It is easy to make that proclamation from a distanced view, but when we attempt to step inside the story we can see just how troubling these prophetic pronunciations might have been. 

            This morning’s scripture would have taken place roughly 40 days after the birth of Jesus because that is when the purification sacrifices of doves and pigeons would have been made.   Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not just another normal baby.  From the miraculous conception, to angelic visions, to shepherds showing up when he was born there had been nothing normal about the birth of Jesus.   However, Jesus was still a human baby with all of the ups and downs that come with that.   At the point of this scripture Mary was probably bleary eyed and really wanting sleep.   They knew Jesus was special, but I wonder if it was hard to keep that in mind when a baby was crying at three in the morning. . .again.   If they had forgotten at all just how special their child was, then Simeon and Anna did a great job reminding them.   They tell Mary and Joseph that their baby boy is the messiah, God’s salvation, a light for the gentiles, and the one who will bring redemption to Jerusalem.   That is all well and good, but Simeon drops this bombshell on Mary as well.  In verses 34-35 it records he said this to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

            Not only was Mary told about Jesus’ great destiny but she was given a glimpse of hers as well.   I have to wonder how this impacted Mary.   If first century mothers were anything like modern mothers, they worry about their children all the time.  How much worse would that e, knowing that something is going to someday happen that will pierce your soul?    Again, from a literary standpoint Luke highlights this as expert foreshadowing of what is to happen on the cross.   But from a personal standpoint, how much would this have weighed on Mary’s heart?   Did she push it aside to focus on being a mother or was this pronouncement of her destiny always in the back of her mind? 

            This morning’s scripture deals with pronouncements of destiny.  As followers of Christ, destiny is a bit of an uneasy topic for us.   On the one hand we do believe that God has a plan for our lives.  We believe that God leads and guides us certain ways.   On the other hand though talk of destiny and the future calls up all kinds of troublesome images of portents, palm readings, and other mystical mumbo-jumbo that is really not godly .    Talk of destiny and God’s will is also problematic.    For instance, in the last presidential election more than presidential hopeful either declared or accepted someone else’s declaration that it was God’s will and their destiny to be president.    Yet that did not come to pass for them.   However, at the same time it is not hard to find people with amazing testimonies of feeling that God was leading them a certain way, everything worked out providentially, and it seems taking a God-led risk was indeed their destiny.  It seems it can be hard for us to put our own wishes and ambitions aside, a lot of people fall into the trap of confusing their will with God’s will.  It is worth noting that in this morning’s scripture it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that Simeon was able to know who the messiah was.   When God leads us in a direction, it will always be by the Spirit.   Part of discipleship is humbly seeking to follow God day in and day out so we can learn to discern between our own will and the Spirit’s leading.  

            While that is true, it is not terribly helpful to us here and now.   We are on the cusp of a new year.   A new year is full of expectation, of possibilities, of unknown days waiting to be written.   This is the time of the year the year when we turn to thinking about destiny as we are curious and full of anticipation about what is in store for us.   We may not know our destiny, but I do think a faith based Pygmalion effect is possible.   Remember this effect states that higher expectations leads to an increase in performance.    We may not what God’s specific plans for 2018 are, but we do know some standing commands we have been given.   Jesus told us to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He also commissioned us to make disciples of all the nations.   Through the prophet Micah God gives us a directive in Micah 6:8 to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.    What if we held ourselves to those higher standards.   What if we did not treat those scripture like mere suggestion, but we treated them like expectations?   What if we committed to live out the commands of Christ each and every day?  

            If we truly did that, then like the Pygmalion effect it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If this new year, you committed yourself to love God with all of your being then it would be your destiny to walk humbly with God as you blossomed the fruit of spirit of faith, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness.    If in this new year, you committed to love your neighbor as yourself then it would be your destiny to see a great need, an injustice that needed fixing.  With great mercy it would be your destiny to put others before yourself, serve them in love, meet that need, and transform the world.    If in this new year, you committed to making disciples, then it would be your destiny to share the gospel with other and be used by God to lead a soul to know the saving power of Christ for the first time.   

            This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus had a special destiny.   However, because they were righteous and faithful to following God, Mary and Joseph had a special destiny as well.  If we are faithful to following God then we to can live out our faith into a special destiny.  However, we do not need to wait for some wise old prophet to come and reveal that destiny to us.    We are starting a new year, and this is as good of a time as ever to commit yourself to a more faithful and righteous Christian life.    May you hold yourself to higher expectations in faith.   May you not settle for good enough but may the deepest desire of your heart and soul be to love God, love other, and make disciples.   This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus is the messiah, the light, and God’s holy salvation.   May you seek to faithfully follow Jesus.   In doing so, may you find in 2018 that you become closer to God and more Christ like than you ever thought possible.  Because as disciples of Jesus, that is our destiny.