Saturday, December 22, 2007

Making it Real (Matthew 11:2-11)

During Advent, Christians proclaim two things – the world is not supposed to be like this, with all of its hurt and pain. And we say that God is beginning to change that world right now.

So a couple of reasonable questions spring to my mind, and if I’m going to say those things, I’d better have some kind of answer, because I bet someone will ask me.

First, they might ask me for some kind of evidence that what I say is true. Sure, they tell me. It’s easy to say God has a different idea of the world than what we see, but can you really prove things are supposed to be different than they are? People doing each other wrong seems pretty widespread – can you give me something that can help me believe those people are somehow different from what God had in mind for them?

In a sense, this is the question John has his disciples ask Jesus. John made some comments about the irregularity of the royal marriage. Today, that gets you your own TV show but back then it got him thrown in jail. From prison, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the Messiah, “the one.”

I don’t wonder that John asks this. Talking about the Kingdom of God and what it means in the world got him thrown in jail, after all, so I can see why he might wonder about what he’s done, and about Jesus. From John’s point of view, things don’t look at all like he figured they’d be once the Messiah showed up.

Through history, people have asked similar questions. If God is real, they ask, why do bad things happen? How does all this evil happen if a good God has anything to do with the world at all? In fact, since people are evil and bad things happen, that proves God isn’t real, doesn’t it? Of course John doesn’t go that far, but I’ve met people who have, and you might meet them sometime too.

Jesus could give John a great philosophical answer, which would explain this problem that people have wondered about since they started wondering.

But he knows that John doesn’t want something explained as much as he wants a reason to hope, so he offers that instead. Go tell John about the miracles you see, Jesus said. Go tell him lame people walk and blind people see and deaf people hear and the poor hear God speak to them.

And that answer turns the question about why evil exists around, too. If bad things prove God isn’t real, then what do good things prove? If murder proves there’s no God, how do we explain it when the victim’s family offers forgiveness and even love to the killer? Where does that come from?

John wants to know if he’s been on the right track or if he wasted his time and he sits in prison for nothing. Jesus’ answer lets him know he is definitely on the right track – the Kingdom he proclaimed is coming, and the healings and miracles he hears about bear witness to it.

Jesus’ actions also answer the second question we might get asked if we proclaim God works to change this world into what he wants it to be. What, folks might ask, is that world like? If things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, what are they supposed to be like?

Well, in that world, folks who are sick get cared for – sometimes they might even be healed by miraculous means. Nobody tries to pretend poor folks somehow don’t rate with God the way rich folks do. Like Isaiah says, the lamb sleeps next to the lion without fear.

And yeah, John, people don’t get thrown in jail for telling the truth to the powerful. Or for other reasons that have nothing to do with breaking a real law or hurting someone.

There’s a long list of what God wants this world to look like, and people who sit down and really think about it will find themselves overwhelmed by how big the job is. Maybe they feel as hopeless as John did, locked up by an evil king who wasn’t paying any attention to a Kingdom of God.

We can’t pretend the world is something it’s not any more than John could pretend he was still noshing on bugs and wild honey at the Jordan River.

But we can proclaim that God is here, at work in this world. And we can see signs of that all around us when we look. Some days we have to look pretty dadgum hard and maybe those signs are very faint.

They are real, though. And in and through them, God is making the real world new.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bugs, Vipers and the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12)

Let’s take a look at the man who prepared the way for Christ while we’re preparing for his coming during the season of Advent.

We mostly know John the Baptist because of his connection to Jesus, but he had a following of his own, and those followers were still meeting and spreading their word into the time of the early church. Paul meets them in Acts, remember.

So here he is out in the desert, wearing a camel’s hair coat that is not like the one you get at Brooks Brothers and eating wild honey and bugs. No wonder people came out to see him. He’s like the original “Man vs. Wild” show.

Once they came to see him, though, they also heard his message, and it made a greater impact than his appearance ever could. “Repent,” he said. “For the kingdom is at hand.” Thousands of people listen and seek baptism in the Jordan River. Jewish faith includes a number of ceremonial washings, and baptism symbolically combines them.

Their ancestors became a nation when they crossed that river behind Joshua, and no longer people who wandered in the desert like they had nowhere to go. They hope to leave behind their spiritual wanderings in turning to follow God as their guide and leader.

One day, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to see the hubbub. John picks them out right away, and calls them out just a moment later.

“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Although it sounds like he wonders how they found out where he was, I can’t imagine John really meant that. If he’s drawing crowds from all over the place, he would expect to see these religious officials show up sooner or later.

I believe he means his question to present them with a choice about why they came. Are they there for their own reasons or are they there because of his message? They two won’t have anything to do with one another in the end.

Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife. When John proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, he used a concept they rejected. They didn’t believe some kind of new kingdom was coming.

We know the Pharisees as those mean guys who always argue with Jesus, but they had a wide range of members. Originally, the Pharisee school began with the idea that the people who claimed they followed God should act like it. If your life didn’t look any different from someone who didn’t follow God, how was God honored by that, they asked. Over time, they kept refining their guidelines and adding to what they received from Moses, so they become the legal hairsplitters who say anyone that lifts more than a thimbleful of honey to their lips on the Sabbath breaks the law.

They would come to see John to check out what doctrine he was preaching and make sure it matched the Law and the prophets’ writings down to the last degree. They had no interest in all in listening to the meaning of his message, just its details.

But, John’s question cuts off their agendas and confronts them with the reality he proclaims. God’s kingdom will break into this world, and begin transforming it right now. Even though we understand that God will one day remake the world entirely, we still face the same two questions John asked his listeners.

The first comes to us before we are believers. God says to us, “I am changing this world. Will I change you too?” His ultimate plan is to restore the world to what he always meant it to be, and to restore in us the image of himself that has been a part of us since before our births.

When we, like John’s listeners, hear that the “kingdom is at hand,” we confront the choice to let God make us a part of that kingdom breaking into the world or to deny that reality.

And if we are Christians, the incoming kingdom presents us with a choice as well. We may have already agreed that God will change us and allowed that change to begin. Maybe we’re resistant or stubborn and we change slowly, but we have answered the first question. Now comes the second. “I am changing this world,” God says. “Will you be one of the ways I use to change it?

“You have heard the good news,” he tells us. “Now will you be one who brings it as well?”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

It's Not Supposed to Be Like This (Romans 13:11-14)

Paul’s admonitions seem like a strange thing to read during the first week of Advent.

In Advent, we make ready for the birth of Christ. What does that have to do with getting rid of quarreling? Some might suggest they quarrel during Advent to make ready for the annual major family brawl that happens over Christmas, in fact.

I think the problem comes when I fail to see that Advent is not the time when we get ready for Christmas. During Advent, we get ready for the coming of Christ. Paul writes post-manger, so he doesn’t know about how to get ready for the Christmas holiday. He only knows how to get ready for the coming of the King, and I think he’s the one who gets it right and not us.

Paul speaks specifically about how we make ourselves ready, and if we read the prophecies about the Messiah, we know that there’s even more to it. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah says, and tells us to make a path in the desert and make the crooked way straight. Two commands come to those who want to prepare for the coming of the King: Make yourselves ready and make your world ready to receive him.

Well, wait just a minute. Isn’t there something in Christian teaching about how we can’t completely put those things aside? Isn’t there something about how our own sin blocks us from fully opening ourselves to God? After all, if we could com-pletely cleanse ourselves of our wrong in order to make ready for the king, why did he come at all? If we could make right what we’ve done wrong in our relationship with God, then why would Christ come at all, let alone die on a cross?

And of course we know we can’t make ourselves right with God. Experience teaches that even if we want to believe something else. So how in the world would we make our world right, and if we can’t do it anyway, why bother trying? The golf course or the porch or the lake or our beds look mighty good Sunday morning, so why bother with a church or any of that stuff? God’s going to fix it all anyway, so I might as well do what I want, when I want, right now.

But we don’t prepare ourselves or our world for our own sake. We don’t try to live more like God wants us to live just so we can get to a certain level that makes God like us more or allows us to show off how holy we are. Our efforts themselves, no matter how lame they might be, are part of our proclamation of the gospel.

Yes, I said that – we proclaim the gospel when we try to make ourselves ready for the coming of the King, even though we know we can’t get it right or finish the job. How?

Remember, when we begin to follow Christ we agree to live as God calls us to live. And that way differs from the way the rest of the world lives a lot of the time. We love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, rather than love something in this world or love ourselves that way. We love our neighbors as ourselves, recognizing that they are children God loves as much as he loves us. We love one another, because Jesus told us that’s how other people know we follow him.

We don’t pretend we live in a world without hate, violence and fear. We know we do, and we know those things cause human pain and misery every day. When we try to live out the life of love and devotion to God, we don’t close our eyes and go “lalalalalanotlistening!” to the real darkness and sin in our world.

What we say is, “It’s not supposed to be like this.”

As Christians, what we say and do is supposed to tell everyone we meet that what’s wrong with the world is just that – wrong! God didn’t make it that way. He made it good, and even though human sin has spoiled it, he still intends to re-shape it someday into the world he always intended.

We may not see that new world in our lifetimes – heck, I don’t even know if I see a new “me” some mornings. But we believe God will make it happen. When we prepare for that new world by living our lives according to God’s call, we proclaim it. God designed something different than what we deal with on a daily basis, and he wants us to show that to the people who may not know about it yet.

“Getting ready for Christmas” may mean busy-ness, and chasing around through crowded stores in order to spend money we won’t actually make until sometime in March. It may mean stress and overwork, or gloom, despair and agony. For some people, Christmas just magnifies those things as a part of their regular life.

But the good news of Christmas is that things aren’t supposed to be like that, and in Christ, God shows us how they are supposed to and one day will be.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

French Fries and Salvation (Luke 21 5-19)

I try to watch what I eat these days, and I gained a word of knowledge from it: Everything smells like french fries, but nothing tastes like them.

What do I mean, and what do french fries have to do with the anti-Christ?

Well, obviously, eating healthier means leaving out the french fries, which creates a problem in a lot of restaurants that serve them, because they smell good. But even though I smell french fries, I know I’m eating lettuce or something else good for me, and the twain ne’er shall meet when it comes to taste. The atmosphere may give the impression I’ve got the real thing in front of me, but my tongue knows I don’t. So do my arteries, though, which is probably a good thing.

In this passage, Jesus warns his listeners to beware of people who proclaim they are a Messiah. He knows that after he returns to the Father, people will claim to be him, with a new message or a change in the old one. They will try to create a following of their own by claiming to be Jesus or to be his messengers, but they will actually lead people astray.

Now, we don’t face this problem today in the same way the disciples did. Think about it: Our first response if we run into someone who claims to be Jesus is to call the hospital and try to get the poor guy some help. Two thousand years of Christian history give us perspective the earliest church did not have, since many of them believed Jesus would return very soon.

But we still face it. Our false saviors today usually don’t take the name of Christ, but they still make claims on our lives that only Christ can make. They may not promise salvation by name, but they still promise salvation’s ultimate goal. They promise to make us whole where we are broken.

Remember, salvation in Christ means we are reconciled to God. Christ heals the relationship between God and humanity, broken by our sin. The Holy Spirit begins to renew and repair the damaged and disfigured image of God within each of us. We were broken, but now we are healed and being made whole.

A false savior will promise us this kind of healing and renewal. And they’re all over the place, big and small. Other religions offer different gods. We know if we follow them, we can’t follow Christ – at least, we know it if we understand the differences between the different faiths.

But we don’t notice the smaller false saviors so much, and here’s what I mean. Watch commercials sometimes – I’m not singling them out, but they illustrate my point pretty well. Commercials are little parables about how you and I – the viewers – are somehow less than whole people. Our breath is bad, our home is dirty, our car is old, our brand of soap does not attract supermodels, and so on. Because of these shortcomings, we are supposed to be miserable. Or at least unhappy.

So the advertised product swoops in to the rescue! Our breath is minty fresh, transplant surgery could be done on our kitchen floor, the police pull us over to admire our new wheels, and we actually have to hide from all the supermodels who seem to have less than honorable intentions towards our well-soaped persons.

All the commercial lacks is an actual “Hallelujah!” to be just like a religious experience of salvation.

Now, few of us really believe the commercial’s claim to salvation. We know that we’re really just buying a truck, for example, and we don’t really become as tough as the Ford ads make Toby Keith look. So what’s the problem? We don’t buy the message, we just buy the product.

As long as we do just buy the product, then we have no problem. And the idea of deodorant as savior is so ridiculous it presents few people with a real anti-Christ they might follow. But the real anti-Christs offer the same “substitute savior,” and in much less ridiculous form.

How many people do we know who invest themselves in another person so thoroughly that person becomes their savior – the one who makes them whole? Or others who look to a cause or an idea for their meaning?

People, causes and ideas are all important, but they are only people, causes and ideas. God may call us to them. God may call us to champion justice or to proclaim dignity and freedom for all people – I know he does, in fact. But those things do not save us, and they do not save others. Only God does that, through the life, death and resurrection of his son. That, and that alone is the message of salvation.

Anything else – well, it may smell like the good news, but it doesn’t taste like it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Get Outta Here! (Matthew 28:16-20)

In a way, the disciples had it easy.

Oh, sure they lived in a world without modern sanitation, nutrition and health care, and they were often persecuted for their faith. Arrested, beaten, tortured and sometimes killed – obviously we’re better off than they were in many ways, and I don’t want to trade places with any of them for any longer than it would take to see Jesus heal one sick person.

But in one way, they had it over us. They hadn’t yet gotten this weird idea that “church” was a place you go to, like we have. Yes, believers met in the synagogues to hear the scripture read and they went to the Temple to pray, if they lived in Jerusalem or nearby.

They didn’t have churches yet, though. They didn’t have these buildings they went to and made members at, so they didn’t have to take that extra step that we do – the extra step of going out from our place of worship to bring people into what we call the body of Christ.

When Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world, he spoke literally. They were to journey to different parts of the world they knew and proclaim the gospel. They didn’t have to worry about the distinction between proclaiming the gospel in church and proclaiming it everywhere else, because they didn’t yet have a line between church and “everywhere else.” Everywhere was everywhere else.

If we lived then and I shared the gospel with you and you accepted it, what happened next? Well, we might meet with some other believers for dinner and praise God while we did. We might read some scripture together, if either of us could read.

But we didn’t have a place where we went every week and compartmentalized our faith and set it aside from the rest of our lives. Lots of people worked in their homes, so they didn’t even divide home from work, let alone divide a “work week” from a “weekend.”

So when they thought about sharing the gospel – and I’m not na├»ve enough to think they were all saints who thought about nothing else – the only people they could think of to share it with were the people they met every day. The people they worked with or worked for, the people they dealt with or sold stuff to or bought stuff from or knew down the street…you get the picture.

We’re called to share the gospel with the same groups of people, but we’ve given ourselves a different place from where we “go into all the world.” Of course we can share the gospel today, and of course what I’ve called our “extra step” doesn’t prevent that.

Unless, of course, we forget that it’s there. Which I am guilty of pretty much most of the time.

Instead of taking the gospel into the world around me, the world of waiters and store clerks and checkout workers and everybody else I deal with regularly, I have made the church my world, so to speak. I may see the same young person at the bookstore three or four times a week and speak with them pleasantly, but what do I know about his or her faith or place of worship? Bupkis, that’s what.

I don’t mean the kind of in-your-face pushiness that asks every random stranger, “IF YOU DIED TONIGHT, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’D SPEND ETERNITY?” Try that tactic and get introduced to some nice young men and women in crisp blue uniforms. As well as get banned from many businesses and homes, all without actually bringing the gospel message to the person whose life you have just frightened out of them.

What I do mean is to look at the people we do know, even if it’s not very well, who we encounter nearly every day, and start to wonder about them as people. Begin to pray about them and for them, and start to speak with them often enough and sincerely enough that the chance may come for you to ask them about their church or invite them to yours.

It starts, though, with the wondering – does this person go to church? Would this person want to go to my church? Those are questions we can’t answer until we get to know a little bit more about them and their own faith and beliefs.

We trip ourselves up by thinking we need to be deep friends with people before we ask them about faith stuff. We don’t, not really. We need to be friendly. We need to be polite. We need to back off if a person isn’t interested, but maintain the friendliness and consideration we’ve been showing up until now. We need to know what we’re talking about – which is definitely one thing we’re supposed to need the church for.

But above all else, we need to go. Out there. Because that’s where they are, waiting to hear the good news we have to share with them.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Doubter's Reality (John 20 19-31)

We had a guest speaker again last week, so I've dusted off another oldie.

Poor old Thomas. Forever the doubter, right? Wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the disciples so he insists on his own personal encore before he’ll believe it. As if the word of the other disciples wasn’t enough for him.

Well of course it’s not good enough for him. Remember who these guys are. They’re one short because their treasurer sold Jesus out for money. Their leader denied knowing Jesus three times before breakfast. They all, Thomas included, bugged out when the soldiers arrested Jesus.

Sure, the disciples have a credibility problem, but I think Thomas figures them for delusional more than he figures them for liars. They wish Jesus was back and everything was all right, and they wish for it so hard they might start to see things, like him back and standing with them.

What we know of Thomas from his other appearances in John teaches us that Thomas doesn’t play wishing games. Jesus didn’t listen to the disciples who warned him that he risked his life by going to Jerusalem – and Thomas spoke up and said, “Let’s go die with him then.” Thomas deals in reality, no matter what it is.

I believe that’s why he wants to touch the scars, and not just hear about it from the disciples.

Thomas, like the other disciples, saw Jesus heal people. He didn’t say, “Now, you people shouldn’t look down on someone just because they can’t see,” for example. “You should get rid of the barriers your society creates for him and view him as a person of equal worth to the rest of you.” Sure, he would love it if they did that, just as he would love it if we did it today. But he didn’t raise consciousness or increase awareness or whatever.

No, he just healed them. Blind, deaf, mute, lame, possessed, whatever. Real people who had real problems received real healing.

And Thomas also saw Jesus arrested and he knew Jesus died. Maybe he came back and maybe not. But if he was just some spirit, some pretender who just looked like he suffered and looked like he died while somehow being above it all, then he had lied to them.

So Thomas wanted to see the scars. Was this man the one who walked with them, who healed and taught the people and who died on a cross? If he lied about suffering and dying, why believe him about anything else?

If the resurrection was just a big ol’ no-harm, no-foul do-over, then Thomas wanted none of it. Whoever or whatever had showed up to tell the others he was risen had better be a real person or he had lied in everything he said and did.

No shiny, happy pie in the sky would satisfy Thomas. He wanted the real meat of what he’d seen and heard in his time with Jesus. Jesus loved and cared for real people because they mattered to him. He healed them because their real hurts mattered to him. If that Jesus rose, then he’d have scars. He would show his people their pain mattered by keeping the signs he had gone through pain himself.

And now Jesus comes, and he invites Thomas to do what he said he wanted to do. “Touch the scars, Thomas,” he says. Thomas doesn’t even need to now. Meeting the risen Christ for himself is enough and more. “My Lord and my God,” he replies.

Because now he knows that Jesus is indeed what he says he is. He is the Son of God and the Savior of all humanity, a real person who came to love his Father’s people with a real love. He is the Lord of life and of death, and he showed it by really dying and really returning.

Such a being is indeed Lord and God, and Thomas acknowledges it the only way he can, and the way we acknowledge it today.

Real hurts need a real healer. Real sins need real repentance. And real people need a real Savior, and we have all of these in Christ the Lord.

Which sounds like good news to me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Place Your Bets (2 Timothy 4:6-8: 16-18)

Probably everyone’s heard the phrase, “expect the unexpected.” It warns us to be ready if things don’t go the way we plan, and it’s good advice.

One of the things Paul says in this passage reminds me that when we’re dealing with God, “expect the unexpected” is more than advice – it’s pretty much standard operating procedure.

Paul tells Timothy how he survived a time of trial. The people around him deserted him, but God stood with him and prevailed. God “rescued him from the lion’s mouth” he says. That passage reminds some of us and probably reminded nearly every Jewish person who heard it of the story of Daniel, thrown into a den of lions because he defied King Nebuchadnezzar and stayed true to the Lord.

Although he faced more than one lion, Daniel survived unharmed. God protected him.

Had Las Vegas betting operations been around back then, I imagine they wouldn’t have even taken bets on the contest. Sometimes some events are so lop-sided they’ll refuse to list them, and one man versus several lions defines lop-sided. Common sense tells us the lions will win. They are bigger, stronger, have claws and bigger teeth and there are more of them. Everyone would bet on the lions and no one would bet on Daniel, so the bookies would close it down because they couldn’t make any money on the contest.

Most things in the world work that way, though. If an 8-man high school football team lines up against professional football players, common sense tells us the pros will win and the kids don’t have a chance. Sure, they might win. It’s not impossible, but it’s so unlikely that no one would risk anything on the matchup.

God’s standard operating procedure, though, calls us to expect the unexpected. Found a nation through which salvation will come to the world? Use a 100-year-old childless couple. Establish that nation as a stable operation to create the culture that will bring that savior to the world? Pick a group of people 400 years in slavery.

Time to give that nation a real king as its leader? One shepherd boy, coming up. Need to give that culture and people the finishing touches that will get them looking to the coming savior? Destruction and exile, at your service.

Bring the savior into the world? One poor Jewish teenager, please. Finish his work, re-uniting sinful broken humanity with its Creator? I’d like a shameful execution, if you don’t mind.

Paul credits his ability to stand and testify when he was on trial to God, not to himself. He was down for the count, with the referee already finished saying “t-” and halfway through “-en.” God rescued him from the figurative lion’s mouth of fear and inability to speak just as he rescued Daniel from the actual lions. Paul too stands in this pattern of God using the unlikeliest way to get his work done – a persecutor of the faith became its greatest preacher.

Why would God work this way? Just for the fun of it, to make people go, “Huh?” Sure, he probably chuckles some at the head-scratching, but I think there’s more to it.

For one, when things run so completely opposite of what we would expect them to do, we see God’s work more clearly. We often use the word “miracle” to describe it in fact, clearly labeling it a work of God. Well, it’s obvious God was involved, we say, because no human effort could have done that.

I believe God also works that way because of who he is – the Creator. The medieval church called the creation of the universe creatio ex nihilo, or “creation from nothing.”

Maybe you and I haven’t been in Paul’s deep mess, but most of us have probably found ourselves without much hope in some situation or another. It’s probably not all the way to “nothing,” but it’s close enough to make us believe the game is over in whatever area we’re dealing with, and there’s “nothing” to be done.

And that’s when the God of expecting the unexpected says, “Step aside” and creates something from what we thought was nothing. A new idea, a new inspiration, a new hope, a new start – he’s got a lot of good outcomes where we saw only bad ones.

Which is why, no matter what the oddsmakers say and no matter what it seems like is certain to happen, what you might call the divine tip sheet always tells us to bet on Daniel. His God saved him, and if his God is our God, then we just might be saved as well.

And that’s the good news.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

God's Autograph (Jeremiah 31:27-34)

Just like God to reach into his people’s despair and proclaim a message of hope, isn’t it?

Again, it comes through Jeremiah, a man who saw the worst coming and who spared no detail when he talked about it. Now, as the exile itself comes to pass and the people are separated from the land God promised them, Jeremiah passes on a message of hope.

They might want God to declare the whole thing a dream and give them a do-over, but that can’t happen. God deals in the real world, and in the real world, the nation of Judah faces a real mess of its own making. God made a covenant with Abraham to be the God of Abraham’s descendants. He renewed the covenant in the time of Moses and expanded it during the reign of David. They were God’s chosen people. He gave them the law through Moses so they could act like God’s chosen people, rather than act like everyone else around them.

Now they’re in exile – the northern nation of Israel disappeared into the Assyrian empire hundreds of years ago, and the last two tribes of Jacob are plucked up and planted in Babylon. After more than a thousand years of history, they live in the land of the Chaldeans, the very place where Abram started his wanderings.

God asked them to root their nationality and their identity as a people in him. Instead, they rooted it in their king and their wealth and just about anything else. Now they’ve lost their nation, and with it their nationality. Can they still have their identity as a people? Can it survive exile? Will God bring back the covenant they broke?

God, says Jeremiah, will do much more than even that. In the legal world, no one is bound to renew a covenant with someone who’s already broken one. And in the case of God v. Israel, the Israelites clearly failed to live up to their end of the bargain. “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. But the people worshipped false gods and they pretended to be like all the people around them. So they broke the covenant.

But God says he will renew the covenant and in fact promises to strengthen it. Which only makes sense. God stays faithful to the promises he’s made – from his point of view, he is still their God, and they are still his people, even if they’ve completely broken the covenant from their side.

This new covenant won’t in any way shape or form erase the old one. God doesn’t go back on promises. The new covenant expands the old one, in fact. Rather than have a written law which they follow to demonstrate their difference, they will know God so well and so thoroughly they won’t need a written law at all.

Again, Christians should be careful here. We might like to say that the new covenant means we don’t need to follow the old laws. And we do say that a lot of the time. We pick and choose which old laws suit our ideas and we loudly proclaim them, while we brush aside those old laws that don’t make sense to us or don’t match our ideas.

God speaks of the law differently, though. He reminds us that it was the way his people differentiated themselves from the other people around them. By obeying the law, the people showed that being God’s chosen people meant something, and that something started with a life lived differently. You didn’t oppress poor people, you helped them. You didn’t think of yourself first, you thought of God. You didn’t take advantage of one another, you did what you could to make sure everyone was taken care of. And so on.

I believe God intends that law to be written on our hearts – not every regulation down to its last punctuation mark. As Christians, we believe certain things about the world and its people.

We say we believe God created everything that is – do we act like it? Do we take care of the resources we have and use them wisely so that as best as we can manage everyone benefits? We say God loves human beings, his children. Do we treat each other as a child God loves? We proclaim that Jesus gave his life for our salvation. Is that the center of our lives, our conversation, our action?

Probably none of us would answer yes as often as we’d like to questions like this. But we hope to grow in our faith so that we can improve, right? That law is being written on our hearts, but it may not be finished yet. Maybe it’s like invisible ink over a fire – it’s there, but it’s only starting to show up now.

As Christians, I think we pray for that writing to be come clearer and clearer – not because we can show off God’s signature, but so that we can see more and more how it should define our lives.

We pray for the day when we don’t have to teach each other, because on that day we all know him. That is our good news.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Ten Percenter (Luke 17:11-19)

We spend a lot of time talking about how Christians should and shouldn’t act. We should tithe. We shouldn’t lie. We should help others. We shouldn’t hurt people. We should read our Bibles. We shouldn’t…etc., etc.

When I look at how much of that we sometimes focus on, I can understand why some non-Christians folks don’t have much interest in our faith. Of course, our faith in Christ should have consequences in how we live our lives. We claim to be different people, changed into something new by the grace of God. But if the new people act just like the old people, what’s the difference?

On the other hand, we’ve compiled an impressive list of thou-shalt-nots for people whose religion was founded on the concept of removing barriers between people and God. We have met the Pharisees, and sometimes they are us.

Jesus pointed out in one conversation what the law boiled down to, and we call the greatest commandment. We’re to love God with all we have, and then as a corollary, we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves.

In the story of the ten lepers, we see Jesus boiling down the right relationship between God and human beings to its essentials. Later, the Apostle Paul will flesh this idea out in the first chapters of Romans, but Luke tells us a story of Jesus that gives us the essence.

Jesus meets ten lepers before he enters a village. They stay far away, like the law required them to do. People with leprosy couldn’t live with others, and often grouped together in bands of outcasts like this. Their former lives are meaningless, as we’ll see.

They call out to Jesus for mercy, and he directs them to go to show the priest they are clean. Even while they head back to town, their disease disappears. One man, a Samaritan who would ordinarily never have been with a group of Jews, runs back to Jesus when he sees his disease vanish. He praises God and falls to his knees.

Jesus notes that only one of the ten he healed offer thanksgiving for the mercy they sought, and tells him, “Go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Now this is interesting. “Your faith has made you well.” Do the other nine lose their cure? Probably not. The word translated “clean” in v. 14 is not the same as the word translated “well” in v. 19. So Jesus doesn’t say the man is cured because of his faith. He’s already been cured, and that’s because Jesus did what the men asked: He had mercy on them and healed them.

What did the man’s faith do, then? It made him return to his healer and thank God for his healing. And that, Jesus said, made him well. The other men may have been cured, but at this time, at least, they haven’t been made well. Think of it like someone with a cold who takes a cough drop – the cough is gone for awhile, but the cold remains.

What is it that makes the man well and truly whole? Praise to God for what amounts to a brand new-life, a return from the dead. People wrote lepers off, families often acted like they were dead and gone. But these men have been reborn, and the one foreigner knows who to thank for it (God) and what to do about it (thank him).

Paul will spend a lot of time telling us that everyone everywhere can know God is our creator by watching his creation. And God only wants us to respond to that knowledge properly with our praise, thanksgiving, respect and obedience. Because we haven’t, God has brought Christ into the world to re-shape us so we can.

The Samaritan leper does just that. He has asked for new life, in the form of a cure. He now has new life, and so he shows his praise and respect to the one who have it to him by thanking him. He is now well.

And this is what God calls us to do as well. God offers us a new life in Christ, a life with the possibility of real change. People in despair over what seems to be a broken life can find healing. People cut off from those around them by pride and arrogance can find humility and a community.

The Samaritan’s cure came about through the grace and mercy of Christ, just as ours does. Neither he nor we earned it. We ask. Because God loves us, he answers.

But then comes the part where the changed life really shows up. Do we offer our praise and gratitude to God for the change? Do we decide to live our lives knowing we are changed people, even though we might not see much evidence right away? If we don’t, we’re just cleaned up for a little while.

But if we do, then we too are made well by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Trees, Seeds, Seas and Grace (Luke 17:5-10)

We treat the idea of faith kind of funny.

I’ve watched dozens of preachers, both on television and in person, talk about what can happen in our lives if we have “enough” faith.

We can get new homes, new jobs, new cars, contentment, spouses (unless we already have them, in which case they can get a whole lot better looking and we can get a guarantee we’ll always have them), respect, security and I don’t know what all else. We can get our “best life now.” We can have prayers “that get results.” We can get perfect health.

All we need for these things to happen is enough faith. How do we know how much is “enough?” Easy. We know we have enough faith to get them when we get them. If I’m sick, I won’t be healed until I have enough faith to be healed. My healing will be the proof I had enough faith, and my continued sickness proof I didn’t.

Yeah. That makes sense.

In the Bible, we find plenty of people who have faith and who receive gifts from God. But almost always, God wants the people who get those gifts to use them for the benefit of others. Abraham’s miracle-granted descendants will include Christ, the Savior of humanity. Solomon’s wisdom lets him understand how to rule God’s people. The prophets’ insights show them how the people can return to a God they’ve abandoned.

And to top it off, we have this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has just told them how seriously God takes forgiveness – they should be prepared to forgive someone who wrongs them every time a sin is committed.

That’s tough, so they ask Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!”

Jesus’ answer is almost a scoff. “If your faith was the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains and trees.” I hear an unspoken, “Let alone figure out how to do what God wants” in there.

So the problem’s “too little” faith, and by “too little” I mean “not enough to be worth mentioning.” Remember, that mustard seed is tiny – a sixteenth of an inch across. You could inhale it and not notice, except maybe for the sneezing. It’s still mustard, after all.

Basically, Jesus suggests an increase would do the disciples little good here. Doubling a mustard seed, for example, gives us a seed an eighth of an inch big and that’s still easy to overlook. They – and, let’s face it, we’re in their sandals too – would do better to pray to have faith, period. If they had any at all, not only could they freak out some fish, they could do what God asked of them. Like forgiving each other and stuff.

And just in case we get that right, and receive faith and manage to live life the way God wants us to, we should get one more thing straight: Doing so earns us exactly nothing.

No cars, homes, health, marriageable and faithful girls/guys of our dreams, successes, jobs, miracles, wealth or anything else that someone somewhere has promised people they’ll get if they just believe in it hard enough. Remember: Believing really, really hard is how you save Tinkerbell’s life when she drinks the poison. It's not how you gain favor from God.

Jesus illustrates this – someone with a household servant expects the servant to finish his work before he gets a meal break. And when he’s done the work his boss tells him to do, he doesn’t deserve thanks. Nor do we deserve anything special from God when we do what God wants us to do.

Now, a good boss might very well thank his servant for his work. And he might include a bonus of some kind for steady, reliable work. But if he does such things, it’s because he decides he wants to and not because the servant has earned them. Thanks and such are unmerited gifts.

Another way of describing them is to call them “grace.”

Jesus speaks pretty sharply here because what he says touches the core of his message. God asks us to live life a certain way, and we should do so. But doing so gains us no favor from God. God has already given us his complete favor. The only question before us is, will we live according to that reality or according to some other. When Christ died on the cross, God did all that he needed to do to save us and heal our relationship with him. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it.

But in the most extreme and perfect example of grace possible, he has already given it to us.

Now that is some darn good news.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

It Is Not This Day (Jeremiah 32:1-3; 6-15)

Prophets sometimes did more than just speak God’s words to the people. Sometimes they had to act them out, too.

Here, Jeremiah answers God’s call by buying a piece of land, which sounds kind of weird. Especially when we see the situation he and the rest of Jerusalem face.

Both the Babylonians and the Egyptians have plundered Jerusalem several times before this. The Egyptians looted the temple itself, taking the Ark of the Covenant, which will stay lost until Indiana Jones finds it in the 1930s.

The Kingdom of Judah has seen better days. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has laid siege to the city and plans on its final destruction. The rulers know it, the people know it and Jeremiah knows it.

He knows it better than anyone, because he has been warning them about it for most of his career. And now, when the city is in its last days, he buys some land from his cousin.

Not only does he buy the land, he properly registers it in front of witnesses and he formally weighs the money so everyone knows it’s worth what it’s supposed to be. He has the deeds and records sealed for storage, just as if he believes he might someday have to prove he owns it.

What a nut! For one, if the property’s outside the city, Babylonians have al-ready been tramping on it for several weeks. For another, the chance that the records, the storage place or the city itself will be around much longer is razor-thin. Jeremiah himself, if he survives the sack of Jerusalem, faces exile to Babylon. At his age, he may not survive the journey and he won’t live long enough to ever see or get any use from the land he’s bought.

Why does he do this? Well, God tells him to, which is a good enough reason. But why did God tell Jeremiah to do such an odd thing?

Could it be the whole “Keep a stiff upper lip” kind of thing? Many people who survived the German bombing of London said they took courage from Winston Churchill’s speeches and his encouragement. Could God want Jeremiah to demonstrate that characteristic for the Hebrew people?

Maybe, but Churchill kept his people going with the promise that they would survive and the bombing campaign would end someday. God knows that the Babylonians will win this war and destroy the city. Would he give them a false hope?

No, but he would give them real hope, and Jeremiah’s purchase can do that. Look at it with the eyes of those who lived in Jerusalem then.

They know Jeremiah as the man who said every bad thing in the world would happen to the kingdom of Judah, and guess what? Every bad thing is sitting outside the city gates right now. Here Jeremiah does something that suggest hope, and anyone who has listened to him knows he just doesn’t do that very often. Maybe they should pay attention to him when he does?

And since his predictions of doom turned out to be right, shouldn’t his prediction of hope turn out to be right as well? Maybe no one knew how the chosen people would be saved from complete destruction, but couldn’t they base their hope on what Jeremiah has done? I think so, and I think Jeremiah shows us what a person who follows God can mean for the people around us.

Because we, Christians, are called to bring that same message of hope to the world around us.

Wouldn’t it be easy to just hunker down in our churches and safe places and watch the world go berserk around us? People who believe hate and death are the answer, or people who follow the gods of their own desires and lusts, or who just look for whatever they can get from life – all of them, just forget about them and let them head on down the road in their handbasket.

But Jeremiah shows us that the people of God have an obligation to proclaim hope in the midst of hopelessness. We’re the people of the resurrection, after all.

In the last Lord of the Rings movie, Aragorn the king rallies his troops in the face of an immense army. “The day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day!”

Christians, the day may come when the people of God give in to hopelessness. But as long as we follow God’s guidance, as long as we allows ourselves to depend on him and trust him, as long as we remember we follow the carpenter who was crucified but is risen, then I would echo Aragorn’s words. It is not this day.

This is the day of the good news.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Ezekiel tells a wild story, although if we compare this with his fiery wheels in the sky and those beings with all the eyes and wings, this seems tame.

You got your valley of dry bones, you got your prophet told to preach, you got your reanimation of the bones – all pretty clear. Take away the God part and you’ve actually got yourself an old Sinbad-style army of the dead rising up to attack the adventurers. Or maybe a zombie movie.

Preachers dream and talk about this passage with each other. Some say they feel like Ezekiel every Sunday morning, preaching to pews full of deadened parishioners. They conveniently ignore how dead things dry out fastest in a hot wind.

Others may fantasize about the sermon, the one that stirred the passion of the people and moved them so much the revival resembled a valley of the dead come to life. Maybe one day.

Back to Ezekiel. When God shows Ezekiel the valley of dry bones, he asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel has had several visions by this point and knows the right answer. “Oh Lord, you know.”

At God’s command, Ezekiel begins preaching to the bones. The spirit of the Lord will come upon you, he says, and you will be re-formed. As he speaks, exactly that happens. Dry bones become bodies of flesh and blood.

But they are lifeless. They lack breath, and in this case the Hebrew word we translate “breath” is the same word we translate as “spirit” in the Genesis creation story.

Interesting. God said the bones would become living beings again as they re-formed and the breath of life entered them. They’ve re-formed, but without breath of life or life itself.

God then tells Ezekiel that he needs to prophesy to that breath, so that it will come into the lifeless bodies. Ezekiel does, and this breath moves and completes the resurrection. It echoes the creation story twice: The spirit of God moves over the waters as creation begins, and the lifeless body of the first man lives when God breathes into him.

Just as those times, nothing lives until God acts. Ezekiel’s prophecy may bring the bodies of the dead back to wholeness, but only God’s spirit can bring them life.

God wants Ezekiel – and through him, the people of Israel – to understand that full completion of God’s work takes, of all things, God. No new message here, of course.

We might face the unknown, like the chaos that God moved through to bring the universe into existence. Maybe we face the end of all hope and possibility – a metaphorical death if not a literal one. We might have done everything we know how to do and we might have done it very well.

In any event, things will stay as they are until the Spirit of the Lord works.

We can and we should do our best at doing what we believe God wants us to do. God uses those efforts to prepare the way for his work to come about. I may never understand why, but God decided to work with us, and give us a role in helping his purpose be completed.

Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, after all, and it was while he preached that their bodies re-formed. Although God could have restored life to all those bones in whatever way he wished, he chose to let Ezekiel have the last word on whether or not it would happen, before he began his part of the work.

And then, the Spirit of the Lord, the same Spirit that was present at creation and gave form to the world, the same Spirit that came upon the believers at Pentecost and gave a new form to the body of Christ as the church, that Spirit moved in as Ezekiel petitioned it to do, and life returned to what had been dead, dry bones.

Just as it may today, for us. Which sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Shrewd Dude (Luke 16:1-13)

(Irregular updating schedule is my fault. Hope to be back on track Friday.)

If you ever want to watch someone pick a verse or two from a passage and focus on it while ignoring a bunch of the rest, this parable is a good one to use.

“And Jesus said, ‘No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and wealth.’”

“Hey, that’s interesting. I had a question though, about this part where Jesus tells us to make friends for ourselves with dishonest wealth. Is he telling us to be dishonest?”

Pause. “Yes, Jesus definitely said, ‘No one can serve two masters…”

We have a problem, of course, because it seems like Jesus has done exactly what the questioner asks about. It looks very much like Jesus has told us to use dishonest means to win friends for this world, and that doesn’t match at all with what we know about Jesus from elsewhere. He calls himself the Truth, which would mean dishonesty has little place with him. And he tells us that we should seek first the Kingdom of God, not the things of this world.

Well, while I don’t believe Jesus advocates cheating, I do think he wants his listeners and us to look at the shrewd and dishonest steward and see something he did that we also should do. Let’s look at the story and I’ll see if I can dig it out.

We have here a steward or money manager who’s been caught with sticky fingers. His master tells him to bring the books up to date because he’s going to get fired. Now the steward doesn’t like the idea of working for a living – or maybe it’s like he says and he really can’t do manual labor, although taking him at his word seems a bit foolish. He doesn’t want to beg.

He needs to make certain he’s taken care of when he loses this job, so he thinks up a shrewd plan. He calls in all his master’s debtors and reduces what they owe. In those days, people frequently pledged commodities for payment as well as money, so he marks down bills for olive oil, grain and the like.

We have several theories about the amounts he cuts from the bills. One suggests he removes the interest from the debt, which follows Moses’ law. Under that law, no one can charge interest when they lend money. Imagine the empty storefronts where the quickie-loan places are if we lived by that law today. He also might have cut out his commission on the deal – no sense in the master getting a little richer with money that was supposed to go to him, right? In fact, some suggest his job was in jeopardy in the first place because he charged excessive commissions. And we also have the notion that he just whacked whatever amount he felt like from the total.

Either way, he’s set himself up with some new friends he can count on for some favors if he gets let go. And he’s got the paper records to prove the master is owned only the new, lower amounts, which means the master himself can’t do much against him anymore.

The master notices this when they meet and is impressed. We don’t know if he decides to fire the manager or keep him. Although my money is on keeping him, because he’d probably rather have the guy stealing for him than working for someone else and stealing from him. Either way, he’s impressed.

Jesus tells his listeners his parable shows the shrewd dudes of this world are better at dealing with each other than his people will be. And then he makes his weird suggestion about making friends with dishonest money.

I believe Jesus wants us to see that the shrewd steward did something we should do – not cheat people or cut corners. But he saw danger ahead and he planned for it. He arranged matters so he was taken care of.

How many of us do the same? I don’t mean in terms of our worldly wealth, because we know what Jesus thinks of that. But how many of us who claim to follow the Lord have really prepared for what is to come in our lives? How many of us have prayed for strength so we can face trouble when it comes? How many have prayed for and worked for compassion in our lives so we can comfort those in need?

We know those things and others will come, just as sure as the manager knew he would lose his job. And yet it seems we – and believe me, this “we” includes “me” – just sort of move on through life without too much thought of God until we actually face a crisis or a need.

Jesus’ first message followed John the Baptist: Repent, for the kingdom is at hand! We as Christians have the tasks of making ourselves and our world ready for that Kingdom of God breaking in among us. We should probably give at least as much thought to what that means as the shrewd steward did to his future.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Salty Battery (Acts 1:6-12)

Dusting off another oldie this week, as we had a guest speaker. And I'm really, really, really sorry about the title. Maybe.

Anytime Jesus tells me what to do I pay attention.

So when I read in Luke 14 that I’m to be the “salt of the earth,” I think I ought to figure out how to do that. I check into the way salt was used in the ancient Near East and how people thought about it. Our view of salt as that stuff we’re supposed to watch out for so it doesn’t clog our arteries doesn’t guide me much.

People used salt to preserve food. The poorer people used it as pretty much their only seasoning. The purest and most expensive salt came from mines, but anyone could walk down to the Dead Sea and pick up the salt chunks on the shore. Those often had other minerals in them, too, and if they weren’t handled right, the salt would dissolve out and be a sludge of tasteless junk.

Are we, then, somehow supposed to hold back the decay of the world around us, and season the places we’re at and the relationships we have with God’s love?

I imagine Jesus’ disciples in those days had the same questions. They may even have asked him, but once he ascended, that got a little harder.

They, too, wonder how they will follow him if he’s not there, if there’s no king or leader to tell them how. Jesus encourages them: The one who follows him will not only guide them, but will empower them as well.

Perhaps we think we don’t need all that much help to witness to Jesus in our world. Match what he teaches against what the world teaches and the choice seems obvious.

But that doesn’t quite work when we get down to living our lives in the real world.

Think of a person who gets along just fine without a faith in God, or at least who seems to. Following Jesus is great for you, they say, but it doesn’t interest me. Can we convince those people with logical arguments and reasoning? Or will we need to befriend them, walk with them and demonstrate what a difference Jesus really makes.

I don’t know about you, but I need constant direction and guidance from God in how to do that. I need the Holy Spirit to direct as well as empower me there. I don’t always know what to do. When I do know, I can’t always do it.

Plus, people discourage me. And a lot of the time, they can make me angry. How dare we, I ask. How dare one child of God kill another in the name of religion – any religion? How dare any of us look on another person as nothing more than a way to satisfy our desires?

God asked the ancient Israelites the same questions. How dare you who were slaves in Egypt take slaves? How dare you who wandered and depended on the kindness of strangers turn the needy away from your doors? Live life that way and you’re doomed to an empty life at best and disaster at worst when your false foundations crumble underneath you.

But God’s response to the people who dared to do such things went beyond anger and discouragement. He loved them. He sent them prophets to warn them and point out the danger, but he also sent them – and us – a savior to allow us back to his side.

I don’t have such an easy time loving those people when I’m left to my own power. Again, I need the Holy Spirit to empower and guide me – especially when I realize that I’m just as screwed up as the rest of the world and I’ve wandered just as far from God.

On my own, I falter like a failing battery. I need what an old=fashioned country preacher might call a Holy Spirit charge-up, in order to love the unlovable and guide me when I’m lost.

I have to love them, though, don’t I? Yes, because I’m a witness to the one who loved them so much he died to be able to be with them. How can my words speak Christ if my actions don’t? And when I’ve failed in both word and action, as I’ve done and will do some more, how can I have hope and assurance he loves me just as much as he loves them?

Again, the Holy Spirit. Wash it away from me and I’m a useless sludge of minerals – which would make a great name for a band, by the way. Wash the Holy Spirit from me and I have no taste, I season nothing and I make no difference with words or actions.

But with the Holy Spirit? I am a witness. I tell you what I have seen and know to be true. I bring you the good news.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Dear Rabbi" (Luke 14:1, 4-17)

Well, what an interesting little pair of parables. Jesus all of a sudden takes time out from teaching about the kingdom of God and about the good news to become an advice columnist.

“Dear Rabbi: When I go to a dinner party, I never know where to sit. Can you help me? Signed, Dopey Dinnerguest.”

“Dear Dopey: Well, don’t take the best seat. Take the worst one until the host comes and tells you to come sit closer to him.”

Now, our culture has different ideas about public shaming and honor than Jesus’ culture did. They considered public humiliation at a dinner – especially the kind where you had to give up your seat to someone else — a much bigger deal than we would. We would think this a minor embarrassment and maybe a good story to tell on ourselves. They would not.

The host would sit the person he most wanted to honor to his immediate right, and then the next to his immediate left, and so on. We might have a head table at an important banquet, but we tend to not care much about it after that.

In fact, we often prefer the seats away from the head table and near the door. They’re closer to the bathroom, closer to the exit if the speaker is boring and closer to the bar – which is a big deal for some folks. Especially if the speaker is boring.

But if I went to such a dinner in Jesus’ time, I would have to judge how important the host thought I was and seat myself by that. So I would have to know everything about all the other guests and a bunch of other stuff that would pretty much keep me from enjoying myself because of all the worrying I’d be doing.

Jesus offers this bit of wisdom for several reasons. One, it’s what rabbis did. Teachers said wise things that people who followed them were supposed to listen to and follow to improve their own lives and act more wisely. The book of Proverbs is a collection of these kinds of sayings.

This may be one of the few saying of Jesus most Christians obey, as it happens. Look at the pews on any Sunday morning and see which ones are empty and which ones are full of people waiting for Jesus to say, “Friend, go up higher.”

We’ll get to his other reasons in a minute. First, let’s look at our second letter.

“Dear Rabbi: I want to give a dinner and invite a bunch of people, and my planner wants to know where to send the invitations. Who should be on my guest list? Signed, Confused at the Caterers.”

“Dear Confused: You should invite a lot of people who can’t invite you back. That way you won’t get paid back for your hospitality.”

Here Jesus wants to get his listeners to understand real giving requires offering something for nothing.

We don’t have to scratch our heads too much to see the connection between this idea and the grace through which God offers our salvation, do we? Jesus certainly offered himself for us though he knew how imperfect a job we would do of offering anything back.

And that’s one way I see these two parables operating for us today. Jesus wants us to see in them a certain way to live. We live that way when we make grace the operating guide and principle of our lives.

Our world teaches us one way to live: We give what we get. We give to those who can give back and ignore the rest. We reward those who treat us well and punish those who don’t. If we’re strong enough, we take what we want, and if we’re not, we try some other way.

But Jesus commands us to live differently. We don’t operate our lives according to a balance sheet, where we make sure what comes in is at least as much as goes out or more. We are to operate according to the idea of grace.

And in that way of living, we don’t seek honor for ourselves, as would a dinnerguest who took the prime seat. We acknowledge that any honor we receive is the free gift of God and accept it gratefully.

We don’t think of how our gift to someone will end up benefiting us, but rather of giving to someone who truly needs it.

I sometimes see it as Jesus asking us to live like this so we can get used to grace – it’s unfamiliar to us, after all. But it is his way, it is the way. The Kingdom of God he proclaims operates this way.

And one day, God willing, so will we.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Not Good Enough? (Jeremiah 4:1-10)

We read a lot of stories in the Bible about God calling people to do his work or speak in his name. Have you ever noticed how often those people act just like we might act if we were in their shoes?

Moses, for example, wriggled around as much as he could before finally saying, “O Lord, send someone else!” His tactic didn’t work, by the way. Jonah tried to run away, which also didn’t work.

And sometimes we have people like Jeremiah, who doesn’t try to escape God’s call as much as he wonders why in the heck God would call him. As we read his response, we see him willing enough to do what God asks him to do, but he’s pretty sure he’ll mess it up somehow.

“I don’t know how to speak,” he says. “I’m only a boy!”

Jeremiah knows that in his culture, people listen to folks who can show signs of wisdom. Obviously, wisdom has many signs, but people considered gray hair and a long beard good indicators that the speaker had it.

Although some parts of our culture work in reverse of that idea – remember how young people in the 1960s advised each other never to trust anyone over 30 – we also believe experience is a good teacher and a good path to wisdom. Those folks from the sixties don’t say that about people over 30 anymore, for example.

So we could see how Jeremiah might think his youth would block him from speaking God’s word effectively. Perhaps God should choose an older, wiser, more established person to speak for him. Someone people will listen to.

I’m long past the time where I could say to God, “Hey, I’m too young for this!” Still, I don’t have to look hard to find my shortcomings and the ways in which there would have to be at least a thousand people more qualified for this job than me.

But God seems uninterested in Jeremiah’s shortcomings. “Don’t say that. You will go where I say and say what I tell you to and I’ll be with you all the way.” In fact, according to God, Jeremiah will be the one in charge of whatever situation he faces. The hand of God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and God says he has placed his words there for Jeremiah to use. Since Jeremiah is in fact a young man, I can imagine his response: “Duuuude!”

Jeremiah and all of us who have felt like him when we’ve heard God’s call have the same problem – we’re all too aware of our own unworthiness. And not in the general sinful human being sense. We have specifics. We’re too young, too old, too dumb, too smart (hah!), too clumsy, too tongue-tied, too busy listing reasons we’re not able to do this, and so on.

The bottom line is we know we’re not good enough. Sure, there are people who think they’re plenty good enough and then some, and they’re just as wrong as we are, but that’s another sermon.

Notice how God doesn’t fix Jeremiah’s shortcomings. He doesn’t age him or make him somehow look wise and knowing. Time will do that one day anyway, because Jeremiah will have a long career. It seems as though God will take Jeremiah’s youth as it is and work with it.

I say that because it seems to me like God does the same thing with all the other not good enough folks he decides to use for his work. He somehow takes this collection of cracked pots and defective merchandise and uses us to spread his kingdom, preach his word, care for the sick and help the poor.

And despite everything common sense would tell us about work done with defective materials and inadequate tools, that work gets done. Not perfectly, of course, but a whole lot better than any quality inspector would believe possible.

I could ask “Why?” and be wondering about a bunch of things. Why use imperfect people? Why does your work get done in spite of them?

But the answers show up immediately, don’t they? After all, I don’t believe God had a lot of perfect people to choose from. And the work gets done in spite of their flaws for the same reason God told Jeremiah not to fear: He is with them.

So sure, every now and then we all probably stop and think how inadequate we are to the tasks God has called us to. It’s only natural to do so.

I try not to dwell there, though. Because this imperfect person is being used by the perfect God, and odds are pretty good he can make up what I might lack.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hey! I'm Right HERE! (Jeremiah 23:23-29)

On the TV show “Friends,” there’s a scene where Chandler, Monica and Phoebe are talking in the coffee shop, the place where these friends always seem to hang out. Phoebe, the ditz, has just come in and starts a conversation with Monica, who is married to Chandler, about how she met a man who is Monica’s soul mate. She’s a chef, he cooks, etc., etc.

Chandler is pretty much flabbergasted that a conversation about his wife’s soul mate doesn’t include him and is going on right in front of him. “Hey,” he says. “I’m right here.”

That scene comes to my mind when I read this passage from Jeremiah. “Aren’t I right here?” God essentially asks. “Don’t I hear what these other prophets are saying and see what the people are doing?” Of course, the answer is that God is indeed a God nearby. The Judeans cause the problems by acting like he’s a God far off.

They haven’t neglected doing their worship and sacrifices by the book. They haven’t even neglected the use of prophets to supposedly guide them in following God. But they’ve added worship of just about every other god in the region to their religion, and they have prophets who only tell them what they want to hear. And they’ve done all these things even though the very presence of the Lord dwells in the Holy of Holies in the very center of the temple in their own capital city.

We could say Jeremiah tells us we need to watch what we do because God always watches what we do. Unlike parents, who are sometimes elsewhere and thus completely unable to sense our mischief, God always sees us and knows what we’re doing. We have to behave all the time, as we would if our parents were there all the time. Christians might modify it slightly, but we have the same idea: Jesus is coming. Look busy.

But I think God’s complaint, voiced through Jeremiah, goes much deeper and requires a deeper response.

We remember God didn’t make a covenant with the Israelites after he gave them the Law through Moses. God didn’t tell them he would be their God if they obeyed his rules. He made the covenant with Abraham, long before Moses was born. He promised to be their God, and said they were his people.

He gave them the Law so they could act differently than people around them. In short, God’s chosen people ought to act like it. They shouldn’t act like everyone else does. That’s why the Law contains so many provisions about helping people in need, forgiveness of debts and other cautions against injustice. The Law helped God’s people stand out from the crowd.

If they didn’t follow the Law – and the prophets always pointed out that failure – then they offered no evidence they were anything different than all the people around them. And they offered no evidence their God was any different than any other gods people might choose to worship.

Paul later suggests Christians should follow part of this idea, and be in the world while not being of the world. Christians of all people should understand that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world and we should live our lives accordingly.

Jesus tells us if we live that way, we may find ourselves set against our family and our friends who don’t.

Our lifestyles will conflict, because we believe we live in a world being saturated by Christ and by the Holy Spirit, and they believe something different. We may “look out for number one,” just as they do, but we don’t refer to ourselves when we say it. We’ve made God number one, and we order our lives to him.

If I live as though the Kingdom of God is a present reality – and believe me, way too often I don’t – I understand that what I do depends on that, rather than on whatever happens to guide the world around me. I will help other people, I will work to spread the gospel, and I will do many other things as Jesus taught, and I will do them because I believe the Kingdom he proclaimed and embodied is coming and is in some ways already a part of the world I live in today.

Sometimes people who don’t believe in God suggest there’s no evidence to support what they call “the God hypothesis.” Now, part of that’s on them, a failure to open themselves to what they can know about God by looking at the world.

But some of it’s on us – making us aware we need to realize our role in providing that evidence that God is indeed at work in our world, and that the kingdom is at hand.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Count Them If You Can (Genesis 15:1-6)

Sometimes, I feel a little sorry for Abram. His father started the family wandering around then died, leaving Abram in charge. Then the Lord told Abram to keep wandering, and in fact, wander to places he didn’t know!

All this time, Abram knows he’s getting older, and so is his wife, Sarai. Of course, everybody gets older, so that’s not such a big deal, except they don’t have children. As we remember, childlessness is a big deal in this culture. Economically, children are the pension plan that takes care of people who can’t work anymore.

Spiritually and culturally, your children make sure your part of the story goes on. Just as you have made sure the story of your ancestors continues, so your children will do for you. Unless you don’t have any, like Abram and Sarai, which means your story and your family’s story stops with you, and fades with time until people have to look you up in a scroll just to remember you ever existed.

Abram lives with that reality every day, and this conversation with God brings it home. He has just cooperated with some local tribal chiefs and rulers to help stop an invasion of the area by a foreign king. The king of Sodom, one of the cities saved by Abram’s actions, wants to reward him, but Abram refuses. He does not want any of the local rulers to have even the smallest of claims on him.

God’s then promises Abram that he will be properly rewarded for helping people in need. But Abram wonders what good that will do. Any reward given him will die out with him. It will go to a man named Eliezer of Damascus, the legal heir to all of Abram’s property.

No, God says. Your heir will be of your own body. Look at the stars and count them, if you can. That’s how numerous your descendants will be.

Abram, we’re told, believed God’s promise, and that helped put his relationship with God more on the right footing. Now, what convinced Abram? What helped him believe? What about the sky that night gave him faith God would give him what he promised, in spite of all the reasons he could list that it wouldn’t happen? I’m old. My wife’s old. My nephew’s a twit. My legal heir – a servant – has a cruel joke of a name that translates, “God is my help.”

Look at the stars. Count them, if you can. Did the beauty and majesty of the night sky convince Abram? Did the awesomeness of the space he saw change his mind?

Maybe, but I think we can find more to that if we look. After all, we can see the same night sky and countless other parts of God’s creation we call beautiful. But we also know creation contains ugliness. Like the warthog, for example. Or the poodle.

We know that the world has problems, and not just because people live on it.

Volcanoes erupt. Storms destroy. Earthquakes flatten. The cute and the fluffy become dinner for the sharp-fanged and hungry. If the beauty of creation inspires awe and inspires us to believe in God, what do we do with the ugliness? It’s just as real and just as much a part of that same creation.

What did God want Abram to see when he tried to count the stars? Did he want him to marvel over how many there were? Or did he want him to trust the One who had already counted them?

I believe God wanted Abram to understand something about creation, but not simply that it was big and often beautiful. I believe God wanted Abram to know that God didn’t stop with creation when he made it. He continues to uphold and govern it. It continues to work.

And that may be a message that can bring us to believe, as it did Abram. In spite of all of the ugliness we can find in creation, in spite of all the things that aren’t big and awesome and aren’t beautiful, God continues to work within it. Everything that’s wrong with it doesn’t break it. It continues. Yes, storms destroy, but rain brings life to crops and to creatures. Volcanoes erupt and earthquakes flatten, but the same processes that fuel them also make the earth a planet we can live on.

Did Abram see that no matter what might seem to go wrong, God could still work? No matter how bad things were, God was still present? I think he did. I hope we can, too.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Do Be Do Be Do...(First Corinthians 1:18)

Sorry about the delay -- The sermon from Aug. 5th was eaten in the computer, so I'm posting a long-ago model.

When we look at how God’s work redefines things, one of the ones we ought to dig into the deepest is probably the idea of salvation.

We tend to see salvation as an event. Of course, that’s how we usually talk about being saved. Something threatened me, but I was saved from it, which means it doesn’t threaten me any more.

But salvation in a spiritual sense doesn’t work so well if we see it only as an event. It makes things easier to deal with, maybe, since we can put a checkmark by the “saved” category in our lives and go on about our business.

Sometimes the Bible talks about salvation that way. And sometimes it talks about it a different way.

Paul does that here. He calls the foolishness of the gospel good news for those who are being saved. We use verbs that way when we talk about ongoing things, not once-and-done-with things.

Our language can help us – we Christians talk about being “born again,” so think about how different each one of us is now from when we were born. We walk upright. We get our own food. We shriek less.

So wouldn’t we progress in our life of faith? Wouldn’t we grow up?

We say God wants to restore the full relationship we were made to have with him and renew his image, imprinted on us from before our birth. Sure, that has to start somewhere, but like our growth continues after our birth, our relationship with God continues after our salvation. We are being saved – we’re living the lives God wants saved people to live.

Think about it as like the difference between “being alive” or existing and “living.” Many things are alive, from little one-celled critters to the giant whales in the ocean. They do what they need to do to survive. They eat. They reproduce. They fight off things that try to eat them, or they don’t, and then they stop being alive.

But not too many seem to have a concept of living as an action verb. In their own limited ways, I think some animals get that. Dogs, for example, when they find an open field where they can run forever and not have to worry about fences or leashes or slow-footed humans. Chimpanzees, maybe, when they get together and see what they can do to make the humans point and laugh. Or dolphins, who will jump and play in the wake of a ship for no reason researchers have ever figured out.

Human beings, though, are the only creatures we know who can fully understand the difference. And so Jesus invites us to live saved and not just exist that way.

Picture a relationship with God that said, “Well, you used to be headed for hell, but now you’re not. But that’s about it, so toddle along now.” That’s not for me. I want a relationship with God that continues to make a difference in every moment, every aspect of my life.

When God formed human beings, they didn’t have life until he breathed it into them. Then he did, and we became living beings. The Hebrew word for living beings is nephesh. It literally translates “bundle of appetites,” and if you want to, you can picture it like a nest full of baby birds when mom shows up. We became a living bundle of appetites and desires, beings who want to do and experience and live.

Our sin prompts us to try to satisfy those appetites in ways that prove harmful to us, and separate us from God as well as the true self God wants us to be. In Jesus, God he made it possible once more for us to turn our bundle of appetites towards him, and to live as he had always designed us to do.

And that sounds like good news to me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Persistent! (Luke 18:1-8)

Sometimes I think we lose some impact of some parables because we read them, even though they were meant to be told.

This one’s a good example. I can’t imagine Jesus telling the tale of the widow and the unjust judge straight, like we just read it, because it has too many comic moments. Especially the alternate translation, in which the judge is worried the woman may come and slap him in the face.

And I think the comedy helps Jesus make the point he really wants his people to understand. On the surface, we could see the people who heard this story come away with the idea that they were to keep asking God for something, instead of raising the issue once or twice to see what God would do. That’s probably part of the message, but not nearly all. By using humor, Jesus could show the people that the most obvious message might not be the only one, once they started to think about it.

Because elsewhere, Jesus doesn’t seem to hold the idea that the way to pray is to ask God over and over and over for something that I want. Those petitionary prayers may be a part of prayer life, but they don’t in any way make it complete.

The Lord’s Prayer has petitions, but it begins with praise to God. The petitions themselves are not for wealth or power, but for what we need and for God’s kingdom to come on the earth. Jesus himself, in Gethsemane, prays for release from the trial he is about to face, but offers himself to God’s will in any event.

Maybe Jesus would like to see his listeners open up to the idea of not praying just so they get what they want, but praying so they want what they get.

I don’t mean they just go all doormat for whatever wrong life hands them, thanking Jesus for a burned-down house or some other tragedy. I doubt Jesus asks us to enjoy tragedy, either ours or someone else’s. But those things happen in life, no matter what. Bad people make bad choices, other people suffer, things go wrong, and so on. So far no one’s been able to erase those things, no matter what solution they’ve tried.

As Christians, we don’t claim to have special protection from tragedy or sorrow. What we claim to have is a God who never deserts us, no matter how bad things get.

As Christians, we claim that God will not only bring us through things that go wrong in our lives, he will use them to create something new within us. Even the execution of his Son couldn’t keep him from working something amazing in the world. If he can work in that, he can work in anything.

If prayer really is communication with God, instead of just a long list of requests, then it might change us as well. Any kind of two-way conversation involves the possibility of change in both of those involved. When we ask God for what we want, we suppose he might change things, so that we get what we’ve asked for. But we never allow for the possibility that we might change as well unless we complete the communication and listen to what God wants of us.

Only then can we start to see how we might deal with the situations we face in our lives, and allow God to work in them and in us.

Think of it this way – rain is a reality. No matter what happens, when water falls from the sky, those underneath it get wet. They have to have buildings, shelters, umbrellas or whatever in order to keep the rain from hitting them if they want to stay dry.

And no matter what, sometimes we will be outside with no umbrella when the rain starts to fall.

In our lives, we can try to protect ourselves from the effects of things that go wrong. We can make shelters of this kind or that kind so that when things do go wrong, it won’t affect us. But they won’t always work and sometimes we will be without shelter when something bad happens.

Way too often, when it rains, I respond by praying for an umbrella. “Lord, I wish I had my umbrella right now.” Way too rarely do I pray for, say, shampoo.

And way too rarely do I face difficulties by asking, “Lord, help me through this, and use what’s going on in my life to do your work in it and in others.”

If even an unjust judge will give that pesky widow what she wants, then surely the Lord will be swift to begin to respond to our desire to follow him in all things, whether good or bad.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Oh, That Prayer (First Chronicles 4:9-10)

I’ve got nothing against the man who wrote The Prayer of Jabez.

People who examine the book and its ideas carefully are likely to get a more-or-less valid understanding of these verses. But people who search the Bible for each and every magic formula or guarantee of success make a serious mess of it.

Jabez’s story blips up in the middle of a long list of begatitudes in First Chronicles. In seminary, we used to say “Chronicles” was actually the Hebrew word for “Didn’t I already read this in 'Kings?'”

We don’t learn much about him. We know he was honored more than his brothers, his mother gave him a name that referred to her time of labor, he prayed to God and God granted what he asked. A lot of people today hold that his prayer is a way to get God to give them something. Some say it to get a specific blessing they want, while others say they want something but they leave the type and amount of the “something” up to God.

That idea overlooks important facts of Jabez’s life.

First of all, his name was not exactly a token of motherly affection. What she did was the same as a modern parent naming a child “He’s such a pain.” In their culture, names had a lot more meaning than in ours. You could make a good case Mama Jabez named her boy like she did in order to get back at him for all the suffering he caused her, because names could act like prophecies.

Jabez, then, wanted to be sure that his mother’s prophecy didn’t come true, so he prayed for release from it. “Keep me from hurt and harm,” he asked.

The wrinkle, of course, comes in the first part. “Bless me and enlarge my border.” Welcome to the minefield! Watch the tap-dancing, please.

Of course, we’re told, that means Jabez wants God to give him more stuff. What else could “enlarge my border” or “enlarge my territory” mean?

You think it might take into account that enlarged territory in Jabez’s time would also mean enlarged responsibility, because the more you owned the more you had to take care of? You think serious Christians praying this prayer actually ask God to give them more responsibility and more of his work to do? Get that noise out of here. You’re disturbing my prayers to Santa – I mean, God.

You can also take a hike if you think Jabez is asking God to define him instead of being defined by his culture and society. Sure, we pointed out that Mama Jabez hung a “loser” tag on her boy, naming him so no one would think he was fit for much of anything. And sure, his prayer asks for an enlarged territory and blessing his people would think he didn’t merit, which would be proof that God thought differently of him than they did.

But if I think about these questions, I can’t memorize the prayer and say it exactly the right way so God will have to do what it asks. Because that’s what this prayer stuff is all about, anyway. It’s not about God. It’s about me.

Or it’s not.

People talk to God all the time in the Bible. And they talk to him all kinds of ways. Sometimes they ask for things. But they also praise him, and they celebrate what he’s made, or what he’s done, or who he is.

Sometimes they even yell at him. The psalms have those kinds of prayers, as does the book of Job.

They never, though, seem to see prayer as the kind of spiritual transaction so many modern Christians seem to. We input prayer X and God outputs blessing Y. We put in more X, and God gives more Y.

Don’t get me wrong. They want a response. They don’t want to pray just to hear themselves talk. For them, a prayer to God is a part of a conversation and they want God’s response to continue the conversation. Jabez says to God, “I think I can do some more things,” and God says, “You do? Then let’s try this. And this. And this…”

We too should want our prayers to draw a response from God. A response like, “You did what? Excellent!” Or, “I know that must have hurt. Tell me more.” Or, “Well, you know I’m always here for you.” Or, “Well, it may seem scary, but I know you can do it if you let me stick with you.”

My life has enough transactions. So I’m thinking about picking up the conversation and see where it leads me.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Swing for the Fences (2 Kings 13:14-19)

Sorry about the delay. Probably another one next week, when I'm at Dayspring West church camp.

Telling the last kings of Israel apart from one another ain’t easy. Their names confuse by sounding alike and their records depress by being alike. Had the books First and Second Kings been written today, a simple cut-and-paste command would tell most of their stories.

This king, Jehoash or Joash in some translations, differs little. He follows the path of Jeroboam the usurper, who split the kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s reign and allowed idol worship to infiltrate his people. They still worship God – or at least, they still go through all the motions. But they worship a wide range of other gods also.

Joash visits the prophet Elisha, who will die soon. He weeps and I won’t suggest he fakes sorrow. But I also can’t see how his sorrow affects him beyond just the emotional level. I don’t see him show any real appreciation for who Elisha is and for the God Elisha has represented.

At Elisha’s direction, the king makes ready to fire an arrow out the window – Elisha may not have been the easiest neighbor to live around. Elisha lays hands on the king’s hands before he shoots, which signifies his blessing on what Joash will do. This encounter and these actions will mean something beyond just what they seem to be on the surface.

“The arrow of the Lord’s victory over Aram!” Elisha says. Joash now knows he will defeat Aram, a neighboring nation whose armies often raid Israel. “Strike the arrows on the ground,” Elisha continues.

Joash does so. He hits the ground three times and stops. Elisha grows angry and tells him he should have hit the ground five or six times, but because he hit just three times, he will only defeat Aram three times.

That’s sort of unfair. There’s no Kings of Israel for Dummies book that says, “When the prophet tells thee to smitest the ground with thine arrows, whackest thou the tar out of them, lest thee show thyself a major wuss in his sight.”

I doubt the actual number matters as much as Joash’s seeming willingness to do little more than the least he can get away with of what the prophet commands. He stops hitting the ground on his own, rather than waiting for Elisha to tell him to stop, even though he now knows the prophetic nature of this meeting.

Joash does what Elisha says the same way he and his people worship God. He goes through the motions and ignores the content.

Now, we know the rituals of our worship matter. The words we say, the prayers we make, the songs we sing and the creeds we confess all direct us as we worship God. But we say them and do them because of what they contain, and not just because we’ve always said and done them. Maybe they hold our praise of God or our thanksgiving, or maybe they show a symbol of what God has done for us.

If we just go through the motions and don’t invest ourselves in them, we drain them of their meaning and we drain worship of its ability to affect our lives. We drain our songs of their praise to God or we drain communion of its declaration that we serve a crucified and risen Savior.

Sure, we risk something if we really invest ourselves in our worship. We risk hearing God call us to change, or maybe even call us to his work way, way outside our comfort zones. We might even risk hearing God call us into ministry.

A quick sports analogy, although my preaching books always said to avoid them. Baseball players swing the bat differently depending on what kind of hits they want. Players who hit the ball often usually swing the bat more or less parallel to the ground. That gives it more of a chance to hit the ball when it zips through the strike zone.

But the power hitters, the ones who hit extra base hits and home runs, swing the bat so it rises though the strike zone. When the bat connects, it drives the ball upward as well as outward. They literally swing for the fences. But the chances of hitting the ball are less. So a manager doesn’t want every player to try to hit home runs, because swinging for the fences increases the risk of missing the ball and striking out.

In our faith lives, we can go through the motions and play safe. We can make sure we say the words right and do the rituals right and we’ll probably look like we’ve got everything covered, whether we really do or not.

Or we can risk something, and really reach out to God and for God. We can invest ourselves in our worship and truly listen for his word to us.

The good news is indeed a risky business. But subtract the risk, and we leave a paler, lesser version of what God has designed to change our lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

So You Think You're a Big Deal? (2 Kings 5:1-14)

Naaman the Aramean has a problem.

He’s a great general for the King of Aram. He’s a mighty warrior. But he has leprosy. Now, the ancient world lumped several things together under the word we translate “leprosy.” One of them is the actual disease of that name, which kills nerve tissue and causes surrounding flesh to die as well. From it come the extreme disfigurements we usually connect with the disease, and the idea of exiling its sufferers from regular society to protect people from it.

But several other skin diseases are called leprosy in the Bible, and not all of them forced people into exile. Naaman suffers from one of these, very likely something like psoriasis.

Even though he can continue his life, whatever’s wrong with him is certainly uncomfortable and irritating. And here’s where we learn Naaman must be a pretty good guy. A young Israelite girl, captured in a raid, works for his wife as a maid. Naaman’s discomfort bothers her enough to tell her mistress about the prophet Elisha, who could probably cure it.

Naaman listens to this idea, likes it, and asks permission from his king to see the prophet. The king agrees and sends a letter to the king of Israel, which is always a good idea when you send your best general into someone else’s country on business other than conquest.

The king of Israel freaks. The letter, you see, leaves out the prophet and seems to imply the king of Aram wants the king of Israel to cure Naaman. The king of Israel knows he can’t cure anyone of anything and figures this as a pretext for an invasion.

Elisha learns of the king’s public freak-out and sends a message of his own. What’s with all the drama? Send him to me so he can learn there is a prophet in Israel. The king, eager to pass the buck, does so.

Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, where Elisha’s servant greets him with instructions. Wash in the Jordan seven times and be cured of your disease.

This ticks Naaman off somewhat. He’s an important general, and this prophet not only didn’t come out to greet him or invite him into his home, he told him to wash himself in some muddy creek that only passes for a river because Israelites haven’t ever seen real rivers.

But his servants point out he would have done something hard to bring a cure, so why not do something easy? Naaman shows his intelligence by listening to them and following their advice to do what the prophet said. And as the prophet said, he is cured. In the verses following this passage, we learn that he begins to worship and serve God.

Naaman’s irritation came from being treated as less important than he though he was. He was a general and a warrior, used to respect, obedience and deference. He was not used to being told what to do by a messenger from some foreign prophet who had never met him face to face.

We might take the message home that Naaman was shown his unimportance, and that he should learn he’s not that big a deal in God’s sight. Partially true, I suppose, but God thought Naaman important enough to cure him.

Maybe the whole lesson involves Naaman learning the true source of his worth. It’s not his military career or his position of authority – in short, it’s not anything that he did. God values him because God created him. God seems not to recognize Naaman’s external signs of importance when Elisha the prophet doesn’t pay any attention to them.

But God shows he does value Naaman by sending him the cure for his disease. He just has different reasons for valuing him.

Today, I suspect I learn the same lesson many times over. God values me and loves me for one reason alone – God created me. No matter how much good I might do or how many great things I might accomplish, God will value me just as much as someone who never does anything, or even just as much as someone who does great wrong.

That message makes me – and maybe a lot of us – uncomfortable sometimes. After all, we value people differently based on what they do or for a whole host of reasons. The suggestion God values us as little as he values some criminal or some lazy lump who never did anything makes us uneasy.

Of course, that’s not God’s point of view in the matter. He doesn’t reduce everyone to the same low value. He wants to raise everyone to the same high value. What value might that be? What worth does God give us?

Well, check out the third chapter of John, verse 16, see what he gave for us, and base your answer on that.