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.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

How Not to Do It (Luke 9:51-62)

Christians believe Jesus brought humanity a message of supreme importance. The kingdom of God was breaking into the world, and people needed to ready themselves for it. They had lived lives opposing God, so now they needed to live lives aligned with God.

But we also believe Jesus brought us a gift with how he lived his life and what he did. Just before this passage, Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.” In the context, this means Jesus prepared himself for the most important part of his work – his death and resurrection.

Our call is not exactly the same, because few of us will be asked to die for our faith. But God does expect us to follow his path for us with the same resolution, obedience and determination Jesus showed. How we do that differs as much as we do – each of us hears God’s call in the way God designed us to fulfill it. So the Bible doesn’t offer a lot of specific detail about how we follow God’s path for us.

Here, though, Luke shows us some of the ways we don’t follow that path. I want to deal with the last group first. In them, we see people who say they want to follow Jesus and probably mean it. But they don’t seem ready to devote themselves to fully following him.

The enthusiasm of the first man dwindles when he realizes what he must sacrifice to follow Jesus. Not just the comforts of home – remember, these people live in the open and “rough it” a lot more often than most of us do. Jesus’ words to him reveal that his followers sacrifice the certainty and security most people seek. A follower of Jesus can’t even count on shelter, one of the most basic human needs.

The second and third man have similar issues to each other. Both involve trying to get things squared away, so to speak, before they take up following Jesus. They want to get their affairs in order before they devote themselves to God.

But God has always sought our full devotion. Moses’ law clearly said people were to bring the first and best of their harvests and flocks for their sacrifices, and not whatever they had laying around after they’d paid the bills and stocked the pantry. Neither man puts God first, so neither man is truly ready to follow Jesus, whether he calls to them or they seek him out.

Now to the first incident, which gets a little more complicated. We read that a Samaritan village refuses Jesus a place to stay. Nothing unusual here. Jews and Samaritans disliked each other and rarely offered hospitality to one another.

The disciples ask Jesus if he wants them to call fire from heaven to wipe out the village. Luke says Jesus “rebuked” them, probably because he doesn’t want to write down how many kinds of dumb Jesus must have called them. My guess is the disciples thought the village’s refusal was a rude insult to their leader, and they should punish the people who insulted him. In fact, they should punish them so hard no one else would ever think of doing it again.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t work that way. He’s come to save people, not destroy them, he points out. Again.

If he followed the disciples’ suggestion, who would really be saved? Certainly not the Samaritan villagers. And not many others, either, I imagine. Sure, nobody would refuse Jesus their hospitality again. But would they listen while he was present, or would they secretly want him to hurry up and leave so they wouldn’t make some mistake that got fire rained down on their village?

The disciple’s way imposes Jesus on people through force or threat of force. It doesn’t offer them Christ, it assaults them with Christ. Even if the world works that way, Jesus won’t – and he calls us to lay down our lives, not to lay down the smack.

Throughout history, we Christians have listened to this lesson and sometimes not. Sometimes we use Christ’s methods. That’s how a group of slaves and nobodies spread their faith so far and wide they converted the mightiest empire the world knew at the time, in less than four hundred years.

Sometimes we use the world’s methods. Faced with invasion from another religion, whose followers used the sword to conquer the Holy Land, North Africa and Spain, Christians fought back with the sword. In a mere eight hundred years, they had regained…Spain.

Jesus calls us to follow God, and that means to follow God according to God’s ways. We can’t walk God’s path if we use our own map. We can only use his, and it leads straight to the cross.