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.