Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Empty Promise (Philippians 2:1-13)

OK, try a mental exercise for me. I’ll give a number and you picture that number – not the numeral, which is the written character we use to show the number, but the number itself. I’ll make it easy – I’m going to say the number and you picture that many apples, let’s say.

So when I say “5,” you picture five apples. When I say “2,” you picture two apples. When I say “9,” you picture nine apples. And you may notice that when we get to numbers past six or seven, we usually break the number down into groups. When I said “9,” you may have pictured three groups of three apples, or a group of four and a group of five. Most people start breaking them up into groups about there.

I read about a study where they showed people a picture of a certain number of items and then hid it before asking how many there were. The record was sixteen or seventeen, if I remember right. So the human brain hits a limit at recognizing about sixteen or seventeen things at once.

Now, the best estimate on the size of the universe is about 17 billion light years across. If you remember your science, you know light moves at 186,000 miles per second, and a “light year” is how far light travels in a year. The closest star to us is four light years away, which means we see it the way it looked in 2004. If it blew up in 2006, we won’t know it for two more years.

God created the entire universe and can contain it in a single thought. Everything in those 17 billion light years, from the largest to the smallest and all their combina-tions from the beginning of time, can be conceived by the mind of God in just one thought. And we do good to hit 17 of anything. So you can see why this verse talks about Christ “emptying” himself in order to take human form and live as one of us.

Why do you think he did that? I know it brought about our salvation, but why this way of all ways? Christ could have healed his relationship with humanity in any way he wished but he chose to empty himself and live as one of us.

There are a bunch of answers, but here’s one that resonates with me, especially when I consider just how far beyond human knowledge God really is. I know God loves me and I base my life on it. But there’s a part of me that just wonders how God could know what it was like to go through life as a limited, fallible, screwed-up human being? Obviously, if God knows everything, he knows those things too, but my own human limitations still give me that question.

It’s like being comforted by someone who hasn’t gone through the same issue they’re trying to offer comfort for. You may appreciate the thought and even be grateful, but there’s a gap in their connection with your problem. It’s always there, and it’s why people often turn to support groups with similar experiences when they’re trying to heal after a tragedy.

But in Christ, we have proof, if you want to use that word, that God has in fact experienced what it means to be human. Everything from being hungry to having your feet hurt to taking a whiff of yourself after a long sweaty day and knowing you need a bath. Being betrayed or abandoned by friends, wrongfully accused, you name it. Jesus went through it, and somehow that helps me make my connection with God easier.

Here’s another example – for nearly 70 years, Superman has been one of the most popular characters on the planet. He’s known almost everywhere and is still popular today. I read a magazine article where some college researchers interviewed people to determine why Superman was so popular and well-known. It wasn’t the powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, although those would be cool.

No, people connect with Superman because of Clark Kent. Nobody can really connect with what it would be like to fly or be more powerful than a locomotive. But Clark Kent gets yelled at by his boss. Clark Kent can’t get the time of day from Lois Lane. Things like that, people connect with, because they’ve been through those things.

So when I hear the story of Jesus, I know I’m hearing the story of a real human being who went through real human stuff, rather than some sort of spirit that just pretended about it. And since that human being is also the divine Son of God, then I can be assured that God does indeed have an understanding of what limited human life is like. He didn’t do it so he would know, because he already knew. He did it so we would know he knew. He promises redemption for human beings, and he knows what we need redeemed from, knows it from the inside. So his promise, the promise that comes from his emptying himself, is true and we can know it.

Good news, indeed, for us all.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spoiled Rotten? (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

The trendy word schadenfreude refers to the pleasure someone takes in someone else’s misery. It’s German. In English, we call it epicaricacy, or The National Enquirer.

It’s also what powers Jonah’s speech here as we get to the end of his story. We know a little bit about him, but let’s recap:

Jonah the prophet hears God’s call to warn wicked Nineveh of its impending destruction. He responds by boarding a boat for Tarshish. It would be like a modern-day prophet who lived in New York City being told to warn Las Vegas and taking a boat to Australia that leaves from Miami. In other words, Jonah plans to get as much out there between him and Nineveh as he can.

During the voyage, a severe storm comes up which the ship won’t survive. Nobody seems to know what to do – well, nobody but Jonah, who might have an explanation as to the storm’s cause but doesn’t share it with anyone. The sailors cast lots to find out what the problem is and eventually the lot lands with Jonah.

“Oh, yeah, funny story!” the prophet says and explains he’s running away from God’s call. If you thought a prophet might say, “OK, God, I give,” or maybe, “Lord, if you will spare these innocent folks I will head for Nineveh the moment we reach the shore,” then you’ve never met Jonah. He lets the sailors make another try for land, but they can’t overpower this divinely-powered storm. Now Jonah does have an idea. “Toss me over,” he says. The sailors do and the sea calms.

A giant fish swallows Jonah. He sits in the fish’s stomach for three days – and if you think about it, the only kind of air anyplace inside the alimentary canal is what we take Pepto-Bismol for, which means Jonah spends three days inside a giant fish burp. After three days of this, it occurs to him to pray. Like many of us, he prays quoting some of the prayers and songs he knows. My Old Testament professor in seminary pointed out the different psalms and songs Jonah quoted, weaving them together in a lament about how bad he had it.

When Jonah finished, my professor said, the fish threw up. His sympathies were with the fish.

Jonah now finds himself near Nineveh, and when God calls again he decides he’ll answer. Nineveh the city stretches so far a person takes three days to walk across it, which makes the hotel chains like it very much. Jonah ambles in about a third of the way and says five words in Hebrew. He did raise his voice, and that may have been because nobody would get near him since, as far as the story we have says, he hasn’t taken a bath since leaving the fish.

The Ninevites speak a language close to Hebrew but not exactly, but in any event, this five-word warning – “In forty days Nineveh will be wiped out” – sparks an amazing revival among people who the day before this wouldn’t have given two figs for what the God of some no-account wide spot in the road nation down south said. Everybody repents of their sins. Everybody, from the king on down to the livestock, vows to change their ways in the hope God will not destroy them.

God decides exactly that and it ticks Jonah off mightily. Here we learn he didn’t run away because he was scared. He knew that if he warned the people and they listened God wouldn’t destroy them. Remember Ezekiel being unsure if the people would listen to his harsh message? Jonah fumes because he knew the people would listen to what God said through him and it would work.

After all of this mess, his one hope was that he would at least get to see the wicked get what’s coming to them. He could at least enjoy a good ol’ Sodom-and-Gomorrah, fire-from-the-sky style hiney-whuppin’.

But noooooo, God has to go and be all Mr. Lovingkindness Mercy Forgiveness and now Jonah can’t even enjoy that. To top it off, his shade tree got eaten by a worm.

“You’re mad?” God asks.

“You bet I am! Mad enough to die right now!” Tops the list of dumb things to say to God, I believe.

“You’re mad because this bush died, and you don’t think I should pay attention to this huge city and all its people and let them off the hook when they turn to me?” The conversation kind of grinds to a halt, which is probably good for Jonah.

Who’s Jonah today? Well, we probably all know some people in our churches who just don’t seem happy unless they or someone is talking about someone else going to hell.

Let ’em have it, Lord! Give ’em what they got comin’! Bring up the idea that God may forgive those people and be met with some shock or some dismay. I can’t say I’ve never done it; I’ve made the joke that if I get to the heavenly city and meet this or that famous criminal or ne’er-do-well of history, the first words out of my mouth will be, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”

But what Jonah needed to understand and what we all probably need to understand is that God’s in the business of spoiling us, where “spoiling” means giving us way, way more than we ought to get. In fact, giving us the exact opposite of what we’ve earned, what we’ve all “earned,” to use the word, by our sin. We’re all separated from God, and the degree of separation is unimportant. That separation means death, but a loving God decided on life, and decided to give that to us instead.

We’re spoiled, all right. Spoiled un-rotten.

Good news.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Life for Free (Matthew 18:21-35)

Believe it or not, a lot of the fuss about this passage comes over the numbers Jesus used.

Matthew quotes him as saying 77 is the number of times people should forgive. Another gospel writer uses “seventy times seven,” or 490. Proof! some say, that the Bible is all made up because the gospel writers don’t agree.

The fuss over Jesus’ figure of speech carries some irony. For one, neither number would be taken literally by Jesus or the people he talked to, anymore than the phrase “24/7” would be taken literally by someone today. And there’s another dimension of this teaching that ought to be a lot harder to handle than the number dispute.

What Jesus meant with his figure of speech was not that either the 78th or the 491st person who did a Christian wrong just won the reverse lottery and the jackpot was about to hit him. He meant that a Christian should forgive every wrong, every time.

Step on the brake, Bubba. Every wrong, every time? Yup.

OK, well I know that I, like a lot of people, keep hold of too many grudges and I get upset over stuff I should let go. And I know that God wants me to let that stuff go and me saying, “Well, you don’t know what he did,” doesn’t really convince a guy who forgave the people who nailed him to a tree.

But let’s get serious and remember that not every pain in the world is something that people can overlook. Even if it’s never happened to us, we probably know someone who has real hurt. People someone lied about, or people made victims of crime or any number of other actions that caused real wounds that go deep into their spirits and minds. Does Jesus’ teaching ask them to forgive the people who hurt them?

Yes, it seems it does. Every wrong, every time. But what if the people who did the wrong thing aren’t sorry about it? What if they don’t ask for forgiveness or don’t care about who they’ve hurt? Do those of us who’ve been hurt say, “Oh, just pretend it never happened?”

Look, I’m not someone who wants to rewrite the Bible to suit my own ideas, but I just can’t match all this up. God cares about what happens to his children – look a few pages over in Matthew and Jesus seems pretty clear that how we treat one another has an impact on how God views us. Would God consider his children’s pain just something to be wished away with happy words? Would God say, “Pretend it never happened.”

I can’t get my head around that, which must mean I’ve gone wrong somewhere. And I think it’s with the concept of forgiveness. I think we too often mix it up with reconciliation, which actually does need someone to repent and seek my forgiveness if they’ve done me wrong.

When someone harms me, in whatever way they do it, they’ve decided how they’re going to view me. Someone who swindles or robs me sees me as a source of income, or as someone who owns something they want to own. They’ve defined me, and they pretty much don’t care about me in any other way.

But I am obviously not just a source of income. Maybe “forgiveness” is my decision that I – not someone else -- define who I am. Maybe when I forgive someone I’ve decided to reject their view of me in favor of my view of me.

Isn’t that one way to see what God does when he forgives? We’re sinners. Whether we were born that way or whether we were just really good students, we’ve ended up separated from God and unable to close the break between us. But God decided that he would not allow our sin to define us or our relationship with him. We couldn’t fix it, but he could and did, and told us that we could be defined by his grace and love.

The first servant in the story, the one who owed so much, was offered that chance. His life didn’t have to be defined by who owed whom and how much. But he rejected that choice when he went after the second servant, who owed him some money. His master declared that since he wanted to be defined by debt, he would be, and suffer the consequences thereof.

I think we’ve had it wrong – forgiveness doesn’t let the other guy off the hook. It frees us. Thanks be to God for his liberating forgivness.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

You Let Me Worry About That (Ezekiel 33:1-7)

One Sunday morning in 1974, 3M engineer Arthur Fry was sitting in the choir watching the little slips of paper he used to mark hymns fall out of the book and lose his place.

The sermon began, and Arthur started daydreaming about how he could mark his place with paper that stayed put. What he needed was a bookmark that stuck to the paper but didn’t tear it when it was pulled off. Thus was born the Post-It Note.

And thus was also born one of the better examples of how what we might want to happen when we talk about God isn’t necessarily what’s going to happen when we talk about God. And if you’ll be polite enough to not remind the preacher that sometimes more good things come out of boring sermons than out of good ones, I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t have so much time to do your daydreaming.

God is having a similar discussion with Ezekiel when we drop in on them here in chapter 33. Ezekiel, as we know, was called to be a prophet, and despite what we think of prophets in retrospect, they weren’t always popular or well-liked people in their day. We’re told artists sometimes have to die to be appreciated, and plenty of kings and leaders in their day would have appreciated prophets a lot more if they’d been dead. Or at least quiet.

Because he faces problems in delivering the message, Ezekiel isn’t sure he wants to do what God has asked him. Prior to this he’s described some of his visions. But they are so completely out there that I imagine people aren’t so much upset by him as they are making the universal “too much booze” sign behind his back.

Now, though, God may want him to confront some of the wickedness of his society. And he may not want to do that. One reason might be that he doesn’t want to get into trouble and risk his safety or his life. And he might also figure nobody’s going to listen to him if he brings nothing but the gloom and doom. How effective can I be, he wonders, if no one listens to me?

Well, God says, whether or not they listen is their problem. I’m talking to you about whether or not they have something to listen to. If I ask you to call them out on their wickedness and they don’t listen to what I say through you, then they’ll have to deal with the consequences. But if you don’t call them out, then you have to carry not just the burden of ignoring me, but also the burden they would have carried if they’d heard what I wanted them to hear.

Ezekiel was supposed to speak a message of prophecy, which discerned the evil that the people wanted to overlook. We don’t have that same call nearly as often, and certainly we don’t have it anywhere near as often as some people like to think they do. The quick rule of thumb is that if saying something will make you a jerk, you should pray about whether or not you’re listening to God or your own desire to put people in their place.

As Christians, our call is to proclaim the gospel. Some of that proclaiming involves speaking the truth about evil. But even more of it involves speaking the truth about God’s grace, love and mercy. We may or may not want to say that message, or maybe we only want to say part of it. We’re happy with the fire and brimstone part but we’re a little less happy with the grace and mercy part, or maybe vice-versa.

God’s caution to us is the same as his caution to Ezekiel. We’re called to proclaim the gospel as it was proclaimed to us. What happens to the people who hear it is between them and God. And I imagine that you, much like me, just had an uncomfortable memory of a parent telling you, “It doesn’t matter what your brother (or sister) does. I’m talking to you.”

We may offer someone the gospel message and watch it transform them. Or they may ignore it. Heck, maybe we say it over and over again and it seems every time we do the people hearing us ignore it. If we hear God’s message to Ezekiel, though, we understand that God has a purpose for us that is worked out in our obedience to him, and it may be served by people listening to us, or it may not.

Our job is to answer his call, and remember with gratitude that we know him because someone else answered his call to give that gospel message to us.