Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pick a Date (Luke 2:1-20)

Isn't it funny how we get Christmas Eve just slightly off.

We gather and we light our final Advent candle and we sing "Silent Night" and we have our candlelight service, and we rarely -- or at least, I rarely -- remember that wer'e a day early.

Because we make such wonderful associations with the peaceful evening and the sense of going to sleep and resting to await the celebration of Christmas Day, it's easy to get our minds fixed on the idea that our Christmas Eve service marks Jesus' birth. But even if he was born at night, he would have been born at least four or five and as many as 24 hours after the time we gather to celebrate.

And we call it Christmas Eve because it's the day before Christmas. And in a lot of our churches, we rarely worship on Christmas Day, but almost all of us hold at least one Christmas Eve service. Sometimes, of course, they're very late, so they end after midnight and we're actually celebrating on Christmas Day when we finish.

Lots of things contribute to this trend. Families gather during this time, and people find it easier to have their family celebrations of gift-giving and meals without having to sandwich church services into the mix. Pastors have the same concerns -- their families don't like crazing up the schedule any more than does anyone else. I can sympathize, but I want to be very careful about pushing worship times around here and there for convenience sake. It's not a good habit to get into.

Many older church traditions include Christmas day worship. I have a friend in our conference who begins a Christmas day service at the churches he serves. Why, he asks, would you not worship the Lord on the day of his birth?

And like I said, while I don't want to get into the habit of bumping church around to fit everyone's schedules, there is also an element of getting too wrapped up in a particular day. Because to tell the truth, we don't know what day is Jesus' birthday. The early church picked December 25th for a variety of reasons.

It helped offset some of the pagan celebrations and rituals around that time of year. People who had just converted to Christianity could move from celebrating their festivals to celebrating the birth of their new Savior. It was also near the winter solstice, the day when the amount of time between sunrise and sunset stops shrinking and starts increasing. What better time to mark the beginning of the Light of the World than the day in which light only began to increase?

But to be perfectly honest, the pick of December 25 is throwing a dart at a board with 365 squares. We have no way of knowing for sure, and even if church tradition makes this time of the year more likely, we're still making a guess as to the exact date.

There's a part of me that would like to emphasize how we don't know which day Jesus was born, so we could never be sure if we were wishing him happy birthday on the right day. Not because I'd enjoy the uncertainty, but because it would remind us to celebrate his birth every day, which is what we as Christians ought to be about anyway.

Think about how you'd feel if someone you knew wished you happy birthday every day because they didn't know which one was your actual birthday. Upset because they didn't know? Perhaps, but you could also receive well-wishes every day! Wouldn't that be kind of neat?

You know, unhooking our celebration from this exact calendar date might ease some stress. No deadline for baking, no one day of the year when everybody has to fly through O'Hare or DFW, no putting up with Uncle Grump who drools too much and can't keep quiet about his wildly inappropriate wartime Christmas stories...

And it might move us towards the idea of expressing gratitude for God's gift of Christ Jesus more times than just at the end of December. After all, the good news of great joy to all people was to all people of all times, at all times. That's one of the things that makes it so good.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Are You Ready?

OK, I admit I watch professional wrestling sometimes. And yes, I know it’s scripted and that the action is about as real as a choreographed movie fight. So what? Sometimes those are fun, too.

Two wrestlers in a popular (for the moment) tag team often begin their in-ring spiel with the question, “Are you ready?” When they ask this, the crowd responds affirmatively. But alas, their affirmation is unconvincing, so the wrestler must repeat himself: “No! I said, ‘Are! You! Ready!’” This time, the agreement hits the proper decibel level and he can continue with the rest of his promo, which is pretty much not appropriate for sermons.

Although I greatly doubt Jesus would have been a professional wrestler if that business had existed in his time, the promo parallels the way that Jesus talks to his disciples about the end times and his return here in Luke. He tells them that there will be signs that point to his coming, and those signs will be so overwhelming they will make people afraid of what’s happening.

Then they will “see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.” And he tells them when they see these things, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The question is unspoken, but it’s obviously there. When Jesus tells his listeners about the hard things they will see before he is fully revealed as the Messiah, and how they should act when it happens, what else would we think but that he’s asking them if they’ll be ready to do that when it does?

Perhaps, when he said this, he looked at the crowd to see what kind of response they had to his message. And whether through not understanding or misunderstanding what he said or some other response, he felt that he needed to ask the question again. Only instead of yelling it louder like the wrestler does, he used a parable.

Look, he said, when you see the fig tree sprout leaves, you know summer is near because you know that’s what fig trees do just before summer gets here. So when you see the kinds of things I’m talking about, then you’ll know what I’m talking about is going to happen. Even if you don’t really know what’s going to happen, you’ll still know it’s me doing what I said. So look out and don’t get so wound up in the cares of this world you forget I’m going to be building a new world.

Now, when we look at how the disciples responded when things started happening that fulfilled Jesus’ true mission, we can see they were not ready. There may not have been great turmoil in the world, but there was plenty within their own circle. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, the rest deserted him, and he was arrested and put on trial before Herod and Pilate. Falsely convicted, Jesus was sentenced to death and executed. Did the disciples “stand up and raise their heads?” No, they ran away. They – most of them, anyway – were not ready. And when he was revealed in his power and glory in the Resurrection, where they there to see it? No. Remember, they ran away.

Because he came to them later and revealed himself to them, they finally understood and began the work to which he’d called them, but that had a lot more to do with God’s mercy than with the disciples’ readiness.

And then the question of readiness expands even more, out to reach us living in our time.

As you’ve no doubt heard before, the signs of trouble that are supposed to point to Jesus’ coming are not unique to what we sometimes call “the end times.” They are parts of human history that are always with us. And so Jesus is always asking us, “Are you ready?” Are we ready to receive him, to stand up and raise our heads as our redemption draws closer? Or are we also weighed down with concerns than anchor us to things that don’t last and never will?

He’s come. As Christians, we believe that. We may never be able to prove it like we can prove George Washington was born or that Marie Curie helped discover radium, but we believe it and we base our lives on that, with God’s help.

Every Advent seems to sneak up on us, doesn’t it, hiding behind those Pilgrims and Indians like someone ducking down in the back row of the picture. For me, that’s a reminder than I’m not really ready for him, any more than the world was ready for him back then.

But I’m getting there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Now That's My King (John 18:33-37)

Yes, I made the sword joke the last time I preached on this passage. I can't believe anyone is surprised that a pastor recycles jokes. ;-)

This, the last Sunday before Advent begins, has often been called “Christ the King” Sunday in church history.

A sizable number of Christian folks are uncomfortable with some of the images that conjures up. Kings are authoritarian, maybe even dictator-like. They represent power figures that often use their power to get their way and keep weaker people down so they can’t fight for themselves. They may have long noses and funny-looking ears – well, at least the King of England will after Queen Elizabeth passes on.

But because of all these images that seem directly opposed to who and what Jesus was, some folks suggest we modern people should get rid of the idea of Christ as a King It’s a way of thinking a lot more appropriate to that day and time than to ours.

I’m not sure, though. I think this passage shows us that Jesus was trying to communicate the difference in his understanding of kingship even here, with a Roman governor. And we know he came from a people who counted kings like David and Solomon as among the most important figures of their national history.

In those days, kings might set up most of their own laws if they wanted to, with very few checks on their authority. Even so, they couldn’t guarantee they would be followed on the throne by the person they wanted for that job, because they usually didn’t quit being kings until they died. So a new king would come into office facing uncertain times.

Would the old king’s advisors support him? Would the people? How about his own family? Many kings married more than one wife and the new king will have brothers, half-brothers and probably some uncles who might be gunning for the crown. What to do about them? The usual answer to that one didn’t involve a family meeting, by the way, but it did make sure that the holiday card list was a looooot shorter than it had been.

Where a modern king might very well rely on some form of settled legal precedent for his assuming his throne, the ancient kings had to rely on a more basic argument.

“Hi, I’m the king.”

“Who says?”

“Me and all my buddies with the sharp pointy metal things.”

“How may I serve Your Majesty?”

So people in the ancient world were very likely to surround their vision of kingship with the same kind of potential authoritarianism and maybe dictatorship that might trail that word in our time. They may have been just as unhappy with the idea of some kind of absolute ruler as we are.

But, as Jesus establishes in his conversation with Pilate, he’s not that kind of a king. His whole understanding of kingship and the power that comes from it reverses what people then thought about it. “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” he says. He hasn’t told his followers to do that. In fact, when one of them tried it, he told that guy not to fight.

Even more, Jesus knows exactly what kind of pressure he could bring to bear on Pilate if that’s what he chose. Legions of angels, heavenly warriors who would let Toga-Boy here know exactly who ran things in this universe, and Jesus can summon them with a word or less. His kingdom, though is “not of this world.”

It is a kingdom where the greatest power ever known will not be used to crush his enemies but will instead allow itself to be crushed. It will not count power as a thing to be grasped and fought over, but used instead to build up the weak, even those so weak they try to force that power to submit to their own. It is a dignity and a might and an authority so awesome it fears not to take a towel and wash fishermen’s feet.

Or, as we begin next week to prepare to note, to arrive in this world completely helpless and totally dependent on a teenage Jewish girl and her carpenter husband.

I agree that a couple of things about the idea of Christ as King might need to be changed. But in the person of Christ, that change has already taken place. Hadn’t you heard? It’s the good news.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Signs of Doom! (Mark 13:1-18)

OK, if you want some irony in your Bible, here it is. Jesus forecasts a sign of trouble to come, trouble that will actually be “birthpangs” of the Kingdom of God. And he does so in the context of a warning against trusting people who use signs to point to the coming of the Kingdom of God!

Now, obviously Jesus wants his followers to be aware of the possibility of trouble that will surround God’s work in the world. The people who read Mark may have thought that God’s work would be finished in their lifetimes, and Christ would return. Since we live some 1,900-plus years later, we know that wasn’t the case, but the warnings still stand. There are two of them in this passage.

The first warning is against the idea of thinking that size or magnificence somehow equals durability and strength. In our day, we are used to large buildings, and we know that although there’s a lot of work that goes into constructing them, they are regular features of life in many areas. People live in them, in apartments that may be hundreds of feet off the ground, and think no more of it than they would of stepping up on a curb.

But think about what it takes to build such a building if you don’t have modern cranes and hoists and I-beams and girders and riveters and welders. Think about what it might take to build even a four or five story building if everything you want to use on that fifth story has to be hauled up those stairs, or at best winched up with some kind of draft animal pulling on a block and tackle. You can cut huge stones to bear the weight of your towering structure, but there’s no diesels to haul it to the site and no hydraulics to help lever it into place.

If you see a great stone building in this day and time, you might very well look at it in the same light as a hill or mountain. It’s immovable! It’s mighty! It’s an everlasting symbol of some king or ruler’s achievement!

No, Jesus says. It’s as impermanent as any other thing that people build. What people build, people can wreck. And, he might ask us in a context we’d understand, if you’ve rested your faith on such things, then what will you do when the wrecking ball hits?

Such a possibility worries the disciples. Later, they ask Jesus how they’ll be able to know that calamities like the one he describes are about to take place.

“Yea verily,” Jesus says. “When a silly movie makes Lloyd Dobler the hope of the human race and allows a hack director to market wrecking CGI pictures of the world (again), then you shall know the end is nigh…” OK, no he didn’t actually reference the John Cusack movie 2012. But he probably would have if he’d been preaching today.

Jesus actually gives his disciples another warning. Beware of people who tell you that they’re me, he says, or that they know what things will happen next and you should follow them. Bad things might happen and panic you into following someone who says they’ve got the answers. But don’t be fooled. God is still the one in charge.

There’s a cliché among Christians that while we may not know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. Like most clichés, it roots in truth, and it sums up some of what Jesus wants his disciples to know. Just like the future is not in human imitations of permanence, like big buildings, it’s also not in the hands of those who try to interpret signs in the heavens.

A minister friend of mine is the proud possessor of a pamphlet called “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Happen in ’88.” And another by the same author called “89 Reasons the Rapture Will Happen in ’89.” No few Christian writers warned us that the Y2K bug that would wreck the world’s computing systems was a sign that Armageddon and the final battle were on the horizon. You can buy books or visit websites that will tick off all the signs that predict Christ’s coming and specific world events that match them.

It’s not hard to find interpretations or information that confirms that the world has already ended or is about to end or will for absolute certain end soon if we don’t change certain behaviors – Christians aren’t the only ones who predict it or produce detailed and documented evidence that proves their predictions.

Behind the curtain, though the prophets of doom and of human magnificence, both biblical and secular, selectively interpret facts in their own direction or worse, manipulate data and statements so that what they say makes sense.

And we all know what we’re supposed to do about the man behind the curtain. Pay him no mind, because after all, that ain’t where the power is. It’s in the Good News, and the One who brings it.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Repost: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption (Romans 8:15-16)

Continuing with some interpretations on John Wesley's sermons. First preached Oct. 12, 2006 (by me) and in the mid-1700's (by Wesley). If you're interested in reading the original, click here.

Methodist founder John Wesley was fascinated by what he saw as a process of salvation. On the one hand, God saved people once and for all through the work of Christ on the cross. On the other hand, Christians didn’t all seem live that out the same way. Some followed Christ’s path closely while others could make an onlooker wonder if Jesus made any difference in their lives. That “split personality” might also change over time, Wesley noticed.

The situation interested him because he saw the pastoral need of helping people move forward in their faith, and because it also matched his own experience. His long years of doing every good work he could think of hadn’t eased his spirit the way God had when Wesley was at the study meeting at Aldersgate.

When he looked at his own life and listened to others talk about their own spiritual journeys, Wesley saw that people seemed to live in three different places on those journeys.

The first he called the “natural” state, or being asleep. People who lived a life in the natural state weren’t really aware of God or of their need for him. Even if they had heard about God and about Christ, they weren’t really interested or moved to find out more. They had other goals – like the satisfaction of their own desires and wants. Today, these people might have bumper stickers that say, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” or “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Or they might be good and compassionate people. The key is their indifference to God and an unawareness of any need for God.

Well, sooner or later, the alarm sounds and wakes up the sleepers. Wesley might have called the alarm “life.” Eventually, even the most unconcerned people wonder a little about the purpose of their lives. Wondering why we’re here is something that human beings do and other animals don’t. When I watch “Meerkat Manor,” for example, I don’t recall any meerkats asking each other what it means to be a good meerkat. Which is good, because that would be a really boring show.

Such people might become aware of their sin and start fighting to overcome it. In the terms I like to use, they wake up to the reality that their relationship with God is somehow broken, not what it was supposed to be. So they try to repair it. They try to bridge the gap and try to live like God would want them to.

Problem No. 1 rears its head here: It can’t be done. Like quicksand, sin seems to drag us more heavily the more we try to free ourselves from it. Paul says it this way: The good I want to do, I don’t do. And the bad that I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. Wesley calls this the “legal” state, and said it’s characterized by a spirit of bondage to sin.

Someone in the natural state isn’t really aware of sin, so while they’re stuck in it just as deep, they don’t know it. But someone in the legal state knows about sin, knows its consequences and problems, but can’t get free from it. Wesley said this was his own story, talking about all of the different things he did to try to work his way to salvation.

But God’s goal is that we know the spirit of adoption, to live as believers. He called this the “evangelical” state. God doesn’t want us living as slaves to sin, but as his adopted daughters and sons, heirs with Christ. We may still sin, as another Wesley sermon mentions. Now, though, we know that we are not slaves to it and we are given strength by God to conquer and overcome it.

My tendency when I hear about stages or states or levels is to think they line up and I progress from one to another in a nice neat line. Of course, life is not a nice neat line – it’s messy. And Wesley told his people that people might have different parts of their lives in any of these three states.

I might not be aware of how something I do separates me from God, for example. Or I might be aware of it and trying to master it on my own. Or I might have, through God’s grace, conquered it and be free of it – in order to sin that way again, I have to deliberately act against what my spirit now wants to do. I have to ignore the witness of the Holy Spirit within me, testifying to me that I am a child of God and I don’t have to follow that spirit of slavery any more.

The spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God. What good news.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

[Repost] The First-Fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:1)

Been preaching John Wesley's sermons as a part of a church Bible study. I first preached this one Oct. 4, 2006

If the Church of England had given John Wesley a church to pastor, we might never have had a Methodist movement. Since he couldn’t focus on one congregation, his eyes opened up to all the people outside the church walls who needed to be pastored, who needed to hear God’s word and who needed to be shown that the Kingdom of God included them also.

The world, he said, became his parish.

His sermons often come more from real pastoral issues than a desire to set out a system of doctrines. He made sure he based what he said on traditional Christian teaching and doctrine, but he used them in service to meeting the pastoral needs of his people.

For example, one of the prickliest questions Christians face is the reality that although we are saved and set free from sin, sometimes we don’t act like it. In fact we still have sin in our lives, even though we believe God has restored us to the full relationship he designed us for to start with.

Are the wrong things we do after we’re saved “sin,” like the sins we committed before coming to know God? Are they a different kind of wrong thing? How do they affect our relationship with God? Do they mean we’re really not as right with God as we believe we are? Lots of questions.

Sometimes, Wesley said, people might be so aware of how they seem to be no different than before that it drives them to despair. How could God love them when they kept turning their backs on him? How could they call out to him again knowing that they had made promises and pledges before that all fell through?

Other people might look at their sin and shrug their shoulders about it. Hey, they’d been forgiven already, right? Christ on the cross had covered all their sins, both before and after they accepted him. Sure, trying to do better might be a good idea, and everyone could be a little nicer now and again, but the flesh was sinful, so whaddaya gonna do?

Neither extreme sat well with Wesley the pastor, and he preached this sermon, “The First-Fruits of the Spirit,” to talk about them. As he understood it, neither way of thinking took the Holy Spirit into account, or the work it did in the lives of believers.

For the folks who went all “No worries” about their sin, Wesley pointed out that the new relationship God offers begins with a person being aware of their own sin and repenting of it. Not just feeling sorry for it or regretting it, but genuinely wanting to turn away from the path it represented and take another. These people desired to be freed from their bondage to sin.

Someone who professed Christ as savior but wasn’t all that worried about their own sin should probably ask himself how real his relationship with God was, Wesley said. A relationship where one person doesn’t care what the other one wants isn’t much of a relationship, he noted.

The Holy Spirit moved within believers to show them their shortcomings and sins, so they could reach out to God for forgiveness and help.

Wesley knew that sometimes people felt overwhelmed by their own sin. The work of the Spirit made them wonder if they’d ever make any real changes in their lives. They might figure that they were hopeless and give up.

Of course not, Wesley said. If God loved them enough to reach out to them when they hadn’t yet accepted him, why would he abandon them now? Did they think that these new sins could somehow overpower God’s grace when their old sins couldn’t?

Johnny Cash sings a song where people in church testify they were headed straight up to glory faster than a rifle shot, no detours. Or just like a rocketship. But an old woman stands up and acknowledges that she’s slipped and slid a little along the way, but she trusts God, and she’s getting closer to heaven too, even if it’s only about a half a mile a day.

Wesley would have understood her words well, and he might even have agreed with her. One thing about someone traveling really fast – it’s hard to catch up, even if you want to go where they’re going and they invite you to share the journey. But someone going about a half a mile a day – well, I can match that pace. I’d be happy to join them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Things Not Seen -- Yet (Hebrews 11:1-3)

A sermon I delivered to the OU Wesley Foundation Vespers service this week.

A lot of things change in college, and people who try to live out their faith on campus face some challenges they may not have faced before. Among them is the idea that it’s OK if they want to have their religion and beliefs and whatnot, but they need to keep it to themselves.

Because most people are trying to deal with the real world, you see, and if some people want to pretend there’s a God and believe people walked on water and rose from the dead and were healed and such that’s OK, but they need to keep it from getting in the way of the people who want to deal with the world the way it is. This ol’ world’s got some real issues and it needs real solutions, not fairy tales.

Passages like this would seem to support that. Faith is a conviction of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen. Not of things that are visible or measurable in this world. But let’s reflect some.

Now I’m a person who believes everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe about God, up to and including believing there’s no God at all. God gave them that right and no person or group of people has the authority to take it away.

But I will disagree with the idea that my faith doesn’t deal with the world the way it is. In fact, my faith claims that Christ is God’s way of dealing with this world so intimately that he actually becomes part of it. In Christ, we say God entered the world as a part of the world, a human being known by his contemporaries as Yeshua bar Yusuf, ha-Natzaret, or Jesus son of Joseph, of Nazareth.

Jesus grew in his mother’s womb. He was born, he was a baby and a boy and a young man and an adult. He got hungry and thirsty and hot and cold and tired and judging by what we read of the disciples, he probably got irritated now and again. The story of driving the moneychangers from the temple shows he could get angry. He became fully human – my faith holds up a salvation figure that needed to be potty trained when he was a toddler and I’m pretty sure most parents would tell you it don’t get much more real world than that.

What’s so different about us then, if both my faith and the folks who disagree with it deal with the real world?

Well, like people of most faiths or beliefs, we suggest that the world may be what it is, but it’s not what it should be. Whatever the way things are these days, they’re not really supposed to be like this. Our vision of the world tells us that God made it – we may differ as to how he went about it, but we believe God was involved in the creation of our universe, and he called the universe he created good. When he made human beings – again, we differ on the method but we agree on the maker – he called us not just good, but very good.

And obviously this world as it exists may have good and great things in it, and it features a large number of wonderful people whose love of their fellow human beings and compassionate lifestyle leads us to call them “good.” But the world features a number of things and a number of people that are in no way good.

It has people who say God’s killing American soldiers because America hasn’t been mean enough to Neil Patrick Harris. It has others who say they’re justified in beating a woman half to death because when her left pinky toe accidentally slipped out of the yards of cloth they demanded cover her, it inflamed their lustful thoughts. It has people who buy and sell other people, and nations that count on tourism drawn to the presence of large numbers of women and children trafficked for sexual slavery. It’s a world where film of an actual execution can get you banned from the internet but where film of a pretend execution, given a name like Saw, Hostel or Halloween, will get you rich, provide for lots of sequels and make you bunches of fans.

Pick your own injustice if you don’t like these, but it’s not hard to see that the world is not what it should be by most measures.

As Christians, we may have a lot of variations about some aspects of what we believe the world should be, but we’re told pretty clearly what ought to be at the center: Loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Yeah, dangerous vision. Better keep that to yourself – it’d be awful if people started loving each other like Jesus did.

But why bother speaking out about this stuff? After all, these problems all make up the world the way it is, and even though we’ve missed the mark a lot of times, we Christians have been trying to talk about that for two thousand years without a lot of results in terms of changing the way things are.

Heck, Good Friday even proves that Jesus himself fell victim to the world the way it really is instead of the way it should be. He was an innocent man executed on false charges.

Why? Well, that’s when I bend all of this difference between the world the way it is and the world the way it should be back in towards myself. When I begin to understand that I too was created in the image of God and there is a “me” I should have been but have failed to be because of my own mistakes and my own sin. I’m a part of this fallen world and no less fallen than the rest of it.

And then I hear the gospel message. Yes, God says, I know what you should have been, and I know what you really are. Now let me tell you something else. I also know what you could be. I see that image of me still inside you. Maybe it’s been marred and disfigured by your sin, but it is still there and I am the great Healer and Restorer who can bring that image out even more clearly than it might have been to start with. Allow me to work within you and I will show you what you could be.

Ukrainian Kseniya Simonova recently won her country’s nationwide show Ukraine’s Got Talent. She paints and draws with sand – I see the stuff I pour out of my shoes when I get home from the beach and she sees fantastic and moving images of her nation’s history in WWII. Sculptors see what could be inside a block of stone, painters see what could be on a blank canvas and God sees what could be inside this sinner.

How then could I be silent? Penn Jillette, the vocal half of the magician duo Penn and Teller, posted a video diary after talking with a Christian man after one of their shows. He was impressed with the man’s sincerity and compassion, but not convinced to change his mind. That’s not what stuck out for me, though. It was what Jillette said about people who share their faith – he expects them to do that.

“How much would you have to hate someone to believe eternal life is possible and then not tell them about it?” he asked. He’d probably hate having his words used in a sermon like this, but I doubt he’ll ever know about it. That statement reminds me that if I’ve been told by God what I could be if I open to his love and grace, I might be inclined to spread that word around.

So, keep my faith to myself? Sorry, friend, no can do.

I just don’t hate you that much.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meditate on It (Psalm 1)

Sometimes these hymns to “the Law” sound strange to us.

The main way many Christians encounter the law is through the way some of the Pharisees misuse it. Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the legalists gripe. Jesus’ disciples gather food on the Sabbath, the legalists gripe, and so on. So what kind of meditation would be done on something like this anyway.

For the ancient Hebrews, though, “the Law” was more than a list of rules. The Hebrew word translated law is torah, and can also mean teaching or guidance. The Torah was the word used to cover the first five books of our Bibles, and as we know that includes the stories of the people of Israel up until they reach the promised land – far more than just a list of rules.

And we’ve not been super-careful in how we understand the relationship between the people and God and the Law, either. Because of the way the legalists used it, we’ve got the idea in our heads that folks believed that if they obeyed the Law, then God would like them. Obedience of the Law led to salvation, but as Christians we understand that our own righteousness is never enough to save ourselves.

God, however, made his covenant with the people of Israel hundreds of years before he gave them the Law at Mt. Sinai. He made it with them before they were even a people, telling Abraham that his descendants would be God’s people and a great people indeed. God also made his covenant unilaterally, pledging to be Israel’s God without any preconditions on what Israel had to do to earn his favor. The quid pro quo we read into the relationship is exactly that: read into the relationship. It’s not actually there.

This psalm may not help us understand that at first. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish, we read. But that sounds just like God’s playing favorites again, liking the people who follow the law but not liking the people who don’t follow it.

Unless you flip it on its head a little. God gave the Israelites the Law not so they could be righteous enough for him to choose them, but so they could demonstrate to other people what kind of a God he was by showing how his people would act. Other nations might have temple prostitutes and practice human sacrifice, but not God’s people. Other nations might have rich folks who preyed on the poor, or throw foreigners out on their ears, but not God’s people.

In other words, the “way” in this psalm was righteous long before the people chose it, and they chose it because it was the righteous way. They don’t see God blessing them because they picked a certain way to live. They’ve picked a certain way to live because God blessed it.

That way roots in much deeper things than shallow trivia of whatever happens to seem good right now, like a tree beside a river grows better than one in a dry place. Immediate gain and here-and-now benefits might seem all right to some people, but those who have decided to follow God’s way have chosen a longer-term view.

Focus only on the here and now, and what do you have left when the here and now becomes the over there and back then?

As Christians, we say that we too have joined our viewpoint to God’s more long-term view of things, even if we can’t see all of it right now. What seems like sacrifice now may prove to be beneficial later on, and a situation that seems like a total loss may become the occasion for walking more closely with God than ever before.

The Law was, for the ancient Hebrews, a constant reminder that God had chosen to be in a relationship with them, despite their unworthiness and often demonstrated lack of ability to stay on task.

For Christians, we find that reminder in Christ. The Holy Spirit works within us and shows us that while we were yet sinners, to use Paul’s words, Christ offered everything to make sure our relationship with him could be all it was meant to be. To be rooted in that, as the ancient Israelite might be rooted in the law, is surely to find ourselves constantly nourished and able to grow and bear fruit.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Law, the Rock and the Redeemer (Psalm 19)

A lot of times we can miss possible meanings in scripture because we don’t live when and where its writers did. Psalm 19 is an example.

We begin with the psalmist saying that people can just look at the world around them and see evidence of God. Creation itself implies its creator, and everything about the world testifies to the reality of God. Even the sun itself is under God’s direction; the very sky it moves through was created by God to house its journey. And when the sun moves across the sky, nothing is hidden from its heat.

Where we live, we might connect the sun’s heat with the warmth that invigorates us and eases the morning chill. Sure, sometimes it’s very hot, but much of the time we welcome the sun’s heat.

But we didn’t write the psalm – people who lived in a desert did. People who were the descendants of generations of wilderness nomads. The heat of the sun had an entirely different significance for them. It wasn’t something that warmed the day, it was an enemy that you dealt with carefully or it could kill you.

Our psalmist seems to be saying that while we can have knowledge of God from the creation God made, that knowledge is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, knowing about the creator only reminds us how we don’t offer that creator the proper thanks, respect and gratitude. Heck, not only do we fail at it, we don’t even really know how we could succeed. Because everything we see reminds us of the creator, everything we see reminds us how far short we fall! What a yucky revelation.

But the law of the Lord, on the other hand, is sweet and refreshing. Now that’s a little weird, we think, partly because our understanding of “the law” has been colored by what had happened to it in Jesus’ time. All of the additional regulations and definitions meant it could be a real burden.

In its original form, though, it was the sign of God’s relationship with Israel. God chose them as his people, and then he gave them the law as a way to live that out and as a symbol that they were in fact his people. God paid attention to them; they mattered to him. They mattered enough that he showed them how they should respond to him.

Instead of wandering around the wilderness in the blazing sun, they were refreshed and nourished. Instead of ignorance of how to properly respond to the Creator, they had the guidance of the Creator’s teaching and evidence of his relationship with them.

And look at the confidence it inspires in the psalmist – by verse 12 he feels as though he can even trust God to cleanse him of the faults he has that he doesn’t even know about! No longer does he worry about an inadequate response to his Creator, or that he will have some imperfection that will expose him to the Creator’s wrath. Now he freely admits he’s so messed up that he doesn’t even know how messed up he is, and he invites God to explore him and work on that stuff as well.

I think we can imagine just what kind of trust level we might have in someone if we ask them for help in fixing not only the faults we know we have, but also whatever else they might find while they happen to be there. It’d have to be immense, wouldn’t it?

We Christians may not see the Law in the same light, because it’s a special signal of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. But of course we do see Christ work in a similar role in mediating between us and God, offering us proof that God not only made us but also loves us. We can and should be in awe of his great power and show proper respect. But we can also trust in his love.

The God of this psalm is our God, our rock and our redeemer.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mirror's Image (James 1:17-27)

James is a nice guy. Look at his metaphor in verses 23 and 24: “like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”

This is a nice guy way of saying, “really, really clueless.” Think about it for a second. What would we say about the mental abilities or attention span of someone who forgot what they looked like right after seeing themselves in a mirror? Not much, I imagine. Sure, maybe we want to forget that the mirror showed us more wrinkles or more gray hair than we’d want to see or admit was there, but we’re all too familiar with the actual image.

James is very concerned that people understand a crucial aspect of following Jesus – it doesn’t stop at our justification. We know that Jesus, in dying on the cross, healed a relationship with God that our own limitations, mistakes and disobedience had irreparably damaged. We say that God’s grace, working in that act of Jesus, “justifies” us. But God’s grace doesn’t stop there, and neither should the growth of our relationship with him.

Faith in God must produce a changed life, James believes, or else it’s no better than having no faith at all. In fact, it may be worse, because at least those with no faith at all may come to understand their lack of it and change.

Our friends who twelve-step understand this. Only the first steps of recovery involve stopping the behavior that’s destroying them. The rest involve life changes that are designed to produce people less inclined to need chemicals or behaviors to make it through their days. Visiting an Narcotics Anonymous meeting once, I heard a man talk about questioning a fellow addict who wasn’t using anymore, but hadn’t seemed to change his behavior much. “Big deal!” he said. “Now you’re a clean lyin’ thievin’ so-and-so, is all!” Of course, he didn’t say “so-and-so,” because people at NA meetings tend to have a free-range vocabulary.

Someone may hear what God has to say about humanity’s need for salvation, and that is good. They must hear that message. We had to hear it, and so do those who may not know about it. Even though God has been at work in their lives, preparing them for their encounter with his word, that word must still come to them somehow.

But only to hear it – even if we stretch the meaning of “hearing” to include hearing, listening, understanding and agreeing with – does not go far enough. We may become aware of the change that we need and that God wants to work within us and we may even agree that such change is possible. We may even agree that it’s a change that should happen!

If that’s where it stops, though, with us being hearers of the word and not doers, then what’s the point? James doesn’t use this phrase, but what he’s saying amounts to it: A difference that makes no difference is no difference. And it isn’t.

If we call ourselves Christians but we’re indistinguishable from those around us in our speech and actions, why would anyone bother to be a part of us? Why wouldn’t they stay home Sunday morning or hit the golf course or get in a good run or do any of a thousand other things that are open to them?

There are many agencies and groups that help people and they do good and I think it pleases God when his children are helped. Are we different? Do we do something different than these others? Not unless we remind ourselves that we don’t just help a needy human being, we help a brother or sister in Christ, someone Jesus loved enough to die on a cross for.

We have brain cells and such that store our memory of what we saw in the mirror so we can call it to mind if the need is there. Christian action in the world – doing the word as well as hearing it – serves a similar purpose. It stores up within us a reminder of whose we are, of who made us and who offered himself for us. When we serve others and show them love, we can recall that Jesus has served us and God has shown us love.

We can remember not simply who we are, but who we are intended to become: A reflection ourselves, showing Christ to all who see us.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Point of Worldview (Exodus 16:2-15)

Don’t you think that it’s good that God is infinite in all areas? Especially patience?

I bet if the Israelites took the time to think about it, they would say they should definitely be glad of God’s infinite patience. Because if it was even the tiniest bit less than infinite, they might very well have been wiped out down to the last atom.

Here’s a good example. Remember that a few chapters ago, the Hebrew people watched God work mighty deeds of power against the Egyptians, as they suffered plague after plague when they would not release their slaves. And maybe just weeks before this, they saw the Egyptian army destroyed in the Red Sea after they themselves walked through it on dry land. They sang songs of praise about it, highlighting how God’s great power was on their side. And now?

“We’re tired. We’re hungry. Are we there yet?” Words we’ve all heard, and words we may have said ourselves during a long trip. Words which prove that neither we nor the people we said them to have God’s infinite patience, if I remember my family trips correctly.

And then they go one more step. “Would that we had died in Egypt, where we had enough to eat even if we were slaves. Now we’re going to die of hunger!” Which apparently is a lot worse than dying in the brick pits or laboring under the broiling sun. I’m not sure.

But God says, “I’ll give them food, but I’ll test them.” Remember, these people will have to re-take their ancestral homelands. In the four hundred years since Jacob, his sons and their tribes left for Egypt, other folks have moved in and they’re not likely to get up and say, “Welcome back! Just keeping it warm for you!” They have to become a nation, and God will test them as to whether or not they are ready to be a nation. Their complaining, I am sure, places that issue in question. After four hundred years of being under someone else’s thumb, they may have some growing up to do.

So God tells Moses, who tells Aaron, who tells the people: That evening, God will send them meat and in the morning they will have bread. And it happens just that way. Flocks of quails cover the camp and the people have meat to eat (I heard it tasted like chicken).

In the morning, there is dew (which makes you wonder just how much of a barren wilderness they were in when they started their griping). When the dew lifts, there is some white flaky substance on the ground. “What is it?” they ask.

I’m pretty sure Moses counted at least to ten before answering. “It’s bread from God,” he says. He doesn’t say, “It’s the bread the God who gave us meat last night promised, you simpletons!” but he probably thinks it.

The Hebrew people are not yet ready to be a nation. Not only are they not really “grown up” enough for the responsibility, if you will, they don’t seem to come anywhere close to understanding their relationship with God. What had God promised them? Deliverance, right? In what bizarre dictionary does “I will deliver you” mean “I will bring you out to the desert to die?” How do those things go together at all?

But the people have not yet learned to depend on God and his promises. They’re still stuck with a worldview that’s focused on things in this world, on the here and now.

God intends for them to become a people who focus on his promise and on his will, but they are not there yet. Until they can switch worldviews, or maybe shift their paradigms, if you will, they will not be ready.

We’re in the same place a lot of the time, I think. We are constantly learning how much we need to depend on God, as well as how often we fail to do that.

Paradigm shifts aren’t easy, though. They are more than a simple change of mind. They represent a whole worldview moving from one way of thinking to another.

The ancient mathematician Euclid had five postulates that could be used to help define geometry. The first four were more or less obvious to any observer, but the fifth looked different. It sounded simple: Any two lines that weren’t parallel would eventually meet. But for two thousand years, mathematicians failed in every attempt to prove it using the other postulates.

They could prove the first four, but not number five. Then in the early 1800s, several mathematicians working at about the same time hit on a similar idea. They had tried to prove the postulate by looking at what would happen if it weren’t true. If it was true, then a system without it would eventually have a flaw, and that flaw could be reversed to show the proof.

Except there was no flaw
. Euclid’s geometry, which had stood for nearly two thousand years, was only one kind of geometry that could be figured out. There were other geometries that were internally consistent and complete, and at least one of them described the real world better than did Euclid’s. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is based in this kind of “non-Euclidian” geometry.

In order to understand the world the way it really was instead of the way it seemed to be, scientists had to shift their paradigms. Reality looked like one thing, but it was actually different.

To the Hebrew people, reality looked like they were out in the desert with nowhere to go and no chance of survival. But the actual reality was that they were being invited to follow God’s path and depend on God’s promise, and they wouldn’t know that until they shifted their understanding to one based on God.

To us, reality may seem like we’re stuck in our own limitations, mistakes, errors and even sin. No matter which way we look, we do not see a world that looks like a God made it, or people, including ourselves, who show the image of God that’s supposed to be there. It’s as obvious as the fact that two parallel lines will never meet or that people who stay in the desert face death by starvation.

God’s paradigm, of course, is different. Every day he calls us to follow him though it may send us down paths that make no sense or bid us do things that look pointless. Pray? Do the right thing? Obey the commandments? Love one another? Deny ourselves? In what world do these things make sense, because they sure don’t always seem to in the world I live in.

And God answers: In the world I am making, and in the world I’m offering you the chance to make a little more real.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Truth Will Out (Second Samuel 11:1-15)

In today’s story, we’ll see King David make a small mistake, and, with careful, diligent and applied effort, create a huge mess that will cost a man his life.

We see this small mistake in the very first verse of the passage: It’s spring, kings are off to battle, but David’s hanging around the house. He’s a king, so we know where he should be and what he should be doing: Leading his armies in battle. In David’s case, that’s especially true, because it was his skill at strategy and his own fighting abilities that first won him fame when he was one of Saul’s commanders and then kept him safe when Saul chased him around trying to kill him. Soldiering is David’s thing, but he’s ignoring his responsibility. Had he been where he shoulda been, none of this would have happened.

Since he’s not where he shoulda been, he chances to spy one Bathsheba bathing on her roof. Rather than look away from a woman to whom he is not married, he watches, and he watches long enough to take decisive action. He sends for her and sleeps with her, even though he knows she is the wife of one of his soldiers. No harm, no foul, right? Victimless crime, nobody got hurt, consenting adults can do what they want and all that.

Except a little while later Bathsheba sends a note to David saying, basically, “Oops!” Now David’s got troubles. Even if Bathsheba’s the only one targeted as committing adultery, she can name her partner and there are people who know David had a liaison with her. He’ll be found out as well.

But David, the master tactician, has a plan. He’ll call Uriah home from battle and then send him home to Bathsheba, and so on and so forth, and everybody will be safe and nobody will wonder that Uriah Junior showed up a little early because sometimes those things happen.

Except that Uriah has more integrity than his king and refuses to enjoy his house or his wife’s bed while his fellow soldiers are in the field. Even drunk he won’t waver. David rewards his subject’s integrity and loyalty by planning to have him killed.

The part of the story after this shows how David took Bathsheba into his own household after Uriah was killed in battle, and again everything seemed fine until Nathan the prophet shows up talking about lambs.

Imagine, if you will, how different things might have been if David had told the truth. Yes, adultery was a capital crime in ancient Israel, but it’s very doubtful either he or Bathsheba he would have faced that punishment. Yes, his reputation would have been tarnished and he would have lost a lot of respect in the eyes of his people. But they would also have noticed how he faced up to his own mistakes and that would have laid the groundwork for rebuilding that respect.

Since David’s a political leader, we may automatically think of how frequently politicians twist themselves and their words into Möbius strips of doubletalk to avoid saying they were wrong or that they goofed on even the smallest things, when a simple “My bad” might end the matter and move forward. And they do make good – or maybe bad? – examples of just that sort of thing.

I have to confess, though, that I will sometimes do the same thing in order to keep an error from being found out. I’ll try to cover the mistake or misdirect attention or maybe even flat-out fib in order to hide something I don’t want other people to know about.

But truth, for all its virtues, has one shortcoming: It stinks at hiding. Whether we cover up intentionally or unintentionally, truth is eventually left standing in the middle of the field with no trees, rocks or shrubs around to give it cover.

The reality of God is similar. Most of us who are active with our faith got that way because at some point we realized a couple of truths. One, we couldn’t hide the truth of God’s existence behind increasingly elaborate justifications we built to help us ignore him. And two, we couldn’t hide that, as much as we might want to connect with God, we were unable to do so on our own and we needed God to connect to us first.

And of course, the greatest Truth of all is that he did just that.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Is He or Isn't He? (Mark 5:21-43)

There was a theologian we read in seminary named Rudolf Bultmann. Among his many ideas was the one that the existence of Jesus posed something he called “the existential question.”

Boil away every other situation, consideration and idea about God, the church, the Bible, miracles and what have you, and you are left with this question, he said: Is Jesus the Savior or not? You can define Savior and salvation in a lot of different ways, of course, but once you’ve done that, do you accept Jesus as that savior or don’t you? And if you do, how does that affect your existence – that’s why it’s an “existential” question.

In these two stories, we can see what conclusions people come to and how it affects their existence.

First is the woman with the “issue of bleeding.” We don’t know what her exact medical condition was, but we know what kind of impact it had on her life. Jewish culture and religious law held human blood to be “unclean,” as a way of helping draw the lines against human sacrifice. Warriors in battle, women who were menstruating or had given birth and people who had bleeding conditions like this woman were unclean until they were washed clean of the blood and underwent several cleansing ceremonies.

Since this woman never stopped bleeding, she could never be cleansed and she was an outcast in her society, because anyone who touched her would also be unclean.

She hears about Jesus the healer and resolves to find him, believing he could heal her. But there’s a problem. She is unclean. He isn’t. And he’s a teacher, a rabbi, someone who observes the law faithfully. Most of those folks are even touchier about touching someone who’s unclean than the average. If she touches him, his followers might take it harshly and she could be beaten.

So she compromises – she’ll just brush the hem of his robe, which nobody should notice and shouldn’t cause any problems. She has decided Jesus can heal her. If he can heal her, he can do it whether he touches her and says magic words and waves his hands in the air or does nothing at all. He’s a healer, so he can heal her. The robe ought to be enough.

And it is! Immediately, Mark says, when she brushes his cloak. No gradual improvement, no halfway measures. Immediately, she is healed of her condition.

Jesus knows he has been touched and knows he has healed someone. He probably, for that matter, knows exactly who the woman is. He’s Jesus, after all. But rather than pick her out of the crowd she’s now busily trying to fade back into, he asks, “Who touched me?”

“Look at this crowd,” the disciples say. “Who didn’t touch you?”

“No, someone did,” he insists. The woman comes forward and explains. “Daughter,” he says, destroying her isolation with that one word of connection, “your faith has made you well.”

Jairus, of course, is probably frantic with worry. And then the news he dreads comes, when people come from his house and tell him his daughter has indeed died. “Why bother the teacher any more?” they ask. He tells Jesus, probably offering thanks for his desire, but Jesus stops him.

“Have faith,” he says. Indeed. I never get how the people Jesus meets seem OK with the idea that he could heal, but death would be too much for him to handle. For me, once I get my head around the idea that God can work outside what I think are natural limits – and that’s not always easy, by the way – then why would I differentiate between healing and raising the dead?

In any event, Jairus, Jesus and a few disciples continue to the house, where the mourners are already at work. “What are you doing?” Jesus asks. “The girl isn’t dead, just sleeping.”

“Hey, get a load of this guy,” they respond. “He thinks people who are dead are just ‘asleep.’ Wonder if he thinks he rises from the dead every morning.” OK, that last part may not have happened.

Jesus, the disciples and Jairus and his wife enter the girl’s room. Jairus is a synagogue ruler. He has read how Elisha raised the widow’s son at Nain, and probably expects a long time of prayer and waiting, since that’s how it happened then. Nope. That was the undercard, friend, and we’re watching the headliner at work now.

“Little girl, get up,” Jesus says, and she does. He has them feed her to prove she is really alive again and not some kind of ghost.

Jairus takes a little longer to commit himself fully than does the woman. Eventually, though, just as she decides that if he’s a healer, he can heal her, Jairus decides that Jesus can do something for his daughter if he says he can. After that, he doesn’t care about the mourners or the weird thing Jesus says about his daughter sleeping or what the neighbors think.

When confronted with the question about whether or not Jesus is the healer, both the woman and Jairus realize they have to answer yes or no. Once they’ve answered yes, then they have to decide how that will affect their lives.

For them, Jesus the savior was Jesus the healer, and that made all the difference. What kind of difference will it make for us?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Adventure of David and the Really Big Target (First Samuel 17:1-49)

What was David thinking when he walked out to meet Goliath?

I don’t mean that in the way that Jesse probably asked him when he heard about the story – the way fathers often ask their teenage sons “What were you thinking?” when something reeeealllly bad has happened, in the way that makes it certain that the question is rhetorical and does not allow for the possibility that the son was thinking in any way, shape or form. Although I believe that Jesse may have asked that question as well, and not only of David.

I was wondering what thoughts were going through his head. He was, after all, doing no more than putting feet to his earlier words about God defeating all of Israel’s enemies. If he was right, then an “uncircumcised Philistine,” said the same way the people in this part of the country say “Texas Longhorn,” didn’t have a prayer against an Israelite.

Unfortunately, after figuring out Saul’s armor and weapons didn’t fit him, David realized that all he had was a prayer, and I have to think there was some part of him that didn’t know exactly how it would all turn out.

Of course he knew that God’s people would defeat the Philistines, but he didn’t have any guarantees that he would survive the encounter. Perhaps he would. Or perhaps Goliath would kill him, but his death would enflame the Israelite army so that they would attack the Philistines: “They killed a kid! Let’s get ‘em!” All he knew for sure was that he was God’s servant and that God would win. No other promises, no other certainties, other than that someone who expected God’s victory ought to act like it.

He prepares for the battle the best way he can – he picks up some ammo first. Not just one rock, which makes me think he didn’t have any forewarning about how things would go, no matter what he said to Saul and to Goliath. Then, after Goliath insults him a little bit, the giant swaggers up to the fight. He probably figures the kid’s fear will finally get the better of him and he’ll run away, and all the Philistines will have a good laugh over it that night at his tent.

But he doesn’t see that David knows this is a real fight, even though he doesn’t have any “real” weapons like a sword and a spear. So David approaches it like a real fight, and attacks immediately, running to close the range for his sling. When he reaches a good firing position, he loads his sling and fires. We don’t know whether or not the stone actually killed Goliath when it hit him, but David renders the question moot by decapitating him (“Didn’t need to bring a sword. I used the other guy’s.”)

David’s actions teach us a lot of lessons. There’s the lesson about how sometimes it’s not about whether God’s people win, it’s about whether God wins. Remember, David picked up five stones, not one. He didn’t know Goliath would have a glass dome, but he knew God would win no matter what happened, so out he went.

There’s the lesson about using what you know how to use when you do God’s work. Saul and the soldiers – the military experts – knew what kind of armor and weaponry they would take with them if they fought Goliath, so they dressed David out in that kind of gear. Of course, if this stuff was so great, then maybe one of those experts might have strapped it on and fought Goliath himself, and anyway, David wasn’t a soldier. He was a shepherd, and he knew how to fight with a sling and a staff. So that’s what he used. And as we saw, when he need a sword, he found one no one was using.

Church folks may be tempted by the amazing success secular advertisers and companies have in branding their products and reaching the people they want to. We may want to use their tools, and I won’t deny we must find ways to effectively communicate the gospel.

But our given equipment, if you will, is that gospel. The message that God so loved his broken creation that he gave himself up to heal it. The message that matters to us because we’ve been that broken creation and we know that without God we’d have stayed broken. Until we recognize that about ourselves, the swords and spears of outrageous marketing and the full armor of the ad campaign will only hamper us.

Sure, the gospel may look as effective against the wrong of the world as David’s sling did against Goliath’s 15-pound spear. And smarter, wiser and hipper people may sneer that we’ve brought rocks to a sword fight. But remember, rock breaks giant. Or at least, the giant’s skull.

If we’ve got the winning combination and the winning weapon, why, we might wonder, why aren’t we taking a little off the top of all the giants, left and right? Why are the Goliaths of hedonism and selfishness and oppression and materialism and hate striding across our countrysides – both literally and metaphorically – braying out boasts of superiority and invincibility?

I can’t speak for you or for others, but it seems to me like one reason my particular neck of the woods is still giant-ridden is that, unlike David, I don’t find myself charging into the fight. When Goliath ambled out like he was at a modeling gig, David charged in and fired.

God grant me the grace and the courage to charge in when the foes of my own sin and shortsightedness boast about how they will trample me underfoot, having the faith the believe that even if they do so, short indeed will be their boasting when they realize that I follow the One whose death signaled, not defeat, but his greatest victory.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Here Am I? Send Me? (Isaiah 6:1-8)

In my Introduction to the Bible class, our Old Testament professor started with this passage when he began teaching us about the prophets. He stayed with it for four or five class sessions.

I’ll just sum up what he was getting at quickly, since you all won’t have to take a test like we did. We remember the ancient Israelites believed the first true king of their people, David, was anointed by God for the role. The king was more than just a political ruler; he was a symbol of God’s connection to the people.

For many, many years, the Israelites had very bad kings, especially when it came to modeling godly leadership. The faithful folks who hadn’t mixed idol worship and whatnot in with their worship of God were probably resigned to the fact that the king was pretty much never going to be on their side. King Uzziah was a welcome change – he was a believer who worked to get the nation back into compliance with the Torah as it had been delivered through Moses. Faithful people like Isaiah found hope in his efforts.

After his pride put him in conflict with the priests and he contracted leprosy, Uzziah retired from the throne while his son Jotham reigned. When Uzziah finally died, faithful people like Isaiah wondered what would happen? Would his son Jotham do right in God’s sight as well? What would happen to the people without their anointed and proven righteous leader? Jotham was righteous, but he outlived his father by only three years, and his successor Ahaz went back to business as usual.

It’s in the uncertain time after Uzziah’s death we see Isaiah’s vision of the presence of God filling the temple. On the one hand, it’s reassuring. Even though the righteous king has died, God remains.

But on the other hand, it’s a little nervous-making. Isaiah realizes that neither he nor his people are clean in God’s sight; they have said and done things that go against the God they claim to follow. Such a condition gives hope for longevity.

In his vision, the angel touches a fiery coal to his lips and proclaims that God has cleansed the taint Isaiah has admitted. He hears God calling for a messenger to speak to the people, and he calls out his desire to answer God’s call. His words echo Samuel’s when God called to him in the night. “Here am I! Send me!”

We stop there most of the time. “Will you answer God’s call?” preachers may ask. “God has cleansed you himself – how will you respond?” It’s a good question, and I believe God does want us to respond to his displayed love by bringing that love into the world around us.

But there’s a catch. We never seem to read the message Isaiah is meant to give the people: “Listen but don’t get it. See but never perceive. Make their hearts calloused, dull their eyes and ears.” How long do I do that, Isaiah asks? “Until everything is in ruins,” the Lord says. “Until everything is in ruins and there’s just a remnant left over.”

Bible scholars argue over just what God means Isaiah to say – some suggest God is literally dictating the message he wants Isaiah to give. Others say God describes how the people will respond to what Isaiah tells them. I lean the second way myself for a couple of reasons. One is the common experience most of us believers have had of people ignoring us or cutting us short when we might want to talk about our faith. Another is how often I have ignored God’s words to me about some area of my life that needs changing. Sometimes I wise up and listen right away and sometimes it takes awhile and sometimes I don’t listen until I’m wiped out down to the ruins and remnants.

Either way, this message would inspire little enthusiasm in the budding prophet or preacher. Who wants to proclaim a message that’s guaranteed to be ignored?

And yet, that’s the call and that’s the offer Isaiah has taken up. That’s what he does. Interestingly, Isaiah’s visions are what we see as some of the first inklings that God will give the people about his ultimate plan of salvation, made real in his son Jesus. A messenger who’s told to proclaim a message without hope is the source of our understanding of God’s ultimate hope.

How is that possible? I believe it’s because of that “stump” that God calls “the holy seed.” Like a tree stump produces new shoots that may in time become a whole new tree, the bare remnant of God’s presence among the unfaithful people will be enough reason for the few faithful to keep hope.

Expand that view some, and we can see God telling us that he remains no matter what the condition or situation. From a wrecked country he will bring forth his people, and from what may seem like a life wrecked by sin he will bring forth his redeemed child.

Maybe that’s trying to read too much into God’s words to Isaiah here; I don’t know. What I do know is that after this encounter comes the prophecy of Emmanuel and the promise of redemption by the suffering servant as well as the better part of sixty more chapters of messages from God to the people. Sounds to me like Isaiah heard something in these words that made him figure he had something to say, whether anybody listened or not.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Pentecost! (Acts 2:1-21)

Pentecost – rarely has so big a day been given such an ordinary name.

The word itself means “The Fiftieth Day.” Greek-speaking Jews used it to talk about a feast that was made fifty days after Passover, and during Jewish history it’s had several different emphases. For Christians, it marks what we call “the birthday of the church.”

It’s a spectacular day, really. The believers gather in an upper room and then the Holy Spirit comes, and we see these amazing effects of the Spirit’s presence; the rushing wind and the tongues of fire and the disciples speaking a variety of languages. But that name! “Day Fifty.” Whoop-ti-doo.

Oh well, we’ll chalk it up to the early church not having a good marketing rep and look at the events of that day. First, we find the believers gathered together in one place. Unlike their gatherings after Jesus’ crucifixion, they aren’t hiding or wondering what to do. They’re waiting for something, as they were told by Jesus.

Then there’s the sound of a rushing wind moving over them. You’ve probably heard any number of times that the same Greek root word translates as “wind” or “spirit,” depending on the context. People who read the Old Testament in Greek, a translation called the Septuagint, would have read Luke’s account and been reminded of the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters in Genesis.

And then “divided tongues, as of fire,” appear to rest on each believer. The presence of the Holy Spirit is often symbolized by a flame. Our own United Methodist symbol of the cross and flame uses it in that way.

Next, Kaboom! They’re off and running. They start talking about the gospel of Christ and everyone around Jerusalem hears them in their own native languages. This is not glossolalia, or the speaking in an unknown tongue, that Paul talks about later in the New Testament. That refers to someone speaking in an unknown language which someone else is given the gift to translate.

In this case, the believers speak in their own languages, but the people hear them in their own languages. It’s as though I were to travel to Mexico and deliver a sermon in English, but every one of the listeners heard it in Spanish.

It’s such a fascinating event that people gather all around to watch and listen. Some folks think that the believers have been drinking, but Peter says nobody’s been drinking yet because it’s too early. This is the first recorded instance of a sermon beginning with a joke, and you will notice that Peter is beaten by the religious authorities soon afterwards.

But now, he proclaims the gospel to the crowds and they respond, adding many believers to the church that day.

Little hints of what kind of impact the gospel will have on the world have been shown throughout Jesus’ ministry. He speaks to a Samaritan woman, heals a Roman soldier’s servant and the daughter of a Syrian woman. And Jesus of course gained many followers with his teaching. It’s almost like he has been a lit match, held to the world, and suddenly the world now catches fire itself.

We know how things catch fire. Their molecules are held together by certain kinds of chemical bonds. If we add heat – a form of energy – to them, the molecules want to move around and fly apart. Think a bagful of candy thrown into a daycare center. Enough heat and they break apart, which releases more energy and starts a kind of cascade effect. When this happens slowly, like with metal, we call it rusting. But when it happens quickly, with flammable materials, we call it fire.

For each of us, it’s as though we remain connected to things through the different bonds that have cemented us to them. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s sadness, maybe it’s fear…maybe it’s any one of a hundred things.

But each of us can have our Pentecost. Each of us, lit up, if you like, by the Holy Spirit, can find ourselves energized beyond the power of those connections to hold us and can break free from them. We’ll probably need that energizing over and over again, but God is infinite in all qualities, including patience.

Staying close to the flame may not be comfortable. We may have to confront attitudes or thoughts we’d rather ignore, or accept responsibility we’d rather pass along to someone else. But close to the flame is where the heat is, and the heat is the only energy we can find that’s enough to free us for the work of the Spirit as the believers were freed on Pentecost.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

...Or Get Out of the Way (Acts 10:44-48)

When I worked for the newspaper, the rest of the reporters and I had a little tally board that we would use to mark when people said silly clichéd things in a meeting.

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel,” was one of them. “We need to think outside the box,” is another. Much of the time, it sounded like people said those things just to be saying something, rather than actually making a point.

One of the ones I didn’t get as tired of hearing was “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” For one, it wasn’t a tired metaphor; it was just a simple sentence. For another, it was a call to actually do something rather than sit around talking about doing something, which usually meant that the meeting was getting close to being over. You have no idea how boring small-town meetings can be when you have to sit through every last minute of one of them.

As Christians, we face the same choices. Not just once and then done with, of course, but repeated. Sometimes we lead. In our Methodist denomination, we have invested the leadership of our church in pastors, men and women who have heard a call from God to step out and proclaim God’s word to the people. We train them, mentor them, educate them and the set them apart in what we call ordination.

But of course, not all of our leaders are clergy. In our denomination, lay people have several leadership roles as well. Smaller churches use volunteers to handle important jobs like treasurer or mission chair. Since the body of Christ does different things, leadership in that body is handled by different folks.

Which also means that there are times when we follow as well. Nobody since Jesus has been able to be a great leader in all areas of ministry and work, and even he delegated. So obviously some of us have abilities in some areas that are, ah, less than our abilities in other areas. In those areas, we follow others. We may follow them because they were picked for that job or because the system we use has set them up in a supervisory or managing-type position. Or we may follow them because we realize they are gifted to lead in that area.

The saying was constructed to sort of look down on the third choice, wasn’t it? If you’re leading, you’re contributing and if you’re following you’re also involved in an effort. But if you’ve gotten out of the way, then you have no role. You were in the way of the people who wanted to lead, or even of the people who wanted to follow the lead of others. You weren’t helping, you were just “in the way.” So all of the people doing something suggested you remove yourself and stop hindering their efforts.

But Peter’s experiences at the house of Cornelius show us how sometimes we need to do exactly that: Get out of the way of God at work. Remember that Peter visited Cornelius, a Gentile, and during a nap he had a vision of all kinds of animals. Having been brought up as a nice Jewish boy, he knew the animals in his vision were unclean and could not be eaten by anyone who wanted to follow the law of Moses. But wait, God said. I made those animals to; who are you to call something unclean and unfit when I tell you to eat of it? Remember who Moses was speaking for.

Later, when Peter speaks about Jesus and his work, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles gathered in the room and they begin to speak in tongues and show the Spirit at work, just like the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter immediately understands that God will now be at work beyond the boundaries of the nation of Israel.

Abraham’s descendants will no longer be only those physically related to the clans that came from him, but God will bring them out of all tribes and tongues.

He asks, “Can anyone deny water for these to be baptized?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course. If anyone had said yes, then I think it would have made for a whole different kind of sermon from Peter.

Peter, who has more than fifteen centuries of religious tradition and regulation built into his culture, would no more think of offering religious baptism to a Gentile than he would have to a rock. Not because he looked down on them, but because “baptism” was a religious concept that wouldn’t have any meaning for them. But now he realizes he needs to move some of his preconceptions about how God does things out of the way in order for God to work. Peter must get out of the way.

Our need to do the same is frequent and shows up in many areas. Favorite kinds of music, preferred prayers or orders of worship, thoughts about how we should dress for church – these and more can hinder us. Yes, more experienced folks should realize the sanctuary roof won’t fall in if someone brings drums under it. But hip folks should realize that their carefully manufactured look of skinny jeans, skinny glasses and overly-hopeful attempts at soul-patch facial hair can be just as much an exclusionary uniform as are three-piece suits and strands of pearls.

We all have ways of doing things that sometimes need to get out of the way when God wants to work. After all, we are not only a part of that work in the sense that God uses us for his purposes. We’re also a part of it in the sense that sometimes he needs to work on us as well.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Commandment Performance (First John 3:16-24)

It’s beyond me as to why, but it seems like we like reducing things to either-or situations a lot more often than is warranted.

We Christians are not immune. We have plenty of people who suggest that what we say or what we do is much more important than what we believe. And we have people who say that what we believe is much more important than what we say or do.

In seminary, we called this something like “the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy,” which is one reason I’m glad I’m not in seminary anymore. What we meant was that sometimes we find ourselves trying to figure out whether or not we should emphasize right doctrine (orthodoxy) or right action (orthopraxy). The answer, of course, is yes.

Trying to say we should pick one or the other as more important is like trying to say we should pick whether or not our right leg or our left leg is more important. It can’t really be done, and it will only lead to confusion if we try.

Many people today say they are disgusted with all the church fights over doctrines and dogmas. They say they don’t want to put up with people who just want to argue about Jesus’ divinity or whether God is a trinity and similar ideas. Jesus, they suggest, was interested a lot more in whether or not people followed him than he was in how many rules they followed or how many different theological concepts they got right.

There’s some truth to this. Jesus did seem to suggest people follow him a lot more often than he gave pop quizzes on theology. He did say a whole lot more about caring for each other than he did about professing all the right beliefs.

But can you imagine watching someone for a little while, seeing what they say and do, how they react to people and how they handle issues that come up, and not understanding a few things about what they believe? It wouldn’t be a perfect picture, of course, because none of us always practice what we preach, but it would be a pretty good snapshot. I read an article once about an executive who had two candidates for a promotion. He watched how they handled themselves at dinner and how they treated the person who waited on them, and he promoted the one who showed her more respect. He said that both candidates said they cared a lot about people who worked under them, but only one showed it.

What we do flows out of what we believe. My preaching professor in seminary said the three short sermons we prepared for his class would tell him more about our theology than the 40-page paper we turned in for our systematic theology class.

But the flip side is just as true. Yes, what we do flows out of what we believe, but what we believe has to flow into what we do or else it’s just some words.

There’s a series of novels by Andrew Vachss about a career con-man, thief and sometimes private investigator named Burke. Burke has no blood family, just a group of people he considers his family because they have stood by him in every situation. He knows he can count on them because they have always come through for him. They may never have said they would stick by him, but they always have stuck by him, which leads Burke to one of the codes he lives by: Behavior is truth. He has heard a lot of people lie to him and say things they didn’t follow through on, so he accepts behavior and behavior only as the truth.

We can’t un-link doctrine and action – and John’s letter uses that link to show us how God’s promise of salvation is real: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” It also directs how we ought to act in response: “…we ought to lay our lives down for one another.”

That, after all, was the commandment John emphasized from the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” That would become the basis of our doctrine as Christians. Everything we say roots in it. Think about it. Somebody asks us, “Why do you all always help each other out?” or something similar.

“Well, Jesus told us that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

“Who’s Jesus?”

“We say he’s the Son of God.”


And you can see how from there we will eventually get to our doctrines of things like Jesus being fully human and fully divine, as well as how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit make one God, not three, and so on.

I’m not stupid. I know that we don’t always have that reputation as the people who help each other out, and I know that even if we did, there would be people who wouldn’t care or who would work to make up rotten stuff about us. But I’m pretty sure that’s their problem. My problem is making sure that the actions I take proclaim the doctrines I believe, and that in whatever small way I have available to me, I point the way to the gospel that has offered me salvation.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

So Now What (Luke 24:36-48)

Now we get to the hard part.

Jesus has been crucified, and everybody thought that would be the hard part. What will we do with him gone? Will we just go back to life the way we’d been living it? Back to our homes and our jobs and all of that stuff we gave up to follow him?

Will we go back to worrying more about following all of the million and one regulations that the religious professionals want to lay on us? Will we go back to judging whether or not a person is right with God based on their health or their wealth or how well they pray in public? What will we do now that he’s gone?

Of course, he came back, praise be to God, and even though he seems to be talking about going away somehow, he’s here now. He isn’t dead, he’s alive!

So what do we do now?

Is he going to wander around the countryside and preach some more? Seems kind of anticlimactic now, doesn’t it? You can bet he won’t be getting any more static from the Pharisees and Sadducees now. And people will probably listen to every word he says – after all, he was dead and now he’s not, which is a pretty good icebreaker.

You know, if he really is going away, what does that mean? I could see sneaking away back to the old life if the guy I’d been following around turned up dead. Just slip back into village life and go about things peaceably like nothing ever happened, and maybe I’d skate by without a Pharisee visit of my own.

But now? I don’t know about where you come from, but if I show up back at home after having followed around a guy who rose from the dead, there’s going to be some talk. The whole ease anonymously back into the old life thing is off the table.

Plus…well, I don’t know if that’s what he’d want me to do anyway. It seems like there ought to be some meaning to this. If I really have been in the presence of the Son of God, I ought to do something with that, shouldn’t I?

And that, I believe, is where one of the major impacts of the resurrection ought to happen but it gets overlooked by us all sometimes. It’s such an amazing event, such an overpowering idea, that we lose focus of what’s supposed to happen afterwards.

Yes, the resurrection does show us that we can trust God to death itself and beyond, and that God has power over any and all things that might separate us from him.

But once that’s over with, then what? What do we do with that knowledge? What do we do with the confirmation that our faith in God and his son is not misplaced? It seems to me that the key is in the last verse of the passage: “You are witnesses of these things.”

Jesus doesn’t say, “You’ve seen these things.” Or, “And you happen to have been around when all this happened and it might have caught your eye.” He tells the gathered disciples that they are witnesses to what has happened and what he has done. Witnesses do more than just see things. They also tell what they’ve seen. Witnesses in a trial are called to testify about what they have seen or what they know to be true. Their knowledge doesn’t stay with them, but is transmitted to others.

The disciples have witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, which proves to them that he is the son of God. What he has said about himself is true, and come to think about it, the other stuff he said is probably true as well. That stuff about the beginning of God’s reign here on earth? About helping each other? About repenting of our sin and following God’s path? It sounded OK when he said it and he was just Jesus, Joe and Mary’s boy, but when we realize it was said by the son of God? That sort of understanding lays an obligation on a fellow, don’t you know.

Which is where that hard part comes in. We know Jesus is raised. We know that means God’s new world has begun, even if it will await completion until the end of the age and Jesus’ return. And so we know what we are to do. If we’re going to live in that new world and take part in that new, healed and whole relationship God offers, we ought to be about letting people know what’s going on.

Will we just sit back and take our ease drinking from the well of living water? Or will we offer a cup of that water to another, showing them the way to the Way that brought salvation to us all?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

I Love a Parade! (Mark 11:1-11)

A parade or processional in the ancient world was a big deal. Nobody had invented television or basketball yet, so it was hard to waste time talking about your NCAA tournament bracket. That meant you had to work when you were at work, and we all know how boring that is.

So when things loosened up to check out the big spectacle happening over on Main Street, everybody showed up.

Usually, these processionals followed big victories in battle. Processionals followed big defeats, too, but those tended to be held at night and featured everyone grabbing what they could carry and heading for the hills.

Leading the parade and sometimes even clearing the way for it were trumpeters and soldiers. The trumpeters’ fanfare announced the coming parade, and it was followed by the rhythmic stamp of soldiers marching in neat rows. Most of them were probably in their best armor and had spent a lot of time polishing it under the loving care and guidance of their sergeants. Their weapons, too, were clean and shining, showing none of the nicks and stains they picked up in battle.

The officers might follow, mounted on fine horses that were specially harnessed and decorated for the occasion. They too wore their most splendid armor and trappings, giving a picture of strength and authority.

Royal officials might be a part of the display as well. The king might want to do them a special honor and feature them in his processional. All of them would have put on their best clothes and picked their best horses or chariots for the occasion. They too were projecting an image. In their case, they wanted to show not only the power of the king but also the dignity and competence of his government.

Generals and high officers of the army would be present as well. Like the civilian officials, they might be on horseback or in chariots. You might not even be able to look directly at their armor in the sunlight, and their harnesses and trappings might cost more than any of their soldiers might make in a year.

Scattered throughout the processional would be young people who had the job of dancing and scattering flowers and petals along the parade route. Chosen for their good looks and skill, their work also brought a pleasing scent to the whole affair. They would have been in front of the trumpeters and then groups of them at strategic places in the parade. And by “strategic places,” I mean, “behind the horses.”

Now we see the king’s family approach. If his children are young, they will be riding in chariots, but his older sons might be on horseback and wearing military-styled uniforms themselves. The older daughters will have on the finest clothes made of the best fabric, perhaps made just for this occasion. They too demonstrate the king’s power. Safety and security for the realm will last beyond his death.

The king’s wife outdoes them all in the finery of her clothing and appearance. What she wears today will be duplicated on the dressmaker’s forms of all the realm’s high ladies tomorrow morning.

Then we might see the king himself, or the person the king has designated for the honor of this processional. That person might be a visiting dignitary or a great general.

If the parade marks a specific victory, then the losers might be marched along as well. They might be in chains to show their complete defeat and humiliation. Or they might be well-dressed and shown the honor owed to a worthy foe, just to demonstrate how important the victory was.

And Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. No flower petals, just people’s robes. No trumpeters, just people shouting “Hosanna!” and waving palm leaves. No soldiers or defeated foes, just a mob of common folk and worse led by a bunch of fishermen. No great and powerful war-horse, just a borrowed donkey.

I can see a couple of different reactions to this scene. On the one hand, people would make fun of those silly Galilean hillbillies and their make-believe royal processional. On the other, people might be intrigued by a man whose kingship and status stem from some other source than soldiers and officials and all of the trappings of power. They might be curious as to what kind of a person he was and what he had come here to do, and they might want to learn what the source of his authority might be.

Was this guy a nut, or was he a Savior?

Don’t decide just yet. Wait and see what happens next week.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Condemnation Blues (John 3:14-21)

We can play around a lot with the meaning of the word “condemned.”

It can be used as a synonym for judgment. G.K. Chesterton advised people never to condemn someone unless you had walked a mile in their shoes. That way, he said, when you condemn them, you will be a mile away, and you will have their shoes.

When we use it that way, we’re talking about an action someone takes. If we condemn something or someone, we have to actually do something, even if it’s only having an opinion. And of course, whomever or whatever we condemn may or may not listen to our judgment. They may accept their condemnation as justified. “Yes, you’re right. I did wrong and I shouldn’t have.”

Or they may reject it, or offer a reason why their action shouldn’t be seen in such a harsh light. The customary defense is to point out someone else’s much greater failure: “Well, sure I lit his shoes on fire, but you don’t know what he did!”

That kind of condemnation seems to be exactly what Jesus did not come into the world to do, according to John. Remember, John is also the gospel where we find the story of the woman caught in adultery, in which we see Jesus tell someone we know is guilty of a sin that he does not condemn her.

Excellent! We can get away from all this sin and guilt stuff now, and just talk about how much everyone likes each other, and how you’re OK, and I’m OK, and the whole world is OK and full of sweetness and light and unicorns and butterflies…oops. There’s a couple of problems with that idea, aren’t there?

One, of course, is that there’s no such thing as unicorns. By that I mean that we all, Christian or otherwise, live in the real world. In that world are things that any right-thinking person, Christian or otherwise, ought to condemn. Harming someone else to get what you want, for example, or taking something that doesn’t belong to you. There are plenty of others, and some of them may have happened to us. Or we may have done some of them ourselves. Either way we know that there are things in this world that are worthy of condemnation.

The second problem is that if everything truly were just as it should be, then there wouldn’t have been much need for Jesus to have come in the first place, let alone offer himself on the cross. How does the verse go? “So that the world through him might be saved.” I find it hard to imagine Jesus coming to save something if that something didn’t really need saving, don’t you? “Well shoot, here I emptied myself and took on the form of a servant and all, obedient unto death and the whole bit, but turns out you all already did the whole job yourselves. Ol’ dopey Me!”

But wait – if we need saving and Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us, then someone else must have done it. Who might that have been? I wonder…could it have been…Sa–. Yeah, I know what you were thinking, and I imagine our enemy would have been more than happy to condemn us if that was required. I don’t think he needs to, though. As I read this passage, the job’s already been taken care of.

By us.

Yes, nobody else condemns us. Doesn’t matter; we’ve already beaten them to it. For us, in describing how we live in this fallen world, “condemn” doesn’t work as a verb. It works as an adjective. We’ve done it, nobody did it to us. At some point in our lives, we have all fallen short of the life God designed us to live. Actually, make that “points,” plural. Whether or not someone condemns us, we stand condemned, by our own words and our own actions, of living lives that put ourselves or something else at the center of them instead of God.

That’s one of the things we focus on at Lent. As Easter people, we live knowing that Christ has come to heal the broken relationship between God and his creation. We know that healing is real, we know it has happened, and we know it is happening in our lives every second of the day. We’ve chosen to accept that idea as the basis for our way of looking at the world. We live in Easter Sunday.

But we live in the Good Friday world, and the Good Friday world is one in which those things Christ’s death defeated still exist. Christ came to save the world because if he had not, its own separation from God would have ultimately destroyed it. During Lent, we recognize and remember that we have lived lives apart from God – sometimes we still live parts of our lives apart from God – and we give thanks for the awesome sacrifice Christ made so that we can live those lives united to God and growing closer to him.

I read a quote from the singer for U2, one of my favorite bands, talking about why he is a person of faith, and it kind of reminded me of who it is who stands condemned, and who came to save the condemned: “There’s no doubt about the fact that I have a wild streak and I’d be very capable of setting fire to myself. So, you know, I don’t go to church for the view.”

I go to God, I go to his church because I know here I can find the Good News that, sinner though I am, I have been saved by the grace overflowing from his love. I go to hear and be a part of the good news.