Bible, Jesus, sermon

When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!

There is perhaps no better known verse in all the Bible than John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).  Tim Tebow wore this scripture reference on his eye black during the 2009 National Championship.  During the game, Google reported over 90 million searches for the verse!  Even though the verse is well-known even by non-Christians, however, many Christians read the verse in isolation and do not consider its context within John’s gospel.  In particular, the two verses that precede it state, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15, NIV).

The story of the snake Moses lifted in the wilderness is in Numbers 21:4-9.  Jesus says that he himself must be lifted up as the snake, so it is important to understand what this snake was and how it functioned in the story of Moses to understand better the love of God for the world and why he would send his Son.

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The Snake Lifted Up in the Wilderness

First, we find that the people rebelled against God.  They grew impatient and questioned God’s ways.  They said he brought them to the desert to die, when in reality he was leading them through the desert to a land promised to their ancestors.  They complained there was no water, even though, by this point in the narrative, God had provided water on two occasions when it was desperately needed.  The people even asserted there was no bread, even though each morning they found a miraculous substance on the ground, a gift from God, which they could harvest, grind, and bake into bread.  But instead of being thankful for this bread from heaven, they despised it and called it “miserable” and “detestable.” 

What the people don’t seem to understand is that God was providing the best for them in the midst of a very bad situation.  They began to romanticize their old life in Egypt.  It isn’t stated in this story, but we read elsewhere how they reminisced about the diversity of food back in Egypt—forgetting they had been suffered as slaves there.  They also ignore the reality that the only reason they are even in the wilderness at this point was their lack of faith.  God had taken them rather quickly to the very edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, but instead of trusting God would help them conquer the land, they rebelled in their fear, so God cursed them to wander for forty years in the wilderness.  Yet despite their complaints and rebellion, God remained with them, guiding them and providing for them daily.

Even today we often think we know better than God and so we go our own way.  Sometimes we make destructive decisions for short-term moments of pleasure.  Other times, we act on what we think is a great opportunity only to discover many hidden traps.  Perhaps worst of all are the times we act like the these Israelites, following God half-heartedly but grumbling the entire time.  We neglect to see how our choices lead to slavery, lifelong consequences, hardened and embittered hearts, and/or even death.  This, however, is what the Israelites soon discovered.

Second, God judges the people’s sin.  Snakes came among the people and began to bite them.  Many of the affected people died.  If they thought God’s gift of Manna was miserable, just imagine how they felt now!  While some see the story as the act of a vengeful or vindictive God, the bigger picture emphasizes God is with the people through both good and bad times.  He is judging them not to punish so much as to discipline them.  Like a parent, he sees the direction their immediate choices will have on their future and the future of their children.  God hopes to correct them now so that they will mature in their faith and enjoy a better in the future.  He want to make them aware of their sinful state and its impact on their relationship with him and with each other.

Third, the people repent of their sins.  They agree with God that their actions are wrong (“we sinned against God”) and they ask Moses to pray for them.  Asking Moses to pray doesn’t mean they need a “professional” to whom they confess their sins.  Rather, it is a recognition that their sin wasn’t just against God but also against Moses’ leadership (“and we sinned against you”).  Asking Moses to pray for them was an act of repentance and reconciliation, acknowledging him as their appointed leader.  What is far more significant than who should pray, however, is what they ask him to pray: “take the snakes away”!

Finally, the Lord provided deliverance.  Moses is told to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.  What God does is take the object of their suffering and affliction—the snakes—and turn it into the source of their healing and deliverance.  Death, in the shadow of the bronze snake, is transformed into life.  Chaos is given order.  Despair gives way to hope as one looks in faith upon the very image of despair.

Notice God says anyone “can look.”  When someone was bitten, they didn’t have to look.  If they did so, it was an act of trusting God, an act of faith. . . . but they didn’t have to.  In fact, what sense did it make?  There was a far more obvious solution: kill the snakes!  Don’t wait to get bitten.  But if you were bitten, there was a a more sensible action: take steps to remove the poison before it filtered through your body!  Imagine if a man showed up in Mariupol, Ukraine holding a staff with a bronze artillery shell on it.  If he told the people there, whenever you hear the whistle of an incoming shell, you’ll be fine if you just look at this bronze shell and trust God, they would think he was mad!  There are far better options!  Find an evacuation route to get out of the city.  Why stay in harm’s way?  Flee to a bunker to ride out the shelling.  Why remain in the open?  But this is just how ludicrous Moses probably sounded to the people back then.  Yet salvation doesn’t come through our own actions.  It comes from God and we need to trust him to provide for us in our times of need.

Also notice that God didn’t take the snakes away as the people requested.  Instead, God gave the people a bronze snake.  We are told that “when anyone was bitten,” if they looked at the symbol, they lived.  But God didn’t remove the snakes, at least not right away.  He provided a way through the situation, a way to bear up under it.  When someone becomes a Christian, they aren’t immediately translated into the Kingdom of God.  Rather, they remain here in this world of suffering, pain, and death.  But now they have been reconciled to God and he promises to provide them a way through the suffering, a way that leads towards healing and hope.  For the Israelites, they endured the snakes for a time.  They endured the wilderness for even longer.  But their story didn’t end there.  The goal was the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan that became the Land of Israel.  So we look to a future full of healing, joy, and life in the Kingdom of God, a hope made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Son of Man Lifted Up on Calvary

Here is the meaning of John 3.  Just as the snake was lifted up, so the Son of Man would be hung on a cross.  In the first century world, the cross was the most humiliating form of execution.  It was purposefully torturous to emphasize why no one should consider rebelling against the Roman Empire.  It was a symbol of rebellion, futility, and death.  Yet today, Christians see the cross as a symbol of forgiveness, hope, and life.  Many wear it as jewelry or hang it as art in their homes.  The snake and the cross were both objects of suffering and death that were transformed by the creative work of God into sources of healing and life.  Both were means of his salvation.  Christians hope for new life because the cross wasn’t the final word.  The cross was followed by the empty tomb, Jesus raised from the dead now seated in heaven.  Jesus suffered and died for us that we might live for him as we look to him in faith.

Just as in the wilderness, God doesn’t want to condemn the world.  He sent his Son to be lifted up so he could draw all people to himself.  But we have a choice, just as the dying Israelites did when bitten by the snakes.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn 3:17-18).  Just as the snakes were already destroying the people because of their rebellion, so we are already separated from God and dying on account of our own sinful actions and choices.  There is only one choice that can heal.  When all is lost, look to the cross!

Father Brian Jordan ministered to the workers at Ground Zero during the months of cleanup after September 11, 2001.  One day after mass, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, approached him and asked, “Do you want to see God’s house?”  Soon, Father Jordan found himself descending with Mr. Silecchia into the rubble of the fallen towers.  After a while, they reached the lowest-most level where the foundation had been lain.  Eventually, they stood in front of a steel column that had survived the destruction.  Attached to the column that rose from the ground was a steel girder, a crossbeam, which held fast despite the weight of the building’s collapse.  As the priest looked into the eyes of the workers there, he saw hope rising within them from this remnant.  In the midst of the rubble and chaos of death and destruction all around them, these two steel beams stood in the shape of a cross.  These beams weren’t not simply part of the wreckage.  They were something far more significant.  These beams were a symbol of hope and endurance.  All was not lost in the shadow of the cross.

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When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!
John 3:14-18 / Numbers 21:4-9

Bible, Jesus, sermon

Beloved Daughter

Happiness comes and goes. Sorrow and suffering can be with us for years or can come upon us suddenly. Yet we can find hope in the midst of sorrow. We can trust in the Trustworthy One in the depths of our despair. Mark 5:21-43 tells the story of a man and a woman from two very different lives, though both know sorrow and suffering. The story tells us of a father who fears losing his daughter and a woman who long ago lost the hope of being called daughter. Throughout the story, we see Jesus acting intentionally to take on our uncleanness in order to make us clean, to make us whole, and to give us hope.

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An Outcast Woman; a Beloved Daughter

We first meet a man who seems to have it all. He has a family. As a synagogue ruler, he has prestige in his community. Most likely, he is middle to upper income to have the time to serve as ruler. Yet at the moment we meet him, none of this matters to him. He is losing his daughter. He is desperate to save her.

The woman we meet partway through the story has likely lost everything. We are told she has an issue of blood that has not ceased for twelve years. That is, something about her body does not allow her menstrual cycle to ever fully stop. According to Jewish Law, women were ritually unclean during the days of their period. She has been unclean for twelve years. Like a leper, she would have to call out to those who came near her, “unclean!” to warn them not to come into contact with her. If they did, Jewish Law said they also became unclean until they performed a ritual cleansing. So this woman has probably has lost her family during the years. At the least, she has become a source of public shame for them because everyone in the town knows she is theirs. She is isolated from her community and the touch of others. All dignity is gone. She is an object of scorn to be avoided. She has been stripped of her personhood.

For twelve years, the woman had been unclean, suffering from humiliation and struggling with pain. We’re told she spent all she had on doctors but her condition only got worse. The man’s daughter was twelve years old. What a different life she had lived. Twelve years of love, joy, the benefits of wealth, and the loving touch of family. Twelve years ago, her mother had life come from her womb. But for the past twelve years, the woman had only death coming from her own womb.

Years of Grueling Anguish; Days of Sudden Sorrow

The woman for twelve years suffered physically and psychologically. She also lost all of her money, unlike the ruler who probably was middle to upper income. Yet in the story, she appears to still have hope for recovery. She is willing to try to touch Jesus’ garment to see if he might have healing power to help end her suffering. Despite her loss of family, community, and money, she still had hope. Where she had been suffering for years, the man had only suffered a few days (maybe a few weeks). His daughter was ill. He was in despair. His hope, his faith, was in tatters. His money, his power, his family and community connections–none of it could solve the problem he faced of his daughter’s grave illness. While Mark uses describes the girl as his “little daughter,” Luke tells us she was his monogenes, his “one and only” daughter. She was his life and her life was ebbing away.

We have no idea how the woman handled her illness when it first appeared, but we do know how she handled it now, twelve years later. Although she suffered greatly and had lost everything, we never hear her complain or cry out. Later, when Jesus gets to the man’s home, the family and friends of the girl are wailing and causing a commotion. Yes, the girl was dead, and likely some who were there were professional mourners. But the sudden illness and loss of this young life created sharp emotions and led many to cry out loudly in their grief.

Public Restoration

The man clearly was seeking to find Jesus in his despair. We are told that “when he saw” Jesus, he fell at Jesus’ feet. Though he had prestige in his community, he humiliated himself in public with this act. He knew the crowds could see him and hear his pleas that Jesus would heal his daughter. He literally says, “My little daughter is at the end.” This is a final act of desperation. She is about to die. He went to seek the healer. Perhaps, like his colleagues, he had mocked Jesus before. Now, however, he was pleading for Jesus to help him. He wanted Jesus to save his daughter from death and give her life. The word sozein can mean healing, but it can also mean salvation. Jesus intentionally acts in the moment. He departs to go with the man.

We then encounter the woman in the story. She doesn’t seek out Jesus as the man had. We are told that she “hears about” Jesus. We’re told crowds are around Jesus and Jairus as they travel. No doubt some were talking about the healer and how he was on the move to do it again! The woman also wanted to be saved from her infirmity. She wanted to be healed. Unlike the man’s public actions, however, she hoped to be healed privately without anyone knowing. She thought she could just sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. That would be enough to heal her. She didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. She didn’t want to cause a fuss.

Immediately, she knew she was healed. Mark says she could feel the “fountain” of flowing blood “dry up.” She was freed from the affliction. Literally, it says she was freed from the whip, the common belief of people that God was actively punishing those who suffer for something they must have done wrong. At the same time, Jesus immediately knew power had gone out from him. We then see his second intentional act. He does a 180 to look behind him. He asks who touched him and looks from person to person in the crowd. The disciples are incredulous. “Jesus,” they reply, “how can you ask that! This crowd is constantly pushing up against you.” But Jesus looked into the eyes of each person until eventually the woman couldn’t stand it.

Jesus forced this private act to become public. Unlike the bold though desperate synagogue ruler, the woman fell to Jesus feet trembling in fear. She told him the whole story. She had hoped for a private healing to avoid what was now occurring. Jesus would know that this unclean woman had touched him. She had made him ritually unclean. Would he be upset with her? He had been on important business and she now had interrupted him. What’s more, if the disciples are telling us the truth, she must have bumped into many others in her attempt to touch Jesus. How many did she make unclean just now? How would they respond, since she didn’t cry out “unclean” to warn them? Would they be angry and stone her for her transgression of the Law? For twelve years, she had been alone and unnoticed. She was nothing to these people except as an object to be feared and avoided. Why, she wondered, did Jesus make her visible?

Jesus doesn’t reply with anger or rebuke. Instead, he called her “daughter” and told her that it was “her faith” that healed her. Jesus made this public so she could be welcomed back into community, into his kingdom. More than that, we welcomed this woman who had probably not had family connections for twelve years into his own family. Moreover, he honored her by saying it was her faith, not his power, that had healed her. Jesus made himself a servant to her needs and showed his love through inviting her into relationship and restoring her to community. She wanted healing, but he told her to go with “peace” for she was no longer unclean but cleansed (the Greek word hygiēs from which we get “hygiene”) from the whip.

Private Reunion

Part of the reason Jesus honored the woman was to welcome her back to her community. Another reason was for Jairus. He probably saw this woman as a distraction who was wasting precious minutes that his little girl couldn’t afford to lose. Indeed, while Jesus was speaking the good news to the woman, members of Jairus’ community came with the worst news imaginable. His daughter was dead. “Why bother the teacher any longer?” they asked. If they shared the skepticism of many Jewish leaders, this might have been said sarcastically. Why bother with “the teacher” any longer?” Not the healer, notice. The woman had feared public exposure and was forced to face it. Now, the man faced something even worse: the fear that all hope is lost. His little girl was dead.

For the third time, Jesus does something very intentional. He first went with the man. He then looked and found the woman. Now, he intentionally ignores the words of these messengers. He tells the father, “Don’t fear. Just trust!” Perhaps Jesus pointed toward the woman nearby who, despite her fears, showed great faith and now stood there healed. Again, Jesus seems to honor the woman as he encourages the man.

Jesus and the father go with three of Jesus’ disciples to the man’s house. We are not told that they stopped at a mikvah for a ritual cleansing to purify themselves from the woman’s unclean touch. So Jesus apparently entered Jairus’ home unclean. This made Jairus’ home unclean and all within it–including Jairus himself–unclean. What we see is that Jairus cared less about rituals than about relationship. He was willing that he and his whole family become unclean like this man if Jesus could give him back his daughter. In this way, he also identified himself with the woman and her faith.

Jesus was possibly mocked by his disciples (or the crowds) when he asked who touched him. He may have been mocked by the messengers who said the girl was dead. Certainly, he is laughed at and ridiculed for saying the girl wasn’t dead but just asleep. Jesus then ran everyone except the parents and his disciples out of the house. Doing this forced Jairus, a man who had been in the public eye as a leading member of the community, to learn the importance of privacy and intimacy.

Then, for the second time that day, Jesus was made unclean. The first time, it happened to him when the woman touched him. This time, he intentionally took the hand of the dead girl. Then, where power unconsciously went out from Jesus to the woman, Jesus consciously touched the girl and gave a verbal command to rise up. He calls her “little girl,” not “daughter” because the girl already had a family. She had a father who loved her and believed she would live again. Immediately, she stood up and walked around. Maybe she was walking to each of her parents to hug them. As the woman was freed from her affliction, the girl was freed from the power of death.

Not only was this a private healing and reunion for the family, but Jesus made sure the privacy continued for several minutes. He told the parents not to share what had happened, that is, don’t shout out to the crowd outside. He then told them to get the girl something to eat. As the family shared table fellowship, Jesus and the disciples exited the house. Not only did Jesus still bear the “uncleanness” of the woman and the girl, but he had to endure the mocking of the crowd as he passed them by. No doubt they continued to laugh at his ignorance, not knowing the difference between death and sleep! How could he be a great teacher if he was so unaware? But Jesus bore the mocking to allow community and restored relationship to thrive inside the home.

Final Thoughts

What do we learn from this story? First, we see that Jesus doesn’t truly become “unclean” from his contact with the women. Instead, his life-giving power flowed out to these women and made them whole, healing and restoring life to them. He also restored the woman to community and the girl to her family. Believers in Jesus are called to the same engagement with others. We are to enter into the messiness of life and seek to heal and restore community. We even have to bear mocking or misunderstanding to do the work of the kingdom.

Second, we see that it is not physical contact with Jesus that saves or makes one whole. It was the woman’s faith. It was the father’s faith. Trusting in Jesus to save and heal is something we can do the same as the woman. Though Jesus is no longer on earth, he now sits at his Father’s right hand and can bear our uncleanness and make us how.

Third, both women teach us about the Kingdom of God. The woman gives us hope that in the kingdom, whatever troubles we encounter in this life, they are not the end of the story. We will be freed and healed to experience peace and wholeness. The girl helps us see that our greatest need is to be raised to new life in Christ. This life is not something we can bring about apart from Jesus any more than the dead girl could raise herself. There is also the hope of reunion with those we love in the kingdom. Also, the verbs used of the girl, “rising up” and “standing up” are both used of the resurrection in other parts of the New Testament. Her rising to new life came after only a short period of death. Though we die, it is but a twinkling of an eye and then we will be raised to new life in the new heavens and new earth.

Today, your life might be full of struggles or it may be filled with joy. You may be in the midst of years of suffering a debilitating disease or enduring a long, lingering death. You may be experiencing a rapid loss of a loved one or a sudden change in fortune. In all situations, we are called to trust in Jesus. He is the source of our healing, life, and wholeness. He welcomes us all into community as he saves and heals us. He calls you beloved son. He calls you beloved daughter.

Beloved Daughter (Mark 5:21-43)

Bible, sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Crossing the Jordan

(Taken from a sermon at the end of an interim pastorate a few weeks before the new pastor would arrive on the field.) These are some of the memes the week after the winter 2021 storms that wreaked havoc on Texas:

  • 2021? Feels more like 2020 and a half
  • 2020: the year from hell / 2021: the year hell froze over
  • 2020: learn to stay home / 2021: same, but now let’s test your survival skills
  • Shame on all of you who made fun of Bernie Sanders. Now look at you sitting on your couch in the same outfit!

Like many of you, my wife and I conserved electricity and wore extra layers of clothes to help keep the power grid up in our area. I think Lucy stayed in the living room by the fire most of the week! Friends and family went without power or had water damage from frozen pipes or leaking roofs. And many had to conserve or boil water as a by-product.

It may have felt like a winter wilderness, but it only lasted for a week. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Their daily lives were a marginal existence for an entire generation. Finally, however, it was time for them to cross over into the land promised by God to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is the focus of the biblical passage in Deuteronomy 31:1-8. The story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan is one of the stories that shapes our lives.

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It Is Time to Leave the Wilderness

The interim period between pastors is like a wilderness experience. It is a time when you have left the familiarity of the old pastorate and you walk by faith with the interim minister in anticipation of the new minister who will soon come to the field. Many times at the beginning or in the middle of the interim, you are not sure what lies in the future. Frequently, it is a marginal existence, like the wilderness, with the interim minister only on the field on weekends or certain ministries suspended for a season. Even churches not in an interim situation felt this margin living In 2020, as the pandemic forced worship online or delayed or canceled a number of “normal” ministry opportunities.

But as an interim ends (or for us in 2021, as we may be nearing a turning point with the pandemic in the U.S.), a new day dawns. Like Moses, the interim minister cannot follow the congregation into the new pastorate but he can provide some words of wisdom. With the end of the interim, the journey ends for the minister but it is just the start for the congregation. It is for this reason that Moses says repeatedly in this passage, “Be strong and courageous” and “do not fear.

As rough as the wilderness was, some had become comfortable in it. For some, it was all they had ever known. Often, Christians are comfortable with the way church has been done (sometimes for decades). Some might become familiar with the leadership or worship style of the interim pastor or liked the reduced meeting times of the interim period or pandemic restrictions. In the wilderness, there were times the people wanted to return to Egypt. So as they crossed into the new land promised by God, some would continue to look backward toward the wilderness or beyond.

Moses tells the people not to be terrified because of “them.” Whether with the start of a new pastorate or the end of a pandemic, there are new problems coming and new issues to address. Perhaps new ministries need to be started. Other ministries need to be revived or restarted. This can be just as scary as conquering a land. Don’t be terrified by the unknown or the new, for God will be with you.

God Crosses the Jordan Ahead of You

The blessed news is that we are not alone. We do not have to go it alone. God is with us. He says in the passage that he will never leave us nor forsake us. This is a blessed hope and comfort. What is more, God crosses before us and enters the new land, the new phase of ministry, the new situation we cannot fully understand, ahead of us. He will fight the battles for us, if we will only trust in him. We are called to be obedient, but he himself is our strength and our shield.

Whether in the interim period or through the pandemic, we have seen God at work even in the wilderness. He helps those who trust in him to grow closer to one another as they grow closer to him. He uses the wilderness time to resolve and heal various issues lingering since we have left Egypt as he prepares us to enter the new land of Canaan. He has helped us learn to adapt to new situations and to seek his guidance when times seem dark. As we have trusted him through the wilderness, we find over and again that he proves himself faithful. God knows the future to which he is calling us. We can trust him and rest in him.

Follow Your Leader Into the Promised Land

Before Moses died in the wilderness, God called Joshua to be the new leader. This leader would go with them into the promised land. Like God, Moses says Joshua will go ahead of the people into the new land and will lead the people. Yet he was just as scared and unaware of the future as the Israelites. Moses gives Joshua the same words of comfort to be strong and courageous and not to be afraid. For churches beginning a new pastorate, the new pastor enters into the unknown with the congregation. He will lead and the congregation will follow, but he and the congregation both truly follow God who promises to go before them. On the other side of the Jordan is the promised land. It is a land of new opportunities and new ministries. It is the place of hope and new life.

For all the hope that lies beyond, however, the promised land is scary. Change is scary! For the Israelites, they were moving from the barren wilderness to beautiful farmland. They knew how to be nomads. That was comfortable. What did they know about farming? What did they know about living in settled villages and permanent homes? So church life now or even in the past may not be what it will be in the future. We always need to be ready for change, but especially in times of transition.

An interesting feature of the wilderness story is Joshua himself. He was one of the twelve spies originally sent into the land for forty days just a few months after the people left Mount Sinai. Ten spies returned saying there was no way they could enter the land. Joshua and Caleb said, there is a way–with God! The Israelites listened to the ten, however, and so they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years because they refused to face change. They refused to trust God for fear of the unknown. Yet during those forty years in the wilderness, as the current generation gave way to a new generation, the legend of Joshua–the man who trusted God–grew. Joshua trusted God so we can trust him to guide us.

During the interim period, the congregation has prayed for a new leader and prepared themselves for the next phase of life together. They have trusted God that he would guide them to the right person to take them into the next years of ministry. When that man is called, you must trust God and trust him.

Notice one key difference in Moses’ encouragement to Joshua than to the Israelites. Moses adds to his admonition to Joshua, “do not be discouraged.” For forty years, Moses bore the brunt of complaints about the wilderness and the struggles and needs ever wore down on him. Moses understood that ministry could have periods of discouragement. The new pastor will make mistakes. Joshua made mistakes. The role of the congregation is to encourage the minister, pray for him, trust him to lead, and forgive the mistakes that are made. Certainly, this doesn’t mean to forgive moral lapses or ignore ungodly actions, but we are called to trust in the leader as he trusts in God. He will lead the congregation into the promised land.

Soon after this, God let Moses ascend to Mount Nebo. Moses was able to look over and see the promised land even though he wasn’t able to enter in with the people. And then Moses died. In some ways, the role of the interim minister is similar. He has the opportunity to see the potential within the congregation as he helps the congregation believe in that possibility as well. So be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Trust God who is going on before you. Trust your new leader and give him grace to fail. Help him conquer giants as you enter into the land of promise.

Crossing the Jordan (Deut 31:1-8)

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Saved to Serve

Christians observe a sacred meal commemorating Jesus’ death. Depending on your tradition, it is called the Lord’s Supper, communion, or the eucharist. On his final evening, Jesus instituted this meal using two elements from the Jewish Passover meal–bread and wine. The Jewish Passover is a remembrance of God’s liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Specifically, it refers to the last of the ten plagues God sent against Egypt, when the Angel of Death passed over the homes that had the blood of a lamb on their doorframes but killed all the firstborn sons in homes not protected by the lamb’s blood. Jesus connected his coming death to this Passover story, that those covered in his blood would not know eternal death. After the stories of the plagues and the exodus, the description of the Passover festival, and the crossing of the sea, Exodus 19 tells of the Hebrews’ arrival at Mount Sinai as the end of this rescue operation and the start of a covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

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God Saved the People from Bondage (Ex 19:4)

God begins by emphasizing his liberation of the people, that he rescued them on eagle’s wings and carried them to himself. They had been enslaved in Egypt. God appeared to Moses and told him that he heard the Israelites’ cries and groans, so God was sending Moses to liberate them. The ten plagues of the exodus were an undoing of the creation story in Genesis 1. At creation, God took the dark, chaotic waters and brought life and order out of them. In the exodus, however, when Pharaoh refused to release the people, God unleased a series of plagues that took the ordered life of the great empire and brought it crumbling down into chaos and disorder. Like Genesis 1, the plague stories begin with chaotic waters (the Nile turning red and killing fish). While Genesis 1 ends with the creation of human life as the culminating act of order out of the chaos, the end of the exodus plagues is not life but death, the death of the firstborns.

With this, Pharaoh lets the people leave, then changes his mind and chases after them. The chaotic waters return once again in the form of a sea of water separating the people from any hope of escape as Pharaoh’s chariots bear down upon them. Yet God saves his people by simultaneously bringing order and salvation to them while bringing chaos and destruction to Pharaoh’s army. First, God separated the darkness from the light (with Egypt in one and Israel in the other), just as in the first day of creation. Then, the wind/Spirit of God hovered over the waters until land appeared (like day three). God created a way for his people to find life through the midst of the chaos, as he protected them. When the Egyptian army pursued through the waters, God removes his protective presence, and the waters returned to the chaos they had been before. The army lay dead and God’s people stood liberated and free. This is what God reminds them of as they stand at the mountain of God, the very place where Moses first received his calling to rescue the people. Now, however, God extends this call to all the people assembled before him, to those he had redeemed.

God Invited the People to Serve (Ex 19:5-8)

Now God invites them into a relationship with him. After reminding them how he redeemed them, he makes a covenant with them. If they fully keep the instructions he will give to them, then God offers them a unique relational status. Notice they are rescued first, then they are invited into covenant. This is a pointer to the fact that salvation is not based on our works but rather it is a free gift of God. God liberated the people. Now he invites them to show their thankfulness to him for that liberation by keeping his covenantal instructions. If they fully obey this covenant, then out of all the nations they will be his treasured possession. If they fully keep these commandments, then out of the whole earth they will be a nation set apart as a kingdom of priests. When the people hear this offer, they reply, “we will.” We will keep this covenant fully and fully obey these instructions. Unfortunately, the history of the nation demonstrates they do not.

God Called the People to Consecration (Ex 19:9-25)

To prepare for this covenant, God told the people to consecrate themselves for two days. They were to wash their clothes and avoid sexual relations. That is, they were to cleanse themselves and disrupt the daily routines of life in preparation and expectation of something new and marvelous. They were also asked to treat the mountain as holy (that is, to treat it as set apart). Anyone setting foot on the mountain was to be put to death. They were to respect God and not think they were on equal footing with the divine. This was his mountain at the moment. He was about to set foot upon it so they should respect it.

On the third day, the Lord would descend from heaven upon the mountain and pronounce the covenant. God promises Moses that God’s actions would result in the people realizing that Moses was indeed God’s chosen leader so that they would place their trust in him. Anytime Christians sense God’s call to a new venture–whether the calling of a new minister, the start of a new ministry, or a new pursuit within one’s family or one’s personal life–we should prepare ourselves through prayer and consecration. We should ready ourselves to listen for the voice of God and to accept his call.

God Pointed Toward His Ultimate Plan (Rev 5:9-14)

As we observed above, the people were called to fully obey the covenant yet none of them over the centuries was able to do so, save one. Jesus kept the covenant fully and he did so for all of us, whether Israelite or not. Jesus was the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15) who voluntarily became Egypt’s firstborn to die in our place. He was the Lamb whose blood covered us and so allowed death to pass over those who accept his sacrifice. In the Revelation, the Song of the Lamb picks up this imagery from Exodus 19 alongside the imagery of Jesus as the Passover lamb. Jesus’ blood purchased us and so now we have become his treasured possession. No longer is this treasured possession one people “out of all the nations.” Rather, in Christ, we who are “out of every nation” are now one people, the people of the Lamb. We are called to serve him as kings and queens and priests. We are to serve God by serving our fellow human beings even as we represent him to the world. We are not saved for our own benefit. We are saved to serve.

Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we should recall the words of Jesus. He said the bread was his body broken for us. As we partake of the bread, we should dedicate ourselves to acts of service that will honor Jesus by restoring his body and making it whole. What person do you know who needs to become part of Jesus’ body today? Will you consecrate yourself to service for that person, to witness to your Lord and Savior who died for them? Jesus also took the cup and said it was his blood poured out for us. As Jesus gave his life for us, we are called to pour out our lives in service to him and to others. Who in your sphere of influence needs your service today? How will you be Jesus’ priest to that person? Jesus set us free to serve. May we serve one another because he first served us.

Saved to Serve (Exodus 19)

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Called to a Journey of Faith and Blessing

The Bible talks about the calling of Abraham and the subsequent people of God as “called” or “chosen.” Sometimes we see the Israelites and later Jews misunderstand this idea of “chosenness” and Christians sometimes struggle with the same misunderstanding. Being chosen does not mean that you are better than another. It doesn’t mean that you are God’s child and that God doesn’t care about those who are not called by the same name as you. To be called is to follow after God and to trust in him even when the way seems dark or obscure. To be chosen is to be a servant to live your life to bless God and to bless others. God sometimes calls us to a new occupation, a new city in which to live and minister. Genesis 12:1-8 tells us about the calling of Abraham. Much like Abraham, we must must decide if we will accept the call. Will we live the journey God choses for us or chose our own way and reject his call.

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Called to Journey with God

Abraham was invited by God to go into the unknown, learning only later that the land of Canaan is the land promised to him by God. Through the Abraham narrative, we travel to the Western Highlands of Canaan, the Negev of Southern Canaan, down to Egypt, back to the Negev and Western Highlands, throughout the region in a war narrative before settling back into the Negev. Along the way, Abraham built altars to God and prayed to God, he dug wells and planted trees, he worked with his neighbors, and he even fled from famine and set out in war. When he returned to the region after his journey into Egypt, God again told him that Canaan would be his home (Ge 13:14-17). All the way through the story, we see that Abraham was not alone. God was always with him on the journey, through the good decisions and the bad one.

We are journeying through an unknown time right now. It is a time of pandemic and a time of economic uncertainty, a time of political unrest and social upheaval. In your own journey, there may be a path through unplanned cancer or the death of a family member. You may be called to a new job or blessed with a new child. Through whatever situation you face, you are called to journey with God and to trust him along the way, no matter how dark the path or foggy and unclear the future.

Called to Walk by Faith

Abraham had to trust God in order to leave his home land and his family. Because of Abraham’s belief in God, he is considered righteous by God (Ge 15:1-6). The story makes clear that belief is not some sort of checklist of ideas to understand. Abraham is told he will have a son. We read soon after that he and Sarah totally misunderstand this and he has a son through her maid-servant Hagar. We also see that Abraham’s righteousness is not based on any action on his part at the time he is called righteous. If Abraham did anything, he walked out of his tent when instructed and looked up at the stars when instructed. The emphasis of the text is that he saw the stars, heard God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous, and he put his faith in God that God was trustworthy to keep such a promise. We do find that such faith is later demonstrated by action, but Abraham’s righteousness is not based on action.

When the child of promise is finally born to he and his wife Sarah, Abraham must make a painful decision. He must sacrifice his son and through away the promises that were to flow through this child or he must disobey God’s call to sacrifice his son and thereby break covenant with the one who would provide the covenant promises through this son (Ge 22). He was between the proverbial rock and hard place. Abraham chooses allegiance to God over the hope of the promise, but God stays his hand and his son is spared. God then swears by himself that the promises made to Abraham through Isaac would certainly come to be (Ge 22:16-18).

In the New Testament, we are told that we are children of Abraham if we live by faith (Ga 3:7) and so are part of the stars and sand too numerous to count (He 11:12). The journey we are called to is the same type of journey as Abraham. We are called to journey by faith through this land. We are not to be loyal to our land for it is not our own. We, like Abraham, remain exiles longing for a heavenly city (He 11:13-16). Like Abraham living as a nomad in the land promised to him, we live in this fallen world awaiting the day God will resurrect it along with our bodies into the Kingdom of God. It is this but not now. It is here but not yet. We are foreigners and strangers living by faith in the one who calls us. When God calls us to a new city, a new profession, a new marriage, our allegiance is first to God over any personal preferences we might have. Abraham, when told that God’s way was a child of promise to be born of barren Sarah and not the “natural” child born of Sarah’s maid-servant, Abraham questions this and asks, why cannot Ishmael live under the covenant blessings (Ge 17:17-18)? What we want is not necessarily what we need. God is the one we trust.

Called to Be a Blessing

God’s calling to Abraham included a promise that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him (Ge 12:2-3). Throughout his life, we find him blessing others. He was a blessing to Lot, giving him his choice of the land (Ge 13:8-11), rescuing him from captivity (Ge 14:12-16), rescuing him in his prayers for Sodom and Gomorrah (Ge 19:29). He was a blessing to the cities who lost loved ones as war captives (Ge 14:16). He sought to be a blessing to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, asking if God would destroy the city if righteous remained in their walls (Ge 18:23-33). He was a blessing to the Philistines at Beersheba, creating peace between his people and them (Ge 21:22-34).

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says the promise to Abraham that his offspring would bless all nations (Ge 22:18) was fulfilled in Jesus. If we belong to Christ, we are Abraham’s seed and heirs of the promise alongside Jesus, whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Ga 3:8-9, 14, 28-29). Today, Paul would have added “Democrat or Republican,” for we need to be more committed to King Jesus than to the USA or to any party that seeks to divide the body of Christ. (As Hebrews said above, we seek a better country and should have no ultimate allegiance to our current land.)

We see the promise of Abraham’s seed blessing others lived out in the story of Zacchaeus. When he announces that he will give half his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he has cheated, Jesus replies, “This man also is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). That is, he is a blessing to others. We are called to bless others by being a servant to them. We have lots of opportunities that present themselves each and every day to be a son or a daughter of Abraham. Just a little thing we can do in the pandemic is to wear a mask in order to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves.

Have you ever pulled up to a drive-thru window and found out that the car in front of you paid for your food? Did you feel blessed? Did it make you want to pay for the person behind you so that they could share in the blessing you had experienced? Recently, a man ate at a Colorado restaurant for breakfast. His bill was $20.04. He asked his waitress how many employees were working that day. Seven, she replied. He asked her to make sure that every employee received the same amount of his tip. He wrote on the receipt, “COVID sucks! $200.00 for each employee today!” and tipped $1,400.00. That man was on a journey when he stopped by the restaurant. He saw others struggling through their own journeys. He chose to be a blessing that day. He trusted in something other than his personal resources that day. He trusted in community and enacted Jesus’ teaching that it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Called to a Journey of Faith and Blessing (Ge 12:1-8)

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sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Judged Yet Given Hope

In the 2000s, Colorado judge Paul Sacco noticed a number of people who appeared in his court because they played loud, blaring music were repeat offenders. Simply paying a fine was not a sufficient deterrent to change their minds about respecting their neighbors. So Sacco came up with a unique method of punishment. He would make the offenders sit in a room for an hour listening to very loud music from Barry Manilow, Mozart, opera, the Barney theme song, and even Boy George. The offenders would leave the room wondering, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and Sacco saw a dramatic drop in repeat offenders! Those who like classical music or soft rock would think the judgment held hope. We find that God provides hope in the midst of judgment as we consider the story of Noah (Ge 6-9).

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God’s Judgment Is Not out of Anger but from Regret

The story of Noah tells us God saw the wickedness of humans and how unjust they were to each other. Because of this, God would destroy all life on earth. Noah, however, was found to be righteous in his generation and so he, his family, and representative animals would be saved through this destruction in the ark Noah would build. In a podcast series looking at the anger of God in the Bible, Tim Mackie of the Bible Project noted the flood narrative never once mentions God being angry. The text only says God regretted making humans (6:6-7). God felt sorrow for what humanity was like and the role he played in creating humans, but he is not angry at them or demonstrating his wrath through the flood. As the Old Testament repeats often, God is slow to anger (e.g., Ex 34:6).

So when does God get angry in the Bible? When his people deny his call. Moses gave multiple excuses why he was not the right person to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt. Eventually, God became angry (Ex 4:14-17). God also gets angry when his people improperly challenge the leader he selected. Aaron and Miriam didn’t like Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman. Instead of talking to Moses about this issue, they began to raise doubts among the Israelites about Moses’ calling as leader. They don’t question a legitimate leadership issue. They questioned his choice of a woman from an ethnicity of which they did not approve (Nu 12:6-10). His anger manifests when people misuse the gifts he gives them. Balaam has the gift of prophecy and attempts to use this gift against the Israelites to curse them (Nu 22:21-23). God is angry when people practice injustice against one another. His anger destroys the Egyptian army attacking the fleeing Israelites (Ex 15:7-11). Some of the first commands to Israel describe God’s anger at those who mistreat foreigners, widows, and orphans (Ex 22:21-24). God gets angry when his people misrepresent him to the world. God’s response to the Israelites’ golden calf was anger and to wipe them out, like in the flood story (Ex 32:7-10). God gets angry when his people don’t trust him to provide for their needs. The people refuse to enter the land because they fear they will be defeated (Dt 1:29-36). Cursed to wander in the wilderness, they complain about their hardships despite God’s provisions for them (Nu 11:1-3). God is also angry when his people consistently reject him and break his covenant (Dt 31:15-18).

So we see two broad categories that evoke the anger of God. First, God becomes angry when his people are not faithful representatives. God created humans to bear his image. God called Israel to faithfully bear his image after humans refused collectively do do so. When Israel doesn’t do this, God becomes angry with his own people whom he has called. Today, Christians are called to be image bearers of Christ, so God’s anger would be against us. Second, God becomes angry with any person who preys on the disadvantaged or is consistently unjust in their dealings with other humans. In the story of the flood, God could have been angry, as we are told that the world is filled with violence because humans are inclined to evil and their acts were wicked. But more so, God is sorry that he had made humans. So, God withdraws his hand and the order established in Genesis 1 devolves back to the initial chaos (Ps 104:29-30). All humans die because of the flood, save Noah and his family (Ge 7:22-23).

Even in Judgment, God Remembers, God Gives Hope

At the height of the chaotic destruction comes these words of hope, “But God remembered Noah” (Ge 8:1). God remembered he made a promise to Noah and those with him in the ark to rescue and redeem them. So the creative Spirit of Gen 1 begins once again to blow upon the waters as they begin to recede and order returns. Over and over, we see God not give up on his creation. God rescues them not because of who they are but because God remembers the promises he made to them. As God begins to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he remembers his promise to Abraham and rescues Lot and Lot’s family (Ge 19:29). When Rachel cries out in her barrenness, God remembers Rachel (Ge 30:22). Not only does he give her a son, that son becomes the salvation of his people and many others. When God hears the groaning and cries of the Israelites, he remembered his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 2:24). So he called Moses to deliver them.

Even before the flood began, God provided hope within the judgment. We are told that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Ge 6:8). Among his generation, Noah was found to be righteous (Ge 6:9). That might not have been saying much, so we must always remember that God gives hope in judgment not because of who we are but because of who he is. Still, God makes a covenant with Noah to rescue him and those with him in the ark. God doesn’t base this on anything Noah has done or will do in the future. God promises to save him simply because of who God is (Ge 6:18). God did not only save Noah and his family. God did not only save the animals he identified as ritually clean. God saved some of every unclean animal as well! God saved more clean (seven pair) than unclean (one pair), but God saved some from every species nonetheless (Ge 7:1-2). This gives us hope for the nations that God is a gracious and compassionate God who does exceedingly more than we ask or imagine.

At the end of the story, there is hope. God also made a second covenant with Noah for all humans and all creatures. No matter how bad it gets, God promised he would never again remove the order that he had created to allow the world to return to the chaotic waters before creation (Ge 9:11). God promised to keep order in the cosmos, the regular rhythms of life that allow stability for growth and for planning (Ge 8:22). Throughout the latter part of the story, there is a lot of creation (Ge 1-2) language: creative wind/spirit (same Hebrew word) over the waters; command to be fruitful and multiply; humans as the image of God. The author is calling to mind the story as a renewal of creation, a second start.

God gave hope through a sign. God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant (Ge 9:12-17). Whenever it appeared during a rainstorm, it would be a reminder to God not to flood the world. It would be a promise to humans that there is hope that the rain will end. The rainbow reminds us that God can be trusted. Often in the stories of the Bible, God provides a sign of hope in the midst of judgment. When Eve is cursed, she is also promised that her offspring would crush the head of the serpent’s offspring (Ge 3:13). God tells Abraham he was wrong to jump ahead of God’s plans by having a child with Hagar, yet God gives both the sign of circumcision as witness to the covenant God made with Abraham (Ge 17:9-14). Though the child of David and Bathsheba dies because of David’s sins of rape and murder, out of that same union is born Solomon who becomes the bearer of the earlier covenant God made with David (2 Sam 12:24-25). In the midst of judgment, God offers us hope and calls us to trust him.

God’s Image Bearers Serve as Signs to Bring Hope

Christians are called to pray for the salvation of others and to serve God by bringing hope to the world by the way we live our lives as image bearers. We see the hope within judgment that God’s people can bring in the story of Abraham. God told him about the coming judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham begins to question God about his righteousness, asking if God would surely “sweep away” (flood language) the righteous with the unrighteous. Would God spare the cities for 50 righteous people? God said he would. Would God spare them for 45? yes. For 40? yes. Abraham negotiates God down to 10 righteous people. Each time God says for the sake of the few, he would not destroy the many. Abraham appears satisfied with the answer and ends at ten. What if Abraham had continued the query down to five or even one? Would the cities not have been destroyed (Ge 18:23-33)? As believers, we are called to pray for the people around us. We must not pray the destruction of the wicked but for the life of the righteous remnant. Jesus, after all, told us to love our enemies and prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Even though Abraham stopped at ten and the cities were destroyed, we are told that God “remembered” Abraham–the call to not destroy the righteous with the unrighteous–as so he saved Lot and family (Ge 19:29).

In a similar story, Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites. Because of their sin at the Golden Calf, God wanted to wipe them all out and start over with Moses. God wanted Moses to be the new Noah. Moses, however, called to God to remember his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God promised them that their descendants would inherit the land. God could not go back on his promises. God also needed to think about what the Egyptians would say if he destroyed Israel. If God’s purpose was for Israel to bear witness to the nations of the love of God, how would destroying them advance that cause (Ex 32:11-14)? The next day, Moses returns to God (with blood on his hands for killing some of the Israelites once he actually saw their wickedness!) and tells God that, if anyone has to die, take his life but spare Israel. He offers his life as atonement for the people’s sins, though God rejects the offer (Ex 32:30-34). Christians need to offer their own lives for the lives of others, as Paul did through his many afflictions to advance the gospel (2 Tim 2:8-10). Paul prayed that he would gladly accept God’s judgment if only the Jews would come to faith in Christ (Rom 9:1-5). May we be symbols of hope in a world destined for judgment.

Martin Luther King Jr., in a jail in Birmingham, wrote a letter to the white Christian pastors who published a letter to the editor about him. In the midst of a stirring judgment against their inaction and lack of support (even to the point of questioning his tactics or condemning his motives), King held out hope that some would see their error and even join in his cause for justice.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a week, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

As the body of Christ, we must pray for the salvation and protection of our communities. We are a sign of hope but we also must speak judgment about the injustice around us. We are the community saved within the ark of Christ’s sacrifice, but unlike Noah, we are able to captain lifeboats that seek out and save the lost from among our family, our neighbors, and even our enemies. When we speak judgment, it must be the work of the Spirit guiding us and not our own spirits and thoughts judging others. But far more often and far more importantly, we are called to bear the image of Christ, to be signs of hope that bring healing and forgiveness to our communities, our nation, and our world.

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Judged Yet Given Hope (Ge 6-9)

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Exiled but Not Forgotten

2020 is in the rearview mirror, but she won’t let go. Civil unrest, political divisions, and COVID restrictions–many people feel as if they are exiles even if they are living and working in their own homes. Others wonder if God has forgotten about them, about us. The violence we’ve seen in the news, the anger and frustration that we see on social media, these are all issues rooted in the story of the Garden of Eden (Ge 2:5-3:24).

In Hebrew, the author’s description of the garden tells us “the tree of life [was] in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9). This descriptive imagery symbolizes both God’s ideal plan for humanity as well as our present reality, the result of choosing our way over God’s plan. The tree of life’s central location in the garden represents God’s paramount goal for humanity was life in all its wonder and fulness. That was the heart of the divine project. The other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree from which God warned humans not to eat, was nearby the tree of life, but it was off-center. And so, just as the tree was not centered in the garden, we read that as soon as the humans eat its fruit (3:6), every area of their lives becomes askew and off-balance. They are no longer comfortable with who they are (e.g., they realize they are naked, 3:7). Their relationship with one another is fractured (e.g., the male blames the female, 3:12, and their intimacy is so estranged that they can no longer share a single name, 3:20). They now struggle with the creation itself (e.g., the woman’s pains in childbirth increase, 3:16, and the man’s work becomes toilsome due to thorns and thistles, 3:17-19) and even their relationship with God is impacted (e.g., they hide from God, 3:8).

Because their lives are now out of harmony with heaven and earth, God no longer wants the humans to eat from the tree of life. God’s will for them–life–has not changed. Rather, it is the circumstances of the moment that have changed. If the humans now eat from the tree of life, in their present condition, they will live forever in discord with God, other humans, creation, and even their own selves. So God exiles them from the garden (3:23-24) as an act of judgment, but even more as an act of love and compassion. Though humans had rejected God’s plan for their own way, the story emphasizes God’s continued care for his human creatures. We see his concern prior to their judgment and exile, when God calls out and asks them where they are, knowing that they are hiding. He asks them how they know they are naked, have they eaten from the tree, what have they done, all the while knowing exactly what had occurred. In this way God offered them opportunities to confess their sin and reconcile their relationship with him (opportunities they unfortunately do not fully embrace). After pronouncing judgment but before exiling them, God sees they are uncomfortable with their nakedness. God could have reprimanded them for not accepting themselves as he had created them. Instead, in an accommodating act of service, he lovingly removes their tattered fig-leafs and provides them with more suitable attire (3:21). Even after they are sent into exile, God does not forget them nor does he give up on his plan for them–life. The remainder of the Bible is the story of God’s reclamation project for his lost creation, his effort to redeem them from their exile. Humans, however, in the midst of our exile often miss the beauty of the Biblical story and misunderstand God’s plan to restore his creation to life everlasting.

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First, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t realize it is a story about forgiveness. After the garden story, we read about the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain kills his younger brother Abel, so God punishes him. Cain will be exiled to a nomadic life of wandering in the East. Cain protests that this curse is too much to bear, that without the protection of his family clan others will surely kill him. To show God’s continued concern, that exile does not mean we are forgotten, God places his mark of protection on Cain and promises that anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over (Ge 4:11-16). Within four generations, however, God’s offer of grace to Cain is misunderstood. The compassionate protection of God becomes the privileged right of humans. God’s mercy is now a man’s threat. Lamech boasts to his wives that he had killed a man. If Cain was avenged seven times then Lamech would be avenged seventy-seven times (Ge 4:23-24)!

In stark contrast, Jesus taught his disciples a radically different way. His followers should be like God, dispensing undeserved mercy and demonstrating unconditional love. When Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone when they wrong us, Peter thought a reasonable number would be seven times. Jesus, however, rejected this. Not seven times, Jesus said, but seventy-seven times. And so Jesus inverted the Cain and Lamech story. The story of increasing violence and vengeance was to be replaced with a new story of unlimited forgiveness despite wrongs incurred (Mt 18:21-22). As Christians, we bear the mark of Christ, a mark that challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44).

Second, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t understand it is a story about inclusion. Later in the Old Testament story, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, who exiled conquered people groups by scattering them throughout their empire. Even later still, the southern kingdom of Judah was also conquered, this time by the Babylonian Empire, who sent the Jews into exiled communities throughout Babylon. Yet God did not forget the Jews in exile. The opening vision of Ezekiel (Eze 1:4-28) describes a mobile throne on which God comes from Jerusalem to be with his people in their exile. And Isaiah prophesied that God would go through his people’s trials with them and proclaimed the hope that God would ultimately bring them back from the east, west, north and south (Is 43:2-7).

The Jews did return from their exile in Babylon, but the “lost tribes” of Israel scattered among the nations did not return. Over the centuries, hope developed among the Jews that the the tribes would return when Messiah came. Jesus took this nationalistic hope and re-centered it back onto God’s inclusive purposes. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke of people from east, west, north, and south (an allusion to Isaiah’s vision) coming to sit alongside Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets at a feast in the Kingdom of God (Lk 13:28-29). Since Jesus proclaimed right before this that the entrance to the kingdom is narrow (Lk 13:23-24), one might think the returning ones were the lost tribes of Israel. But Jesus tells his Jewish audience that many of them would weep because they would find themselves thrown out of the kingdom. Matthew clarifies the identity of these new arrivals from east and west by placing this statement by Jesus immediately after the story of a Roman Centurion whom Jesus said had faith greater than anyone he had encountered in all Israel (Mt 8:8-13). That is, the Roman would be at the feast. So the promise of people returning to the kingdom feast was not a statement about the lost tribes of Israel, or not just them. It was the return of the lost tribes of Adam; that is, a return from exile open to all nations and people. This hope was embedded in God’s covenant with Abraham. His seed would bless all nations (Ge 22:18). It was also the fuller understanding of Isaiah’s own prophecy.

Even in the narratives of the Old Testament we see God’s unfolding plan has an inclusive strand even as its primary focus was momentarily on Abraham and his descendants. As the story of Abraham’s family unfolds, we see family lines break off along the way, yet occasionally descendants from these other lines wander back into the grand narrative. Lot separates from his uncle Abraham. His descendants become the Moabites. Generations later, a Moabite named Ruth re-enters the story and becomes the ancestor of both King David and Jesus the Messiah (Mt 1:5). When twins are born to Abraham’s son Isaac, the covenant continues through the younger, Jacob, and not the older, Esau. Yet Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, apparently produce the early form of the Old Testament book of Job. The setting of Job is the land of Uz, which Lamentations 4:21 identifies with the land of Edom. Job, the righteous man who suffered greatly, was an Edomite. After Sarah’s death, Abraham marries a second time and one of his second wife’s sons is Midian. Generations later, we meet a priest of Midian named Jethro, who becomes Moses’ father-in-law and serves as a wise counselor to Moses (Ex 18). Even the accursed Canaanites, the people to be driven from the land by Joshua and the Israelites, were not completely exiled from the story. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, helped Israel conquer Jericho and became an ancestor of both David and Jesus (Mt 1:5). These are just a few of the side stories in the Bible that hint to us the plan of God was not exclusive to the Jews but included all the nations.

Finally, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t recognize it is a story about reconciliation. Jacob, the one through whom the promises of Abraham were to pass, stole his older brother’s birthright and blessing. Because of his actions, Jacob ended up in exile, sent away by his parents to live with his mother’s family in order to avoid his brother’s wrath. Yet God did not forget Jacob in exile. He promised to bless him and Jacob was blessed. Eventually, Jacob began the journey out of exile back to his homeland. Soon he received a report that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with a contingent of men. The reader wonders if we are about to experience another Cain and Abel story. Will the older brother again kill the younger? Instead, we read that as Jacob repeatedly bows down in submission as he approaches his brother, Esau runs to cover the remaining ground between them. Esau then throws his arms around Jacob’s neck, not in anger but in joy, and he kisses him. Then they both weep (Ge 33:4). Esau tells Jacob he had also been blessed by God. He had long since put aside his anger at his brother for his deceptive actions and Esau longed to be reconciled to his estranged brother. Now, God had truly blessed him for Jacob was home (Ge 33:9).

The story of Jacob and Esau is likely the basis for Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), though the father takes the place of Esau in the parable. Like Esau, the father runs to meet the returning exile, throws his arms around him, and kisses him (Lk 15:20). It is easy to see that the story emphasizes the importance for exiles to desire reconciliation with God, our Father. But Jesus also wanted us to seek reconciliation with other humans. There is an older brother in Jesus’ parable that we sometimes overlook. “But his older brother was in the field” Jesus continues the story (Lk15:25). How will this brother respond? Will he respond like Cain, who killed his brother “in the field” (Ge 3:8)? Or will he respond in reconciliation like Esau (and like the father in the parable)? The older brother’s response was somewhere in between, though closer to Cain’s response than Esau’s. He was angry his younger brother had left while he remained behind (in his words) to “slave” for his father (Lk 15:29). He was also angry that his father threw a party for this wanderer but never showed such honor to him for his continued work in his father’s home and fields.

Jesus’ message to the Jews hearing this parable was that they shouldn’t be like the older brother. Though they were God’s servants longer, as Abraham’s descendants, they should welcome these new members of God’s family, the Gentiles and other “sinners” they currently looked down on. Instead of rejection and anger, they should be like Esau, who welcomed back his younger brother Israel/Jacob. Today, Christians stand in the place of Jesus’ Jewish audience then. Will we be like the prodigal’s older brother, demanding God do things our way and angry when God blesses others we don’t think deserve his grace? Or will we be like Jacob’s older brother, happy with what God has given us and rejoicing to accept the returning lost members of our family?

We are all exiles in this world but we are called to be God’s witnesses through the empowering Spirit of Christ. Peter tells us that, though we are exiles, we should live such good lives that even those who falsely accuse us cannot help but glorify God because of what they see. We are also called as exiles to respect the government God places over us (1Pe 2:11-15). The war we fight is against sinful desires and spiritual powers, not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). While we are free, we are told we must not abuse this freedom by using it as an excuse to do evil. Instead, we are slaves to God and so servants to those made in God’s image (1Pe 2:16).

During the height of the Civil War, when many Northerners grew weary of the conflict and were ready to cede the Southern states, Edward Everett Hale wrote a short story to rekindle the imagination as to why a Union of States was so important. His short story was called The Man without a Country. The main character in the fictional story joined Aaron Burr’s insurrection in the West and was subsequently captured and court-martialed. During his trial, the young man foolishly asserted, “D—-m the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The judge’s response was that he would indeed never hear again the name of the United States nor would he see her. The young man was reprimanded to the custody of the Navy and until his death (over five decades later) the man with no country was transferred from ship to ship while remaining at sea. Crews were given orders never to speak about the United States in his presence and he was never allowed to come within sight of the American shore. On the occasion his ship put to shore, it was always a distant one. Through the years he earned the respect of the officers and sailors with whom he sailed. At the end of his life, he was graced by a single final conversation about the nation from which he was exiled, during which he asked numerous questions about its growth and condition. The love he expressed to his companion was so strong that the friend could not bring himself to tell the man about the division and decimation brought upon the States through the then-current Civil War. At the man’s death, a slip of paper was found marking a verse in the Bible, “They desire a country, even a heavenly: where God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (He 11:16, KJV). He asked to be buried at sea but requested a stone be set up either at the site of his rebellion or his trial which read, “In memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.” Though an exile, he developed a deep respect and love for the country he never heard of or saw again and he truly learned the meaning of forgiveness, inclusion, and reconciliation.

We are called to trust God in exile. This world in its present fallen condition is not our home. As exiles, we are to join in God’s inclusive plan for forgiveness and reconciliation centered in the life and reign of Jesus Christ our Lord. We may be in exile, but we are not forgotten. God is with us, and he will lead us home.

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Exiled but Not Forgotten (Gen 3:1-24)

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Created to Bear the Image

During Christmas, my older son, Christian, watched old home movies with me, my wife, and my parents. The videos were primarily of a time when I was about the same age as Christian and his younger brother, Isaac. “That looks just like Isaac!” Christian remarked several time whenever my younger self made some face or reacted in a certain way on the video. It was in those moments that Isaac “bore my image.” He grew up watching me and so picked up some of my mannerisms and actions. (I’m sure there were points in the videos that Christian could have remarked, “That looks just like me!” but Christian doesn’t see himself as others do.) Just as Isaac bears my image, the Bible begins with a story of God creating us to bear his image (Gen 1:1-2:4).

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The first thing we find in the text is that we are imagined by a creative God. The story begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the dark chaotic waters. And then God created light and separated it from the darkness, the first of many creative acts over six days progressively remaking that dark, chaotic, watery mess into an orderly, diverse, and beautiful cosmos. The movement from chaotic darkness to order and light is even emphasized with the daily summary statement: there was evening and there was morning, the x day. By the end of the sixth day, God saw his creation was very good, so on the seventh day he assumed his sabbath rest from this creative work. What hope this story holds for our moment in history. 2020 has been a dark, chaotic, turbulent time–a time when many felt they were drowning in the churning waters of gloom and darkness. As a new year dawns, we can trust God that he is still in the ordering, creating, beautifying business. He can bring light and order to our new year even in the midst of the pandemic’s continuing chaotic disruptions and moments of dark despair.

In the story, God simply speaks and his will is done. He doesn’t wrestle with the chaos. He doesn’t have to exert himself in labor. The story emphasizes God is powerful, so we can place our faith in him to care for us. Days 1-3 emphasize there is no place in creation that he did not make. Days 4-6 tell us everything that exists in all of these spaces was also made my him. Therefore, we can trust him, for there is no danger too great, no obstacle too big, no mission too difficult. The same creative Spirit that ordered this chaos now lives within those who serve the risen Christ. While we often wish we could jump immediately to day seven, the day of rest, we usually find our immediate circumstances to be chaotic or even dark as we wait on God to finish the work he is doing. Even so, we can trust God to see us through, for the story helps us see that God has a plan that leads to a beautiful destination.

A second key insight we find in the text is that we are created as image-bearers and co-creators. The climax of the first creation story is that we are created in the image of God. While some older English translations speak of God making “man” in his image (in its older sense of all humankind), most modern translations speak of “humankind” or “humanity.” This is clearly the meaning of the text as its next statement says humanity was created “male and female.” The second creation story emphasizes that humanity is not truly humanity until it consists of both males and females (for the male is incomplete until the female is created at the end of the story). The image as “male and female” helps us conceive of a great God who is bigger than all of us. God is neither male nor female, but the best qualities seen in males and the best qualities observed in females provide us a glimpse into the character of God.

This social dimension of the image of God (male and female) emphasizes the vital importance of community. The second creation story culminates with the cry of the male that the female is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” While on one level this is focused on the institution of marriage, the larger emphasis with the two creation stories is that humanity is not “according to its kind” (a phrase used of the animals in the first story) until the male discovers another of his kind, even though she is at the same time different from him. The animals prior to the woman’s creation were not sufficient, for they could not provide the true community needed for human flourishing. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are made for community and not isolation. True, healthy community is ultimately discovered through personal, face-to-face connections. Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, and other “social media” are helpful temporary patches (especially during lock-down), but they can never replace genuine community. This past year certainly showed us that social media can be weaponized when we are not in community, making these tools no longer “social” and certainly not civil. Christians should not engage in such anti-social behavior (though unfortunately, they did). Instead, we should seek to be one image as one body, just as the God whom we image is both one yet also a society of Father, Son, and Spirit. Our call to unity should always welcome and accept diversity within our community.

Humans as the “image of God” also means that we are living, breathing idols of our God. The importance the Bible gives to each human as bearing God’s image is precisely why idolatry is prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Sometimes Christians are confused by the 330 million gods of Hinduism which are said to represent different aspects or sides of the one God–yet our Bible teaches us that we have almost 8 billion images of the one God! But we do not need idols made of stone, metal, or wood to help us learn about God or to aid us in demonstrating our devotion to God. We have each other. This is why the prophets were so concerned about injustice and unrighteousness. True worship of God is to treat your neighbor as yourself and to do to others as you would want them to do to you. That we are the image of God means that every word we speak matters, for we speak for God. Every act we do matters, for we act on behalf of God. Because every human is made in the image of God, it matters how we treat one another. “They” are not our enemy to slander or destroy. “They” should be honored as the very image of God–even when we disagree with something they say or do. This is why Jesus, when his opponents attempted to trap him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar, held up a coin and asked whose “image” was on the coin. When they said Caesar’s, Jesus told them to give to Caesar what bears Caesar’s image and to give to God what bears God’s image (ourselves). In other words, stop worrying about the taxes and the politics and just love your neighbor. If you do, everything else will work out.

Humans as image-bearers are also given dominion over creation. In the Ancient Near East, it was normally the king who was the image of God and this image gave him the right to rule. All others served the king. But the Bible takes the radical step to place the burden of dominion on us all. We are all kings and queens. God is to rule over us and we are to rule over creation. Unfortunately, dominion too often has been misunderstood by Christians to mean we can do whatever we like with the world. Look at the current climate concerns that exist. (Regardless of your view on the extent of humanity’s impact on climate change, 2020 helped us see that we can indeed make changes that do benefit the rest of creation). The biblical view of dominion, however, is that of responsible stewardship. We are to tend the garden (in the second creation story). We are to care for animals. We are not to misuse the land.

Finally, the call to be in the image of God means that we are intended to be co-creators with God. The Ancient Near Eastern creation myths tended to say humans were created as servants for the gods (that is, the priests and the king–those who were the representatives of the gods). But Genesis emphasizes that we are created to be creators with God. God names the spaces in the start of the first creation story (e.g., light, sky, land) but not the many animals that fill those spaces in the latter part of the story. Yet in the second creation story, God creates various animals and brings them to the human to name. It is the first act of co-creation. We are created not only to think and to be self-aware but to be creative. Music, art, dance, science, technology–all of these flow out of us. We are the only creature who can imagine things that are not (such as communicators in Star Trek or radio-watches in Dick Tracy) and decades later create those imagined things (smartphones–especially the original flip phones–and wearable technology). The call to co-create carries throughout the Bible into the new creation of the Revelation. We do not find a return to a garden at the end of the Bible but the emergence of a city that has a garden within it.

So if humanity was created to be image-bearers, to live in community, to reflect God to one another, to rule over God’s creation for him, and to co-create with him . . . why is the world the way it is? Genesis 3 talks about a fall that changes humans in some manner so that we are exiled from the presence of God, while the rest of the Bible is about God’s restoration of creation. It is like we are mirrors intended to reflect God to one another but our mirrors are now shifted so that they do not reflect properly. Some reflect a partial image. Others may be warped so the image is skewed. Yet others have moved so much that there is not even a partial reflection of God remaining. This is what we often call sin and it impacts all of us, non-Christians and Christians alike.

This fallen image leads us to the final idea from the passage. We are reimaged for the new creation. The New Testament refocuses us on Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. He is said to be the image of the invisible God. Christians are called to put off the old man (Adam) and put on the new man (Christ), an action which helps renew us as the image of God. That is, we consciously strive to stop living a life of sin and start conforming our life to the image of God’s Son, Jesus. Day by day we continue this process, though it will not ultimately be fulfilled until the resurrection from the dead.

This resurrection will take place in a new creation. While many Christians today speak of “going to heaven,” that is not a concept found in the Bible itself (at least, it is not the primary goal). God’s creative work is still ongoing. Those who are baptized into Christ and follow him already are the first glimpses of this coming new creation, which Peter says in his second letter will culminate in a new heavens and new earth of righteousness after this creation is destroyed by fire. But interestingly, both 2 Peter and the Revelation do not use the Greek word for “brand new” (neos) but the one for “refurbished” or “renewed” (kainos). God will not destroy this creation but will renew and restore it so that finally heaven and earth will be united.

If God would have to annihilate the present cosmos, Satan would have won a great victory. For then Satan would have succeeded in so devastatingly corrupting the present cosmos and the present earth that God could do nothing with it but to blot it totally out of existence. But Satan has been decisively defeated. God will reveal the full dimensions of that defeat when he shall renew this very earth on which Satan deceived mankind and finally banish from it all the results of Satan’s evil machinations.

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 281

This is what we see even in the first creation story. We try to read the story sometimes as if it is all past, as if it is trying to teach us about the very beginning of things. Genesis 1:1-2:4, however, is giving us the grand introduction to the divine project that will encompass the remainder of the Bible. You will note that in days one through six of the story, there is evening and there is morning. On day seven, however, after God has declared all that has gone before to be “very good,” God rests. He enters into his creation as gods of the ancient world would be conceived to enter into their temples. And as heaven and earth become one, there is no final repetition of evening and morning in day 7. It just “is.” Zechariah and Isaiah pick up on this hope of an eternal day–a time when creation will finally be complete as God intends it to be. The Revelation picks up these same ideas by saying there is no need for sun nor moon for God is the light and the Lamb is his lamp. Day seven has not yet happened. It will only happen when God’s project is complete.

There is a story about a father working hard at home on a project that was due the next day at his office. His nine year old son persistently asked to “help” on the project, so the father decided he needed something to distract his son. The father noticed a map of the world in a magazine on the table and gently tore the page out. He cut the world into little pieces and handed these–along with tape–to his son. He told the son it was a puzzle to put together, confident it would take days to finish such a difficult task. In a couple of hours, however, his son called out that he was finished. The father had doubts, since the son had never really seen the whole world and shouldn’t know how to quickly reassemble it, but sure enough the picture of the world was complete and in tact. “How did you do it?” he asked. The son said that as his father pulled the map out of the magazine, he noticed there was a man’s face on the other side of the page. When the boy started having difficulty putting the world together, he decided to flip the pieces and reassemble the image of the man instead. When he finished restoring the man’s face, he found the world was also put back together. We are created to bear the image of God to the world. When Christians begin to reflect the image of Christ, our community, our problems, our world will begin to be put back to rights. It will begin to be healed. We are invited by the almighty God to co-create with him as he builds the new creation–starting with each of us.

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“Created To Bear the Image” (Gen 1:1-2:4)

Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Surrender and Be Ready! (Advent Week 4)

Tim Allen was in two rather different Christmas stories. (Both characters, interestingly include the names of Protestant Reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin.) Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause learns from an elf that–through a series of unplanned events–he now must become the new Santa Claus. He is told he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before reporting for duty to the North Pole. The film centers on Scott’s process of coming to terms with the responsibility that has been thrust upon him. Ultimately, he surrenders to the call and embraces it. On the other hand, Luther Krank in Christmas with the Kranks spends the majority of the movie resisting cultural expectations of the Christmas season and enduring the gossip and scorn of his neighbors because of his choices. The experience of these characters relate in different ways to the story of Mary we find in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38. In that story, she is called to surrender to a life that will ultimately result in rumors, gossip, and misunderstandings alongside unlimited love, wonder, and grace.

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The first thing the text teaches us is that we must surrender to God’s presence (vv. 26-30). While God is always present, there are times he is present and calls to us in a special way. A dramatic example of this is the sudden appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, a virgin pledged in marriage to Joseph. While modern Western women typically get married in their mid- to late-twenties, Mary likely was in her early teens (12-15 years old, if she was the typical first century Jewish girl). Gabriel greeted this teen as “highly favored one!” and told her, “the Lord is with you!” The young girl was greatly troubled by the words, filled with questions about what the greeting could mean. The words–not the appearance of the angel!—created these doubts and concerns. Perhaps the fact the angel wasn’t the source of her concern shows a steely resilience in this girl that would be important for the mother of the Messiah (vv 28-29). Her reaction certainly was different from that of the old priest Zechariah in the preceding story. He was “gripped with fear” upon the sight of this same angel . . . even before the angel had a chance to speak a word to him (1:11-12).

The angel comforted both of them with the words, “Do not be afraid!” because Zechariah’s prayers have been heard and Mary had found favor with God–like others before her, such as Noah (Gen 6:8), Abraham (Gen 18:3-5), and Moses (Exod 33:12-13). In the presence of God, we may feel fear or find comfort, but there is always an element of danger. It is like being in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. If we are in the bare elements, the raw energy and power of the storm can be a fearful if not deadly experience. From the safety of our home, however, that same raw power fills us not with fear but with awe at the beauty of the lightening show and the roar of the thunder. In the same way, those who are in God’s grace (the Greek word translated here as “favor”) are safe within the dangerous presence of the living God. Mary surrenders to God’s presence. Do we?

A second thing we see in the story is that we should surrender to God’s power (vv. 31-35). The virgin is told she will have a child and must name him Jesus. The pattern of the announcement (conceive/give birth/call the son) is the same pattern found in the sign of the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz (7:14), “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The birth of Jesus is the promise that God is with us (the meaning of the word Immanuel). But there is an earlier story that also uses this same announcement pattern, a story about another strong woman placed in a precarious position yet told to surrender to God (Gen 16:11). Hagar is visited by an angel to tell her that she has conceived and will give birth to a son, Ishmael (which means “God hears”). The birth of Jesus means that God has heard the suffering of his people and so he has sent a Savior to liberate us. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, was not the ultimate child through whom God’s promises to Abraham would flow. That would be Isaac. Though Judaism was a blessing, it was not the ultimate blessing. That blessing would come through the birth of Jesus, Abraham’s seed through whom all nations would be blessed.

The promise of the son to be born to Mary was not like the promise of the son to be born to Zechariah. The angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist would be “great in the eyes of the Lord” (1:15) but Mary is told that Jesus will be “great” (v 32). That is, John’s greatness was dependent upon God’s perspective but Jesus’ greatness was inherent to who he was. Another difference between these births is that John from birth was not to have wine or fermented drink but Jesus had no restrictions placed on him. He was holy (v 35) and did not need to maintain his righteousness (1:6) through any specific actions.

Luke tells us that Mary was pledged to Joseph, a son of David. The Romans (and Jews) understood adoption to be a legal avenue to ascend to the throne. Augustus Caesar was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, as Tiberius Caesar was the adopted son of Augustus, yet all three ruled the Roman Empire. Jesus would have a legitimate claim to the throne as an adopted son of Joseph. To make sure the reader understands that Mary’s son was the Son of David to inherit the throne of his father David (v 32), however, Luke shapes the words of vv 26-27 (“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.”) with faint echoes of 1 Samuel 16:1 (“The LORD said to Samuel, ‘. . . I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem for I have chosen one of his sons to be king'”–that king being David).

Yet before David’s throne is mentioned (v 32) or the title Son of God was bestowed upon Jesus (v 35), the angel first clarifies Jesus’ title, calling him, “Son of the Most High.” This Jewish circumlocution for Son of God is interesting to find in Luke (given his predominantly Gentile audience), which may indicate the Jewish origins of this announcement story. But more significant for Luke’s use in this passage is that it explains the “type” of Son of God Jesus would be. Augustus and Tiberius were both called “Son of God” when Caesars, because the Romans had declared their predecessor (upon his death) to have become divine. Jesus, however, was not Son of God as a mere human accolade or on account of the deification of a human (whether David or a Caesar). Jesus was Son of the Most High–YHWH. He was the Son of the God of all creation.

At this point, Mary asks a very reasonable question: “How is this possible? I have known no man.” Her question is not one of doubt or rejection. It is simply one of confusion. Her question is not like that of Zechariah in the preceding story. When he hears the angel’s announcement that he and Elizabeth will have a child, he asks, “How can you be certain?” But then this foolish question is followed by a wisdom borne from years of marriage, for he says “I am old” but then says my wife is “well along in years.” (In other words, she’s had her 39th birthday many times over, but he doesn’t call her old!) The response to his doubt was, “Dude! I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I just told you. Why are you doubting!?” (1:18-19). This rebuke was followed by a temporary curse so that Zechariah cannot speak until John’s birth. But Mary doesn’t doubt. Instead, she demonstrates faith seeking understanding.

Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you” (v 35). This same phrase is later used by Jesus in a promise to empower his disciples as his witnesses (Acts 1:8). In a poetic restatement of the same idea, the angel says, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The imagery is twofold. First, it invokes the image of the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic deep at the start of creation (Gen 1:2). Jesus’ birth is the genesis of a new work of God, the start of the New Creation. Second, the language draws our thoughts to the presence of God overshadowing the tabernacle, the meeting place of heaven and earth (Exod 40:35). The child to be conceived will be a new and final temple, the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 2:9). So Jesus will fulfill God’s promise to David that David’s seed would reign forever (v 33) and build God’s temple (2 Sam 7:13).

Because God is all-powerful, you do not need to fear his calling if his presence is with you. God fills Christians with his Holy Spirit. He has given believers the same power that miraculously conceived a child in the womb of a virgin. What is God calling you to do in the coming year? Will you surrender to his power, as Mary did?

Finally, the text reveals our need to surrender to God’s perspective (vv. 36-38). Too often, we look at ourselves and our flaws and do not see the potential which God sees. We do not see the possibilities that the power of God opens up for those who live in the presence of God. From Mary’s perspective, the future is unclear because “I have known no man.” From Zechariah’s perspective, a child is impossible because he knows that he and Elizabeth are too old. Each fails to see that God was with them, that his grace (that is, his favor) was on them. They needed to reframe their stories from the viewpoint of God.

To help Mary see her situation from a new perspective and demonstrate God’s power, Gabriel told her Elizabeth, her relative said to be infertile, was in her sixth month (v 36). The woman everyone in town gossiped about, who must be accursed of God because she couldn’t conceive. Why, if Elizabeth had lived in the American South, the community would have said one to another, “Bless her heart!” But now something had changed. She was the talk of the town in a radically new way. The gossip had turned to wonder and praise. Sorrow now became joy. How was this possible? Because “no word from God will ever fail,” Gabriel said (v 37). This is the same phrase (in the Greek translation) used about Sarah’s conception (Gen 18:14). Isaac was the child of promise born to Abraham and Sarah in their advanced years. Abraham is told God’s covenant would pass through Isaac and not the “natural born” son, Ishmael. So Jesus was the ultimate child of the promise through whom, as the seed of Abraham, “all nations would be blessed” (Gen 18:18).

As we reach verse 38, we find the clearest statement of Mary’s surrender. “I am the Lord’s servant” (literally “slave”). Mary submitted herself to God’s presence and power because she now saw things from a new perspective. She surrendered to God and to his plan. When we hear her say, “May it be done according to your word,” we often imagine a demure young woman meekly acquiescing to the angel. But, as N.T. Wright once noted, it is probable half the women in first century Israel hoped they would be the mother of the Messiah. Everyone was convinced he was coming soon. Perhaps we should hear the response as an eager exclamation much more in keeping with the strong will she seemed to possess. “Bring it on! Let it be me!”

Why this young girl? We are not told that Mary received this calling because she observed the Torah blamelessly, as Zechariah and Elizabeth did (1:6). Their son John was the climax of the old covenant, but not its fulfillment. Their Torah observance was a blessing, but there was coming an even greater blessing, a new covenant of righteousness based on faith in Jesus. In Mary’s story, we catch a glimpse of this life of surrender and faith. Luke presents Mary as a paragon of faith. Like a female Abraham, she received a call from God and stepped out in faith, not knowing where the journey might lead. Unlike Moses, she did not question God’s calling (Exod 3:11, 13; 4: 1, 10, 13) but accepted it like a Daughter of David. David raised no objection nor question when God sent Samuel to anoint David with oil to be king (1 Sam 16:2, 13). Similarly, when God sent Gabriel to announce to Mary the overshadowing of the Spirit and coming of Messiah, she accepted the call.

Certainly Mary (like Abraham) did not understand all that her calling entailed. Without question, she was the object of gossip, slander, and speculation about the source of her conception. She likely had tense relations with her in-laws under whose house (or at least in whose village) she resided after marrying Joseph. (The loss of family honor within the community would have been part of the impetus for Joseph’s contemplation of divorce, Matt 1:19.) Governmental bureaucracy and red tape required her to travel many a mile while 9 months pregnant just to complete a census. Then persecution forced her to become a political refugee and spend years in a foreign land, learning a new language and navigating unusual customs. More than likely Joseph struggled in Egypt to find a job due to prejudice against immigrants and the faced constant insecurity because they didn’t have a family or clan to protect them. And all this before she probably turned 18!

Are you ready to surrender to God’s presence and discover the Jesus we celebrate at Christmas? Are you prepared to surrender to God’s power and live as a witness for Christ through the power of his Spirit? Will you surrender to God’s perspective, trusting that he sees the potential you do not, that his power and presence will be with you to fulfill whatever calling he places on your life? Do you see yourself as God’s servant? Christmas is coming! Surrender and be ready!

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“Surrender and Be Ready!” (Luke 1:26-38)

Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Confess and Be Ready! (Advent Week 3)

As Christmas approaches, followers of Jesus should be ready and willing to confess the love of God in Christ. We should be like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. When asked if anyone knew what Christmas was all about, Linus confesses that he does and gives a witness to those gathered by telling them the story of Jesus’ birth. The third Sunday advent gospel reading looks at John the Baptist in John 1:6-8, 19-28. By looking at this story, Christians can see how we should be confessors of our belief that Jesus is Lord.

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The first thing we find in the life of John is our mission as a confessor. In verse 6, we are told that John was a man sent (apostellō) from God. Apostellō is the verb form of the Greek noun we often transliterate into English as Apostle. For John to be “apostellō-ed” meant that he had a mission to fulfill. He had authority from God to speak on his behalf, but he also had a responsibility to represent God well to those he encountered. Later in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus prays to the Father, “As you sent [apostellō] me into the world, I have sent [apostellō] them into the world” (17:18). Just as the first disciples were sent as Apostles, ones sent with Jesus’ authority on a mission to proclaim and confess the good news, so are we who follow him today have that same mission. We are to confess Christ to the world, and we are responsible for how we represent him.

The second thing we learn from John is our role as a confessor. John is described with two Greek words in his role as a confessor. John “confessed” (v. 20), which translates the Greek word homologeō (literally, “one word”). We are to have the same word about Jesus, to speak with one voice the he has become king and reigns over us, sitting at the right hand of the Father. This “one voice” doesn’t mean we collude our stories or that we are intolerant to differences of perspective or opinion. What it means is that our primary concern should be this one testimony that Jesus is Lord. Homologeō was also used as a “concession” of the reality of defeat or loss of an argument. It was even used to admit guilt to the charges brought against you in a trial. In the latter part of our reading, John is on trial and he confessed openly and freely who he was not and who Jesus is.

The other word used for John was “witness” (martyria) or “to testify” in its verb form (martyreō). The noun or verb appears four times in the verses we are considering and seven total times in John 1. The concept of “witness” was significant in the Gospel of John (appearing over seventy times), and the character of John the Baptist is the first individual in the text to demonstrate this concept. To witness is to give testimony before a judge or to affirm that which you have seen, heard, and experienced (which sounds very much like the opening to the letter of 1 John). In the Fourth Gospel, John is not really John “the Baptist” as he is in the other three gospels. The focus is not on his activity as a baptizer or his leader of a Kingdom of God movement. Instead, John is presented as John “the Witness.” John is the one who testifies to Jesus almost every time he opens his mouth. Even the focus of his baptism is not for repentance but merely a method to reveal the coming Messiah (1:31).

Unlike John, the priests and Levites are not witnesses nor confessors. They appear in the story as judges. They are inquisitors coming to investigate what is happening out in the wilderness. “Who are you? Why do you baptize?” Their goal was to figure out which box to check in regard to John. What type of person was he? How can we label and define him so that we can objectify and categorize him? They did not want to truly interact with John as a person or understand the complexities of his life situation. They had preconceived ideas about the Davidic Messiah, the returning Elijah, and the Mosaic Prophet. These were well developed eschatological categories in their day that they thought they understood well. Their goal was to collect information for their superiors, evaluating whether John did or did not fit the box he claimed for himself.

In the passage, John the Witness speaks of the Messiah even as he is interrogated by the priests and Levites. “Among you stands one you do not know” (v. 26). Perhaps Jesus was there that day. What if the priests and Levites were so focused on their questioning of John that they weren’t able to recognize the Messiah standing there in their midst? We are certainly told that Jesus was in the area, for he is present the two days following (vv. 29, 36). If so, John spoke in a veiled witness, but he was a witness nonetheless. It reminds me of a saying by Wallace Davis, former president of Wayland Baptist University: “Always tell the truth, but don’t always be telling it!” Part of the role of a confessor is to use wisdom and discretion about our audience and to speak as the situation demands.

We must make a conscious decision. Will we be investigators or proclaimers? Our mission is not to judge but to testify. We are called not to evaluate against our preconceived checklists. We are to confess what we have heard and seen and experienced. Throughout, we have an Advocate who gives us the wisdom and power to fulfill our role as confessor. The Spirit of truth will testify about Jesus even as we testify (Jn 15:26-27) and will empower us to be witnesses throughout the earth (Acts 1:8). Are you a witness in your portion of the earth?

A third lesson from John is our attitude as a confessor. First, let’s look at the attitude of the priests and Levites. They came to judge and evaluate John. Their attitude was that they occupied a lofty position. They looked down on John as well as those poor souls who came out to listen to him and to be baptized by him. They asked questions of John and expected–no, demanded–answers. They spoke from a position of power but were in a hurry to return to their own superiors looking down on them and awaiting their report. So they ask repeatedly, “Who are you?” Give us an answer! What authority do you have to baptize?” (vv. 22, 24)

John the Witness, however, had the attitude of a servant. His actions and words were from a position of humility. His attitude was one of stooping down to serve the people coming out to the wilderness. He looked up to God for his help and support. He considered himself beneath the Messiah in importance. We are told that he freely confessed and held nothing back, “I am not the Messiah!” Then they asked him, are you Elijah? Perhaps John paused, looked down at the camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist (clothing intentionally imitating Elijah). Maybe he was confused that they didn’t get the symbolism. “No . . . . ?” he may have tentatively responded (hoping they would catch the irony). More likely, he said no because he knew their intentions were to entrap him.

John’s humility and servant nature was reflected in his statement that he was not even worthy to loosen the Messiah’s sandals. In Rabbinic literature, rabbis were able to demand almost any action from their disciples. One area that was forbidden, however, were any acts that required the touching of feet. John, however, says he isn’t even worthy to voluntarily stoop down to touch the feet of the Messiah (v. 27). This is all the more significant for the reader when we later see Jesus stoop down to wash the feet of his disciples as one of his final acts, commanding them to wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:3-17). True leadership is not about power but about service. John later talks about Jesus surpassing him (1:30) and we see him witness over and over about Jesus until eventually his disciples begin to leave him in order to follow Jesus instead (1:29-37).

One other lesson about our attitude as a confessor can be found in the opening verses (vv. 6-8). John was a witness to the light. We also are witnesses to the light. When the light comes, many will flee back to the darkness because the light reveals all. If we will be witnesses of Jesus, witnesses who stand in his light, we must be ready for our flaws to show, for our sins to be evident (Jn 3:19-21). For, as Paul learned, when we are weak then we are strong, for Jesus shines through the cracks created by our flaws (2 Cor 12:9-10).

The final thing we learn from John is our message as a confessor. John the Witness is not a fiery preacher in the Fourth Gospel. When he opens his mouth, one of two things tend to happen: 1) he quotes the Bible (v. 23) or 2) he talks about Jesus (vv. 26-27). John was not into self-aggrandizement or flashy words just to look impressive. No doubt the priests and Levites emphasized themselves as they interrogated him, probably wearing their fineries in order to be seen by all. John was from the priestly class himself. He could have easily chosen to live in Jerusalem with a nice lifestyle and the service (if not the respect) of many. Instead, he chose to live in the wilderness as an ascetic in service to God.

Whenever he talked about himself and Jesus, Jesus was always the superior. John, on confessing who he was, quoted Isaiah and said he was a voice in the wilderness (v. 23). Earlier, Jesus had been identified as the Word (1:1, 14). A voice is not the primary thing you focus on when someone speaks. You focus on the words that are communicated. The content, not the mode of delivery, is of primary importance. This Word is said to be the Light to which John bore witness (vv. 7-8). Later, Jesus called John “a lamp” (Jn 5:35). Lamps carry the light (or bear witness to the light) but they themselves are not the light itself. Even John’s free confession, “I am not the Messiah” is deemphasizing himself in respect to Jesus in this gospel. In Greek, John says, “egō ouk eimi” (“I am not,” v. 20). Nine or more times through the gospel, Jesus says, “I am,” which to a Jew was the equivalent of calling yourself God (Exod 3:14). (For instance, one time when Jesus says this, the Jews pick up stones to stone him, thinking he was equating himself with God, Jn 8:57-59.)

Three times to the priests and Levites, John denied himself (I am not, no). Three times in chapter 1, John testifies to Jesus as the Messiah (one among you, 1:26; Lamb of God, the one who surpasses me, he on whom the Spirit came down, God’s Chosen One, 1:29-34; Lamb of God, 1:36). By the third confession, some of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus (1:37). Still later, when John’s disciples complain that Jesus’ movement is getting bigger than John’s, John says, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn 3:26, 30).

Ultimately, there are two types of people. Which one will you be? There are the confessors and witnesses, those who testify to what they have seen and heard and experienced about Jesus the Messiah. Then there are the inquisitors and investigators, those who promote themselves while judging others and placing them into boxes as a means of control. It is sort of like two characters from popular Christmas movies. Buddy the Elf is a confessor. He tells everyone that Walter is his father. He also testifies to what he has seen and experienced about Santa. He is selfless in his testimony about these others. Then there is Ralph from A Christmas Story. He is a self-promoter. He wants a Red Ryder more than anything for Christmas. He tells everyone about it. He judges their motives when they tell him he’ll shot his eye out. In the end, everything is all about Ralph.

During Christmas and throughout the year, let Christ shine through your life. Don’t allow your words and actions to obscure the light of Jesus through self-centeredness actions or discussion of things you care about but do not bring honor to Christ. Do not spend your time judging others from a position of superiority or preconceived ideas. Find out who they are and how you can help them better understand Jesus. As Christians, we are called to live out our mission to witness and confess Jesus the Messiah in a spirit of humility and service. Christmas is coming. We need to confess and be ready!

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“Confess and Be Ready!” (John 1:6-8, 19-28)