Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Conversations with Jesus about life’s persistent questions: Can Jesus really make sense out of life’s calamities?

John 9:1-13, 26-38
March 30, 2014
© 2014

Healing the Blind Man
Edy Legrand
During Lent the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon.

John 9:1-13,26-38 
Narrator:          As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, 
Disciple:          “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 
Jesus:               “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 
Narrator:          6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,7saying to him,
Jesus:               “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”
Narrator:          (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask,
Neighbor :       “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 
Narrator:          9Some were saying,
Neighbor :       “It is he.”
Narrator:          Others were saying,
Neighbor :       “No, but it is someone like him.”
Narrator:          He kept saying,
Blind man:      “I am the man.” 
Narrator:          10But they kept asking him,
Neighbor :       “Then how were your eyes opened?” 
Blind man:      “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 
Neighbor:        “Where is he?”
Blind man:      “I do not know.”
Narrator:          13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  
Pharisee:          26How did he open your eyes?”
Blind man:      “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 
Narrator:          28Then they reviled him, saying,
Pharisee:          “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 
Blind man:      “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 
Pharisee:          “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
Narrator:          And they drove him out. 35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said,
Jesus:               “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 
Blind man:      “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 
Jesus:               “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 
Blind man:      “Lord, I believe.”
Narrator:          And he worshiped him.

As I listen to the conversations around Jesus’ healing the blind man, I am both annoyed with the disciples and want a better answer to their question. Though the text doesn’t specifically say they were in earshot of the blind man when the disciples asked Jesus whose sin caused him to be born blind, it does give that feeling. I want to scold them, “How could you be so insensitive; didn’t your mothers teach you to be more polite than that?” But like the disciples, I also want an explanation of inexplicable suffering. I want Jesus to make sense out of senseless calamities. In this sermon I don’t want to give you simplistic answers to insoluble problems, yet I do want your faith to be strengthened and your spirits encouraged.
In my nine months with you, I have heard again and again, “I don’t understand why God would let Lynne Norwood suffer the way she did. She was such an example of faith, courage and love. She did so much for this church and this community. Wouldn’t God have wanted her to keep going? For her life to be cut short is not only unfair, it seems counterproductive for God.” Theologically, it is true that God sees more than we do and has purposes we can’t understand, but that does not satisfy our questioning. We, at least, want to know what makes our suffering worthwhile and meaningful.
The past couple of weeks we have struggled with understanding what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and why. Instant global communication regularly confronts us with catastrophes of such scope and distance that we are helpless to respond meaningfully. For the disciples, the blind man was in their path in Jerusalem. For us the people of Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan are digitally abstracted, yet our human kin.
Jesus seemed to have been prompted to heal the blind man by the disciples’ question. What if they hadn’t asked? The Gospels record only 26 healings by Jesus. Some were crowds of people coming to him, but most were individual. John 5:1-9 says many invalids: blind, lame, and paralyzed lay at the Pool of Beth-zatha, but he healed only the seemingly passive-dependent man who had been there making excuses for 38 years. After Pentecost, the Apostles healed a lame man in Acts 3:2 and many others in 5:12. Jesus must have walked by them when he was in Jerusalem. Why didn’t he heal them?
Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question heads them and us in a different direction than we expect.
At first glance, we are relieved to know that we do not deserve all of our suffering because of our sin. To think that our pain may bring glory to God sounds ennobling. However, the way our English translations read, Jesus seemed to be saying God imposed blindness on this man and his parents, just so Jesus could come along years later and heal him, which just doesn’t seem fair.
The words translated “so that” (v. 3) can mean cause, but they can also mean result. So, rather making the man blind so Jesus could heal him later, God’s glory resulted from Jesus healing him. Either is grammatically possible, and the commentators understandably prefer the later.
In Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question he went on to say, “We must work the works of him who sent me.” (v. 4) Rather than pondering an explanation, for Jesus the blind man was an opportunity for compassionate action. He went on to repeat what he had said at the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2, 14), “I am the light of the world.” (8:12) fitting right in with healing the blind man and confronting the Pharisees about their spiritual blindness. (9:40-41) You may remember that after 9-11, Fred Rogers said that his mother had told him that to find the good when disaster strikes, he should look for the helpers. I think Jesus was telling his disciples and us, that when disaster strikes, we should look for ways to become helpers.
The blind man did not ask Jesus to heal him. He didn’t even seem to be aware of who Jesus was at first. Yet, he must have heard the disciples’ insensitive question and wondered who this was that said he was the light of the world and was putting mud on his eyes. His healing came before he expressed faith. He got to faith by stages.
The text does not say Jesus said he would receive sight when he washed, but he went and washed and came back seeing for the first time in his life. As this healing was not a restoration to former sight but seemingly the creation of sight, people could not believe it was the same man. But he said, “Oh yes, I am the man.” (v. 9) When they asked how his eyes were opened, he gave a Joe Friday, “just the facts” answer, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” (v. 11)
I don’t think the people thought they were getting the man in trouble when they took him to the Pharisees. I think they were going to their teachers to help them understand how something so amazing could have happened. But the Pharisees were already suspicious of Jesus, and this happened on Sabbath, so their questioning quickly became hostile. The man is not intimidated. He got cheeky, chided them and said Jesus was from God. (v. 33)
When Jesus heard that he had been thrown out of the synagogue, Jesus went and found him, but he didn’t either comfort or commiserate. Jesus asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (v. 35) Though blindness had prevented the man from learning to read or reading Scripture, he knew that “Son of Man” was a Messianic title. So with some excitement, he asked, “Who is he so I can believe in him?” We might paraphrase Jesus answer to the man who was seeing for the first day of his life this way, “You’re looking at him!” Just like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, he immediately recognized Jesus as Christ, the Son of God and confessed, “I believe.” Without hesitation that awareness prompted him to worship Jesus.
The man did not ask Jesus, “Why did I have to be blind for so long?” He probably appreciated that Jesus acted toward his blindness with power and compassion. I can try to act with compassion when I see people in pain rather than being paralyzed by trying to explain the inexplicable. Compassionate action for people I know may be difficult but is realistic. Whether locally or globally, being overwhelmed by need produces compassion fatigue. Giving to the Salvation Army or Week of Compassion does make a practical difference, but can feel distant and insignificant. Whether the lost Malaysian airliner or the violence in Syria, some suffering seems hopelessly intractable. Compassionate action is good and important, but we still long for something more satisfying.
From many people in this congregation and community, besides questioning why Lynne Norwood suffered, I have heard even more of how much she gave to others through her suffering. Her courage, her faith, her love, her determination have encouraged and inspired hundreds, maybe thousands of people. The practical benefits to this congregation and community are immeasurable. I would not dare to suggest her suffering was necessary for those benefits to accrue, but I can affirm that in her suffering she relentlessly drew on and pointed to Jesus.
Through the centuries Christians have launched and sustained many of the world’s greatest humanitarian enterprises, but we don’t have a monopoly of compassion. So whether a one-to-one personal helping hand to a person in pain or a shared undertaking as a congregation or Christ based group, drawing on Jesus is essential. Without his spiritual sustenance, we will soon be overwhelmed and burnt out. While blatantly flaunting an effort as Christian can be counterproductive and offensive, pointing to Jesus as our incentive, leader and empowerment gives enduring purpose and offers hope.
True as these may be, they do not get to the bottom of the mystery of suffering. From Apostolic days, the Church has seen Jesus in Isaiah 53:3, “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” I rather like how KJV put it, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” St. John of the Cross wrote about his experience of being met by Jesus in “the dark night of the soul.” Ignatius of Loyola wrote about the rhythm of “consolations and desolations” intrinsic to the journey with Jesus. When we were living in the Daybreak community, we were coached to look for the presence of Christ in the pain of the mentally handicapped core members. For 21 years now, I have tried to cultivate that as a personal spiritual discipline. When God brings someone across my path who is suffering, I try to look for Jesus in them. I am trying to recognize that here is someone who knows sorrow and is acquainted with grief with whom Jesus identified. Can I identify with them? Can I see Jesus when I look at them?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Conversations with Jesus about life’s persistent questions: Why would Jesus even want to talk to a misfit outcast like me?

John 4:5-26, 39-42
March 23, 2014
© 2014

During Lent the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon.

John 4:5-26, 39-42
Narrator:    So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her,
Jesus:         “Give me a drink.” 
Narrator:    8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
Woman:     “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Narrator:    (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus:         “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 
Woman:     “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 
Jesus:         “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 
Woman:     “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 
Jesus:         “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 
Woman:     “I have no husband.”
Jesus:         “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 
Woman:     “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 
Jesus:         “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 
Woman:     “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 
Jesus:         “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Narrator:    39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,
Woman:     “He told me everything I have ever done.” 

Narrator:    40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Bill was a WWII veteran in one of the congregations I previously served. He endured a prolonged confinement in a Japanese POW camp which left him with significant mental illness that made him a misfit and often an outcast. He dressed in mismatched clothes covered with buttons for every conceivable, contradictory cause you can imagine. He wrote inscrutable, cluttered tracts that he duplicated and put on the windshields of cars on the church’s parking lot. Especially during Lent, he would use magic markers to put nail print stigmata on his hands and sometimes a crown of thorns on his forehead. I never asked to see his side or feet. Real stigmata, marks of crucifixion, have been known on certain Christian mystics, even in our time. Francis of Assisi was thought to have received stigmata, and they are often shown on portraits of him. Some believe that was what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Galatians 6:17 “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” People always tended to politely avoid Bill, especially when he was wearing his stigmata. I tried to see Bill as God’s messenger calling me to identify so thoroughly with Jesus people might think I was crazy. Knowing how to relate to people with mental illness or limitations can be awkward, so they are socially avoided.
Amy Simpson wrote for Christianity Today (01-28-14), “Families affected by serious mental illness have many things in common: secrecy, confusion, alienation, exhaustion, fear, even terror, anger, frustration, longing to be ‘normal.’”
Downton Abbey has become a defining cultural phenomenon. Much of this season has revolved around Anna Bates’ desperately futile efforts to keep her rape secret, but she could not hide the shame. It alienated her from her husband, her fellow servants and the Crawley family whom she served. Halee Gray Scott also wrote for Christianity Today (01-30-14) “Defiled, polluted, castoff, exposed, abhorred, and most dreadful of all: defenseless. This is what it feels like to be raped.”
The Samaritan woman Jesus met at Jacob’s Well was also a misfit outcast. With gentle compassion Jesus drew out her secret shame. As we enter that conversation, Jesus coaxes us to open up our secrets. Within all of us who feel like misfits and outcasts, Jesus unleashes a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life.
We need to listen to this conversation very carefully if we are to recognize ourselves in this woman and understand what Jesus did and did not say to her.
Two other times in John’s Gospel Jesus told someone, “Go and sin no more.” (5:14; 8:11) But Jesus did not say that to the Samaritan woman he met at Jacob’s Well, nor did he ask her to repent or pronounce pardon on her. In that society, women could not initiate divorce. Rather than a serial adulteress, she is more likely to have been the victim of abusive men. It is even possible she was given by her 5th husband to this 6th man in payment of a debt, thus not able to marry him. Or her husbands might have died, and the 6th man was fearful of marrying her.
The text does not give us a way to sort out the speculations of her secret, but she was clearly a misfit outcast in her own Samaritan community, and she was acutely aware of the distain of the Jewish community.
Jesus recognized a spiritual hunger that was buried with her secret shame. When she brought up whether to worship in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim, she was not just avoiding having her secret exposed, she was also recognizing the deep division that separated her from all Jews and thus from Jesus. When she identified Jesus as a prophet, she was probing for something more satisfying than the debate over where to worship. Jesus’ answer about worship in spirit and in truth spoke to this inner hunger, which she knew enough to realize could only be satisfied by the Messiah, even if her concept of Messiah was limited and defective. But when Jesus said, “I am he,” she not only knew Jesus was the long anticipated Messiah, she was immediately transformed from an misfit outcast into a messenger of good news.
Just as Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus said about being born from above, at first this woman misunderstood what Jesus meant by living water. In common usage, “living water” meant water from a flowing river, stream or spring. The water in Jacob’s Well seeped in from ground water and rain. Only as the conversation continued through her problems with men and social exclusion and worship did she recognize Jesus’ living water was spiritual, the source of eternal life.  Within all of us who feel like misfits and outcasts, Jesus unleashes a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life.
The living water Jesus promised does not come from dipping into a well that accumulated whatever seeped in but becomes a spring of water gushing up from within. Living water is not an external resource to go to when spiritual thirst calls. Living water is the continuous source of life that comes from God who lives within.
In contrast with the groundwater slowly seeping into Jacob’s Well, Jesus promised a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. Exuberance and abundance, energy and joy. This unrestrained fountain is the antidote for all the secret shame of every misfit outcast.
When the woman appealed to the anticipated Messiah to assuage her spiritual thirst, Jesus’ answer in verse 26 was simply, “I am.” John’s readers would surely have recognized that Jesus just spoke the name of God spoken to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. Even as scripturally illiterate as this woman was, I suspect she recognized that too. Whether she did or not, the power of Jesus word took effect and she was instantly transformed. The spring of living water was unleashed in her, and she rushed into town leaving a wet path and soaking everyone who had previously pushed her away.
Within all of us who feel like misfits and outcasts, Jesus unleashes a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life.
I would be the last one to minimize the importance of confession of sin and repentance. But I do know that wallowing in guilt, shame and regret is destructive to abundant living and effective evangelism. Jesus emphasis with the woman at Jacob’s well was to call her to life-giving faith. Jesus continues to call us, whose spiritual waters may have grown stagnant, to life-giving faith.
When the Samaritans flocked to see Jesus, they declared, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Though all four Gospels use the verb to say Jesus saves, this is the only place in any of them the title “Savior” is specifically ascribed to Jesus. Given the animosity between Jews and Samaritans and the social isolation of the woman, calling Jesus “Savior of the world” is significant. This is not the personal savior typically referred to in revivalist circles but a savior who reconciles across all social and relational boundaries. This is the Savior who transforms secrets and shame, misfits and outcasts into gushing fountains of life and love.
I’m sure some of you were uncomfortable when I started by talking about mental illness and sexual violence. For many of us, these are daily family and personal realities. We don’t want our pain exposed. For others, they are unpleasant and we want church to be a nice place where nice people share nice experiences. As with the woman at Jacob’s Well, Jesus ever so gently draws out our secrets and shame so he can unleash within us a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life. When that happens, we can’t help drenching everyone around us.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Conversations with Jesus about life’s persistent questions: How can I explore spiritual mysteries when physical reality scrambles my brain?

John 3:1-17
March 16, 2014
© 2014

During Lent, the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon. 

John 3:1-17
Narrator:       Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him,
Nicodemus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 
Jesus:           “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 
Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 
Jesus:           “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 
Nicodemus: “How can these things be?” 
Jesus:           “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
What boggles our minds about the material universe that interferes with grasping more profound spiritual realities?
Without getting into the creationism debates, the studies about the origins of the universe are at once fascinating and incomprehensible. Everything from black holes to Higgs boson particles prompt pondering. What was there before the big bang? What is outside of the universe? We ask questions: How did we get here? How did I get here?
Everything from evolutionary theory to human genome study asks what it means to be human. Who are we? Who am I? Why are we here? Why am I here?
Everything from the expansion of space and the burn out of the sun to climate change anticipates the eventual demise of the universe. What is our destiny? Where are we headed? Where am I headed?
British preacher C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) is reputed to have said that John’s Gospel was “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.” Starting today and for Lent, we will be listening in on conversations with Jesus in John. Spurgeon’s observation certainly applies to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus explained how being born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe.
Sometimes Nicodemus is portrayed as timidly sneaking into see Jesus at night and not bright enough to understand Jesus’ spiritual basics. But Jesus called him “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10 – not “a teacher” as in some English translations). Certainly one of the leading teachers among the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin, he was probably checking Jesus out for them, but informally and not officially. I think he picked up from Jesus, this uneducated country rabbi, something deeper than more than a millennium of Hebrew scholarship could grasp. I think he wanted it for himself.
Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can perceive the Kingdom of God without being born “from above.” Nicodemus’ responses indicated he understood Jesus to say “born again.” Jesus was speaking about the source of our birth and Nicodemus about the number of times we are born. The same Greek word can mean both, so here is a play on words. Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking Aramaic or Hebrew that would not have the same play on words, so whatever went on between them, John captured cleverly. Nicodemus was not so dense as to think Jesus meant physically going back through his mother’s womb, but thinking he was too old and set in his ways, making a spiritual rebirth as impossible as a physical rebirth. What he wanted was unavailable.
Nicodemus was a late bloomer or slow learner. When the Sanhedrin began its open opposition to Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up for just and fair due process for Jesus (7:50-52). Along with Joseph of Arimathea (identified as a disciple in Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-53 and some women per Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55) Nicodemus assists with Jesus’ burial, indicating a faith even at the point at which Jesus’ mission and message seem to have failed. (19:39-40) Only being born from above could bring that insight.
To be born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe. Scholars continue to debate what Jesus meant when he said that entering the Kingdom of God required being born of water and Spirit. I think the simplest answer is that they describe what is involved in being born from above.
Nicodemus was certainly familiar with the recent ministry of John the Baptist. He called people to show their repentance by being baptized, just as Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized. The religious leadership, of which Nicodemus was a prominent leader, was offended at the very idea they needed to repent and be baptized like an unclean Gentile. To be born of water (from above) is to turn from the sin of life below and humbly begin anew in the life from above.
As the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus knew that in Ezekiel 36:25-28, God promised to sprinkle clean water to cleanse from sin and to put a new spirit within to follow God. Throughout Hebrew Scripture, water is associated with the Spirit of God. The promise of the prophets was that God’s Spirit would one day empower the righteousness that always seemed to elude them.
Spirit brings another word play that works in Greek and Hebrew, where the same word in each language means spirit, breath and wind. Jesus emphasized to Nicodemus the freedom of the wind and the Spirit. The Spirit of God is not limited to a pious or theological elite, or confined to established traditions. The most unexpected people, under unexpected circumstances are born from above by the life giving power of God’s Spirit.
When Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” (v. 9) he wasn’t expressing incredulity but a hunger to know how he could be born from above. Jesus responded with a story from Numbers 21. As punishment for revolting against Moses, poisonous serpents swarmed and bit. At God’s instruction, Moses made a bronze serpent and raised it as a sign for people to look at and be healed. Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent, pointing ahead to the cross. God’s redemption was a great reversal. The object of punishment became the means of restoration. All that was required was to trust that a simple look brought wholeness. To be born from above, look at Jesus with faith. Those who are born from above find answers to life’s persistent questions.
Who am I? Where did I come from? I am created in the image of God. My life comes from the Spirit of God who lives in me.
Why am I here? What is my purpose? As Jesus gave himself for me, I give myself so others can receive his love too. Jesus did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. My purpose is to invite people to be included, not to decide who’s excluded. Martin Niemöller was one of the founders of the Confessing Church that opposed the Nazis in Germany. After World War II he said, “It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn’t even hate his enemies.”
What is our destiny? Where am I headed? I am on my way to the Kingdom of God, which Jesus calls eternal life in John’s Gospel. Having been born from above, I am already living eternal life as part of the Kingdom of God, the reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Conversations with Jesus about life’s persistent questions: How can I choose the best when good enough is so attractive?

Matthew 4:1-11
March 9, 2014
© 2014

During Lent, the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon. 
Matthew 4:1-11
Narrator:   Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him,
Satan:      “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 
Jesus:      “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 
Narrator    5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him,
Satan:      “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 
Jesus:      “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 
Narrator:   8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him,
Satan:      “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 
Jesus:      “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 
Narrator:   11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew may well have been reporting Jesus’ own account of his temptation. Mark’s brief account was common knowledge among the disciples of John the Baptist who witnessed Jesus’ baptism and knew he disappeared for 40 days before calling them as his first disciples, including Peter, who was probably Mark’s source. Luke did not know Jesus personally but interviewed people who did. Perhaps he interviewed Andrew or Peter, James or John, which could account for some of the slight differences between Luke and Matthew, which I take as editorial emphases, not factual discrepancies.
Jesus’ temptation is often taught as a model of how to use Scripture to resist our own personal temptations. Today, however, we will engage in a conversation with Jesus about the significance of his experience.
I think Jesus would say it was more like test than what we think of as a temptation. That’s what the Greek word means. In high school, I remember most of my classmates hated essay tests, but for Jesus these tests were even harder; they were character tests, and not nearly as obvious as they seem when we read them. He was being tested for the redemptive mission on which he embarking after his baptism. What was the nature of his mission? By what means would be accomplish his mission? Was he strong enough to complete his mission?
I think Jesus would say that both the novel and movie The Last Temptation of Christ got it wrong. He was not being tempted to a moral failure or to opt out of his mission to have a normal family life. He was tested to choose between the easy and difficult paths to accomplish good.
Jesus’ prolonged fast did not leave him weak and vulnerable to turning stones into loaves of bread, but spiritually strengthened him to recognize the test was about the nature of his mission. Would he be content with satisfying legitimate but transitory human appetites?
The question was not whether he was the Son of God, but as the Son of God, what will he use his power to accomplish? By making stones and loaves of bread plural, Matthew pointed ahead to Jesus’ feeding miracles. Would Jesus be content with filling stomachs in a world full of hungry people or establish God’s Kingdom of justice?
By quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 that we do “not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” Jesus connected his mission with God’s provision of manna for Israel in the wilderness and refused to scale it back to temporal appetites, defining it in terms of God’s abundant love.
Renewing and increasing our involvement in Meals on Wheels is a wonderful first step at extending the mission of 1st Christian Church and engaging the people of Odessa. Jesus’ test with the stones and loaves of bread call us to a conversation about our mission. Will we be content with feeding people physically and meeting other legitimate but temporal needs, or will we tackle the much more demanding mission of feeding people spiritually and inviting them to trust and follow Jesus?
For Jesus to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple was a test of means consistent with ends. Would he be content to gather an instant, popular following who would acclaim him king and lead them to expel the Roman army?
This test is more than considering taking a short cut to get to the good faster. Spectacular exhibitions distort and obscure the life to which Jesus is calling: self-sacrificial service to seemingly insignificant people.
By answering with Deuteronomy 6:16 that we are not to put God to the test, Jesus affirmed that his mission had to be accomplished by faith that God works through what is unseen and small. God cautioned Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land, that they not forget that God gave them prosperity and they did not make it by their own intelligence, strength or effort.
As 1st Christian Church embarks on a new era of mission in Odessa, comparing with prominent successful congregations takes the focus off of the mission to which God has called this congregation and measures by human rather than divine standards. If people who are hungry for God are to be attracted to Jesus by 1st Christian Church, they must see that they can safely come among us regardless of how unworthy or insignificant they feel.
Ever since the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s death, the Hebrew prophets held out the dream of all the nations of the world streaming to Jerusalem and the God of Israel. Israelites of Jesus’ time and the first century Church certainly saw the Roman Empire as the devil’s hegemony. So the devil’s test for Jesus was, “Acknowledge that I am the legitimate sovereign over the Roman Empire and every other human empire and I will hand them over to you. Israel’s dreams will be fulfilled and you will be the supreme emperor.”
Jesus was offered a shortcut to accomplishing great good. Skip the cross and all the other painful stuff. Let the devil give it to you by conceding it belongs to him anyway. Was Jesus confident that he had sufficient might, power to complete his mission? Was he stronger than the devil?
Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:13 about worshipping only God to indicate that he was not depending on his own individual strength but the power of his heavenly Father, knowing He was far stronger than the devil. Israel faced a similar test when they rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple when returning from exile in Babylon. When only the foundation was laid, they saw that the Temple built by Zerubbabel was smaller and less glorious than Solomon’s Temple had been, and they wept. (Ezra 3:12; Haggai 2:3). But in Zechariah 4:6, 10, God told them not to despise the day of small things, but it was “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” And in Haggai 2:9 “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”
For 1st Christian Church to enter the new era of mission that is opening up is first and foremost a spiritual test. It is not about techniques, advertising, budgets, programs. It is not even about your new pastor. Of course, you want your new pastor to lead you in passing these tests, but the tests are for the whole congregation. The strength for your mission will not come from how smart you are or how hard you work but from the Holy Spirit of God.