Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Winning Strategy

 

A Winning Strategy

Acts 26:1-29

            Today’s reading is much longer than those typically chosen for a devotional.  Remember, no time spent in Bible reading is ever wasted.

            First, a little background on this Scripture passage. 

            Paul has been arrested in Jerusalem after being accused (falsely) of bringing Gentiles into restricted areas of the Temple.  The arresting officer has placed him in protective custody for fear of what the incited Jews might do to him.  Although he would have most likely been released once tempers had cooled, he was accused by the Jewish leaders of causing riots.

            Paul was held to appear before Felix, the Roman governor.  Felix heard Paul speak several times.  He did not release Paul, but kept him imprisoned for two years.  At that time a new governor, Festus, was appointed.  Paul appealed his case to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen.  This meant further imprisonment and further delays.

            Finally, Paul appeared before the king, Agrippa, and made his defense.  That defense is the subject of today s reading.

            Two responses to Paul’s appearances before Roman officials are worth noting.  The first (Acts 24:25) is by Felix, who, on the occasion of their first meeting said to Paul, “Go away for the present.  When I get an opportunity, I will summon you.”

            The second response is from Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s defense says, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”  So says the translation in the English Standard Version.  The King James Version gives us a different slant.  Here Agrippa says, “Paul, almost you persuade me to be a Christian.”

            One day, Satan called all his minions together.  He said, “We’re losing the battle for human souls.  It’s clear our present strategy isn’t working.  We need fresh ideas.”

            One devil spoke up: “We could tell them that this Christianity business is all nonsense.”

            Satan said, “We’ve tried that.  It doesn’t work.”

            Another devil said, “We could point out what a good time they will have on earth if they follow us.”

            Satan said, “That hasn’t worked either.”

            Many suggestions were offered, and one by one Satan discarded them.  Finally, an old, experienced devil said, “We could tell them just to wait awhile.  No hurry.  They can enjoy life now and make a decision later.” 

            Satan said, “That’s it.  That’s the strategy that will work.”

            We hear the same message when someone proposes sensible gun control laws after a mass killing.  “This is not the time for knee-jerk responses.  Let people mourn awhile, then we can talk about gun legislation.”  But that time never comes.

            We hear the same argument when many want to hold our political leaders responsible for criminal actions.  “Now’s not the time.  It will only inflame the country and lead to more violence.  Let’s let things settle down; Then we’ll study it.”  But that time never comes.

            Felix says, “I’ll call you when I have more time.”

            Agrippa says, “You almost persuade me to be a Christian.

            Too many people say, “Wait awhile.  No need to rush to judgment.”

            Satan says, “That’s the strategy that will help us win.”

Sunday, January 10, 2021

New and Improved

 

New and Improved

Isaiah43:15-21

            There are certain Scripture passages I find myself returning to often.  This is one of them.  Every time I find myself back on familiar ground I discover something new, something I haven’t seen before.  Here I am again at Isaiah 43.  The words are the same, but like v. 19, I’m finding a new thing.

            The backstory for this passage is familiar.  Israel hasn’t kept covenant with God.  God has allowed Assyria to invade the northern kingdom and destroy it completely.  The southern kingdom—tiny Judea—didn’t learn from the experience, so once again God allowed a nation to invade and conquer.  This time it was Babylon, who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, took Judea’s leaders captive, and caused many of the people to scatter.

            God’s prophets, in some cases the same ones who foretold doom and punishment, are now telling those in captivity that God will not be angry forever.  There is still a price to be paid, a time of sorrow to be endured, but eventually, when the debt has been satisfied, the people will return to their land.

            The most encouraging of these prophets is Isaiah.  Things will get better, he says.  Conditions will improve.  Wait for it; it will happen.

            Isaiah, speaking God’s words, reminds the people who God is.  “I am the Lord,” God says, “your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your king.”  God is the Holy One of Israel, the One to whom the people owe thanksgiving for all their blessings.  God is their Creator, the One to whom they owe their very existence.  God is their King, the one to whom they owe not merely obedience, but obeisance.

            Then God promises them release from captivity.  “Forget about all that happened before,” God says.  “I’m going to do a new thing—something you haven’t seen before.”

            If God went no further than this we would have encouraging words with which to begin the new year.  This would be true of any year, but even more so of the one just past.  Over the last twelve months we have experienced a major health crisis as well as unprecedented political upheaval, and increased racial tension.  How wonderful to hear from God, “Forget all that, I’m doing something new.”  How welcome those words are!

            But God promises more.  God tells the people that not only will they be going home, but the way will be easy, unlike the Exodus. 

            Israel had never forgotten their escape from Egypt.  Throughout their history this was their touchstone.  God had led them out of captivity—slavery—and taken them to the Promised Land.  But the journey had been long, difficult, exhausting, and had cost the lives of everyone who had been an adult when they left Egypt.

            Now God says, “Forget that journey.  Remember it as part of your history, of course; but this time the trip will be much easier.  Yes, you must go through the wilderness, but it won’t take you forty years, and you won’t have to eat manna and drink water from a rock.  There will be streams in the desert, running water for you to drink.  You will have straight roads and enough food.  It’s beginning—do you see it?”

            New and improved.  How often have we heard those words applied to a product that manufacturers have tweaked a little—or not at all; perhaps just added a new ad campaign.  But with God it’s really true.  Things will be new—and improved.  God is doing a new thing.  God is always doing a new thing.  Do you see it?

Sunday, December 27, 2020

How do we love?

 

How Do We Love?

1 John 4:13-21

            Translating from one language to another is never easy.  There are shades of meaning in one language that might not occur in another.  Some languages have more than the one word available in others for an idea or concept.  Local customs, cultural norms—even weather—affect how language develops to meet the needs of the people using it. 

            This is true of the English word love.  We have only one word for that emotion.  What kind of love, who or what the word applies to, the breadth and/or depth of love must all be expressed through context and modifying words.  But there’s quite a difference, for example, between “I love apples,” and “I love my wife.”  It may be difficult—in English—to express that difference well.

            Not true in Greek.  Greek has four words for love.  The kind of love, and, in most cases, the object of love becomes evident through the word which is used.

            Storge is familial love such as a parent for a child.

            Philia is love for a sibling, a cousin, or an extremely close friend.

            Eros is romantic love—love for a spouse or partner.

            Agape is the love originating from God for humankind.  It refers to the covenant of love God has instituted with humans, and the reciprocal love of humans for God.

            It is agape that I wish to focus on today. 

            The apostle John must have had a deep, loving relationship with Jesus.  No other New Testament writer speaks of love as much as he does.  We sense this in his gospel, which seems to come from a different place and present a different Jesus than the other three.  But it is in his first letter that love takes center stage. 

            Almost from the opening verse of this letter we are aware of the love he feels for those to whom he is writing: “My little children” he calls them.  The word love appears so often it is almost a refrain.  Love is the focus of this letter.

            But what kind of love?  “My little children” indicates storge.  When John says (3:1) “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are,” storge fits perfectly—but not for the whole letter.  His love for his fellow apostles might indicate philia, but that doesn’t fit for the entire letter either.  Surely he cannot mean eros. 

            That leaves agape.  In today’s reading (4:16b) John says, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  Agape makes sense here, as it does in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

            Agape.  Self-giving love.  God gives of himself for the good of humankind.  We give of ourselves to God to return his agape.  We extend agape to those we encounter in our daily lives.  We can use the phrase love for neighbor, but only if we accept Jesus’ definition of neighbor as he illustrates it in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

            When we share agape with God we become part of the kingdom of God here and now.  God’s realm is alive and well right now, right here.  It’s not in some far-off place, in some futuristic time, but here on earth, in the present tense.

            See what agape God has given us.  Now we give agape to God, and to God’s children.  This is how we must love.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

In the Beginning...the Word

 

In the Beginning…the Word

John1:1-14

            Much has been written about the beginning of John’s gospel—the prologue.  It’s a stirring passage.  I have the good fortune to read it every Christmas Eve in our service of lessons and carols.  Traditionally, it is the final reading in this service, and as pastor I have the privilege of sharing it with our congregation.

            This is John’s version of the birth story.  He doesn’t go into detail as do Matthew and Luke.  He doesn’t ignore it completely as does Mark.  Instead, as John does with other passages in his gospel, he reveals the concept behind the details.  Matthew tells the birth story from Joseph’s perspective; Luke from Mary’s point of view.  John tells it from the perspective of the results, the effects on those who experienced the man Jesus Christ.

            In John’s words we hear the echo of Proverbs 8, the beautiful description of wisdom and wisdom’s part in creation.

            “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.”  (Proverbs 8:25)

            “He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:2-3)

            Christians look at John’s prologue and at Proverbs 8 and say, “Well, of course the writer of Proverbs was talking about Jesus Christ!”  That our Jewish brothers and sisters read it differently demonstrates how open the Bible is for interpretation.  It doesn’t necessarily mean one of us is right and the other wrong.  It just means we see this passage from different points of view.

            John wants us to see Jesus as Paul describes him in his letter to the Philippians: “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

            John wants us to see the eternal Jesus, who existed before creation—before the beginning of time, the Jesus Christ who is coequal with God the Father.  It is this Jesus, the Word of God, who John describes so beautifully and poetically in these verses.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” (italics mine)

            John sees the Creator in Jesus Christ.  “All things were made through him…”  When God spoke, the Word was there.  “Let there be light,” God said.  John says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

            Matthew speaks briefly about the birth: “Now after Jesus was born…”  Luke says, “And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…”  John gives us the reason for the birth: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

            Matthew and Luke give us a baby, the infant Jesus, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.  We know this little babe will grow to be the Savior of the world, but right now, at the beginning, Jesus is a tiny, helpless child.

            John gives us a fait accompli.  The Word of God was made human flesh and dwelt among us.  The One who helped create this world and all that is in it walked with humans, talked with humans, taught humans, healed humans, and died for humans.

            And we beheld his glory.       

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Jesus, Alpha Male

 

Jesus, Alpha Male

Luke 2:39-40

            In a selection* from the book Mama’s Last Hug by Franz de Waal, the author discusses the essence of a true alpha male.

            “In animal research, the alpha male is simply the top-ranking male of a group…In political parlance, however, it has come to denote a certain type of personality…emphasizing self-confidence, swagger, and purpose.  Alphas are not just winners…they beat…everyone around them and remind them every day who won.  A true alpha goes it alone and crushes the competition, like a lion among sheep.” 

            Many authors have tried to categorize Jesus Christ by pinning one label or another on him:  CEO, coach, revolutionary.  These and other labels seek to define Christ by putting him in a box—not a box we find in the gospels, but a box designed from some human viewpoint.  It’s as if they say, “Here!  We’ve figured out who Jesus is.  Accept our definition of him and you’ll understand him perfectly.”

All these labels are wrong.  Jesus defies all categories because he is unique.  What else would you expect from the Son of God? 

            We might be tempted to label Jesus Christ the ultimate alpha male, and in some ways he fits the description.  He certainly had self-confidence.  He was never at a loss for words.  No matter what company he was in he was at ease, always in control of himself and the situation.  He was equally at home with Roman leaders, the religious elite of his own faith, the rich, the powerful; and sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, common working folk.  Jesus spent time with them all, had a message for each, offered life-changing opportunities to everyone he encountered.

            Jesus had purpose.  Once he began his ministry his focus was on purpose and nothing else.  His purpose was to give his life for the world; he achieved it.  His purpose was to offer salvation to those he met; he achieved that also.  His purpose was to do God’s will, and make God visible to the people with whom he came in contact; he fulfilled that as well. 

            Swagger?  No.  There was no swagger to him, no ego, no need to be on top.  Instead Jesus was humble, self-effacing, always pointing beyond himself to his Father, trying to get people to follow God as completely as he did.

            A winner?  Not by the world’s standards.  He didn’t “crush the competition;” he didn’t “go it alone.”  He didn’t remind everyone every day of how good, how important, how tough he was.  Instead he reached out to people, surrounded himself with them.  Touched them, healed them—loved them.

            I believe de Wall would argue that Jesus was closer to the definition of an alpha male in the animal kingdom than to the distortion we apply to overly aggressive, highly successful males. 

            Among primates the alpha male almost always achieves his position with the cooperation of others.  He may not even be the biggest, strongest, meanest male in the group.  Once he has achieved leadership he “protects the underdog, keeps the peace, and reassures those who are distressed.”  While females generally console others more than males, the alpha “acts as a healer-in-chief, comforting others in agony more than anyone else in the community.”

            Sound like Jesus?  It does to me.  This is the Jesus we meet in the gospels, the one whose strength is so great he doesn’t have to brag about it, whose victory is achieved through love and compassion rather than through overpowering those around him.

*This excerpt appeared in the website Delancyplace.com.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Christmas Backstory

The Christmas Backstory

Philippians 2:5-8

            This year my church received in the mail a short booklet of Advent devotions titled The Peace and Promise of Christmas.  It consists of ten Christmas reflections from the publication Our Daily Bread.  I want to share the introduction with you. The author is Bill Crowder.

            It seems to me that we enter the Christmas story too late.  We celebrate Jesus’ arrival on earth, but we forget He had to leave where he was so that He could come to where we are.  We’re so thrilled by the Baby in the manger, the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men that we don’t pause to remember that Baby’s humble beginnings.

            Stop for a moment to think about it.  The eternal Son of God left His Father’s presence, which He had known and enjoyed since before time began, in order to become that Baby in that manger.

            This should take our breath away!  Contrast the glory Jesus left with the darkness He stepped into.  Ponder the perfect relationship He enjoyed in the Father’s presence that He exchanged in order to embrace the brokenness we’ve inflicted upon His creation.  Consider the privilege and position He set aside so He could come to serve His creatures, when in reality He deserved to be served by us.

            This is the backstory of the Christmas story.  While the Bible doesn’t give us volumes of insight behind the scenes of Christmas, neither is it silent.  We can read enough to marvel at the sacrifices Christ made to come to earth.  And He did it all so that He could become our sacrificial lamb—the One who rescued us from death and brought us His peace.

            This is why what led up to the Christmas story is so important.  By unveiling Jesus’ true identity, we learn the eternal value of the coming of Christ to earth.

            Galatians 4:4 says, “When the set time had fully come, God, sent his Son, born of a woman…”

            What does Paul mean, “when the set time had fully come?”  What time?  Who’s time?  Who decided that the time was right for Jesus to be born? 

            God decided, of course.  In the fulness of God’s time Jesus was born. 

            Why did God decide that time was the right time?  Was that time somehow worse than all other times?  Were world conditions so evil, so corrupt that God decided it was the must time?  Was it the Roman Empire? The corruption of the Jewish religious/political leadership?  The paganism of the world outside Judea that made God decide the fulness of time had come?

            I read a sermon recently by Barbara Brown Taylor titled The End Is Near.  It was based on Mark 13:14-23.  In it she makes the point that the times have always been difficult.  Talking about the end of time she says: “If you think about it, the world has been ending for someone, somewhere for as long as anyone can remember…”  We can paraphrase her and say that the world has always been in the worst of times for someone, somewhere.  Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden.  Egypt enslaving the Israelites.  The Babylonian Empire. The Roman Empire. The Middle Ages. The church before the Reformation.  Absolute monarchies.  The Civil War. World Wars I and II. Covid-19.  When hasn’t it been the worst of times?

            Yet for whatever reasons, God chose that time and that place to send God’s Son to rescue the world.  And so the Son left his Father’s presence to come to earth and become our Savior.  We can’t imagine the glories he left behind to come here, the full wonder of God’s realm, the company of angels.

            In his letter to the Philippians Paul briefly sketches that transition.  Jesus was “in the form of God.”  He “made himself nothing,” took “the form of a servant.”  He “humbled himself” to “the point of death”—the worst death Rome could think of.

            How do we repay a debt like that?  How do we thank God that in the fulness of time Jesus came to give us the fulness of eternity?

            We give him our hearts.

            We give him our love.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Keep Your Feet Moving

 

Keep Your Feet Moving

Matthew 10:16-23

            Network television is pretty much lost on us.  We rarely watch anything on the major networks except the news from 5:00-6:00 each night.  We keep up with some of the British and Australian mystery series on PBS.  We don’t stream anything.  We have a bunch of movie and PBS DVD’s we keep saying we’ll watch, but we never seem to get around to it.

            What we watch mostly is sports.  I count myself fortunate to have married a woman who not only enjoys sports as much as I do, but also enjoys watching them the same way I do.  We even root for—and against—the same teams—mostly.

            After supper—sometimes during supper—we turn on a football, basketball, or baseball game and let it run as background entertainment.  My wife enjoys doing puzzles and I usually keep two or more books going at the same time.  We keep the sound turned down low on the TV so we can keep track of the game without it demanding our constant attention.  If the announcer gets excited we know to look up because something important is happening.  Thank goodness for instant replay.  This combination of activities keeps us entertained for hours.  When one game ends, we turn to another one.  When the last game is over (or the last one we want to watch) we turn off the TV and continue with our reading and puzzles.

            I know we’re unusual, but that’s how we enjoy an evening at home.  It’s not that we ignore the games; it’s that they rarely are so interesting as to claim our complete attention.  We can do this for an entire evening, rarely even speaking to each other.  We’re not ignoring each other, we’re just comfortable enough in each other’s presence that we don’t have to talk much.

            One thing I have learned from football:  the guy with the ball is most successful when he keeps his feet moving.  Sometimes a runner will seem to be stopped by one or more tacklers, but he keeps his feet moving, keeps his legs pumping, and gains a few more yards.  Recently we saw a runner score a touchdown while hopping on one leg.  The other leg was being held parallel to the ground by an opponent.  Pretty determined running.

            Jesus was teaching his disciples the same lesson in today’s Scripture passage.  He warned them they would face difficult times.  “Behold,” he tells them.  “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”  They will be hauled into court, beaten, jailed, perhaps even killed for the sake of the gospel.  They may be given over to the authorities by their own family members.

            Jesus paints a bleak picture.  Think what it would be like if someone tried to recruit us to work for a company and said, “We’d love to have you work for us, but you should know up front it won’t be easy.  There is a very good possibility that you will wind up in court.  You could be beaten and jailed.  You can’t rule out the possibility of torture and death.  Your own family may turn against you.”  Not much of a sales pitch, is it?

            But Jesus’ sales pitch doesn’t end there.  He promises that the retirement benefits will be the best part of the package.  He says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

            Jesus has one more warning.  The work will not be completed in your lifetime.  When your time here on earth is over, there will be work left for the next generation, and the next one, and the one after that—on and on until Jesus says, “That’s all!”

            Above all, keep your feet moving.  Keep your legs pumping.  Keep pushing that pile of obstructions forward, keep moving the ball farther down the field.  You may not reach the goal line, but get as close as you can.  Someone else will pick up the ball and continue the game.  Endure to the end.  The next set of players will take it from there.  Your job is to keep moving those feet.