Sunday, June 30, 2013

You Feed Them

You Feed Them!
Luke 9:10-17
            I’m a Yankee.  I had never been farther south than a short jaunt into northern Virginia until I went to Texas with my wife to visit her step-family.  Our first night in her stepmother’s home provided me with an important insight into the difference between northern and southern meals. 
            There were only the three of us, but the table was covered with food.  Instead of one entrĂ©e there were at least three, one of which was a large bowl of shrimp.  There were vegetables galore, including some I didn’t recognize.  I ate as much as appetite and belt would allow and barely made a dent in the table.  A couple of other family members dropped in and ate their fill, but there was still a lot left over.
            Don’t get me wrong:  my family never starved, but we never had a refrigerator-full of leftovers either.  Mom would cook enough for the three of us, but with little extra.  We ate well, ate enough, but she cooked for those she knew would be there, and that was about all.  If we had company for dinner the amount of food increased, but only by enough to feed the guests and us.
            Jesus had spent the day preaching, teaching and healing the crowd that had gathered around him.  Now evening was drawing near, and because of the seclusion of the place, they were far from any source of food.  The disciples came up with a practical solution.
            “Send the crowd away,” they said.  “Let them go into the nearby villages to buy food and find a place to stay for the night.  We’re too far away from civilization to deal with this.”  I’m sure they envisioned little towns with plenty of restaurants and motels—right?
            Jesus had a different solution:  You give them something to eat,” he said.
            Can’t you see the disciples’ faces?  Wouldn’t we have looked the same?  I can imagine my mother’s face if my father came through the door saying, “I hope we have enough food.  I’ve invited the whole congregation for supper.”
            How could Jesus have been so impractical?  How could he have expected the disciples, who often couldn’t find their hands at the end of their arms, to come up with enough food to satisfy five thousand men plus women and children?  Where were they going to find that quantity without so much as a McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders nearby—and even if they could, how would they pay for it?
            Of course the disciples hadn’t taken into consideration God’s power to provide.  We know what happened.  Jesus took the five small loaves of bread and the two fish the disciples were able to find and blessed them.  Not only did Jesus’ power provide enough to feed the multitude, there was more food left over than on our stepmother’s table in Texas.
            Like the disciples, some people try to come up with practical solutions.  They claim that the real miracle that evening occurred when people saw the selflessness of the one who had offered his meager dinner.  Everyone took out their own provisions and shared them.  Perhaps—but who says the solution has to be practical?  Jesus saw the problem, said to the disciples, “You fix it,” then applied God’s power to bring about the solution.
            Are things any different today?  We say, rather glibly at times, “God helps those who help themselves.”  But it’s true!  God expects us to go as far as our own resources allow.  We may feel that our problems are impossible to solve, but God knows better.  “You fix it,” God says.  Then, when we have done what we can, God supplies the power necessary to give us what we need—and more!  Much more!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Set Apart

Set Apart
Colossians 2:11-14
            Set apart.  Chosen for some special work.  Going through some ritual that declares you are different from those around you.  Belonging to a special group.  Receiving some preparation that raises you to a status that others haven’t attained.  Being a member of an “in group”—or perhaps, an “out group.”  Something happens that defines you as having been changed from the person you were to the person you now are.  Consecrated.
            The Bible has a lot to say about set-apartness.  It begins with Adam and Eve.  They were created in God’s own image—something that was true of no other part of creation.  God met with them in Eden and spoke with them.  Adam and Eve were set apart—chosen, special.  God consecrated them for a specific work—gave them specific instructions.  “Care for my creation,” God said.  “Do not eat from this one tree.”  Adam and Eve were called out by God from the other creatures for special tasks.
            Abraham was also called out by God.  He was told to leave his homeland and travel to a foreign place where he would become the father of a great people—a great nation.  One mark of the set-apartness of this nation would be circumcision.  For the males, there would be something that made them different from all other  peoples.  They would carry in their flesh a sign of their consecration.  Abraham’s descendants would be God’s chosen people.
            Moses and the people who followed him were set apart.  Like their forefathers they carried in their flesh the mark of circumcision—the mark of set-apartness.  To this was added a history of God acting on their behalf, setting them free from captivity and leading them to the Promised Land.  This God had a name—YHWH—“I AM.”  Not “I was,” or “I will be,” or “I might be,” but “I AM.”  The great I AM called them out of Egypt to be a light to the nations.  They were to be holy as God is holy—to be different from those around them.
            Throughout the history of God’s people many others were anointed—set apart for God’s special purpose:  Aaron, Esther, Saul, David, the prophets.  Each was consecrated in some way.  Each was given a task.  Each was prepared by God to perform the work God needed to be done.
            In the New Testament we find a new way of setting people apart—baptism.  John called people to repentance and baptized them in the Jordan—setting them apart, making them different from those around them, preparing them for God’s work.  Jesus insisted that John baptize him.  When John balked, Jesus let him know that baptism was necessary to set him apart for the work God had called him to do.
            Throughout his epistles Paul speaks of set-apartness.  Sometimes, as in Colossians, he couples circumcision with baptism as contrasting signs of consecration.  For Paul, who had been circumcised “in the flesh,” the old way of setting someone apart wasn’t good enough.  For him the necessary consecration was not one of the flesh, but one of dying to the world in baptism as Jesus Christ had died to the world on the cross.  As surely as physical circumcision had made God’s people different in the Hebrew Scriptures, baptism was to change them in the New Testament.  They were to be set apart, consecrated, changed—made different.
            How has your baptism changed you?  How are you different from the person you were before the act of consecration?  Christians in Paul’s time behaved so differently from those around them that everyone knew they were set apart.  Do those around you know that you have died to the world and become alive in Christ—set apart, consecrated by God for God’s special work?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Image of God

The Image of God
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Colossians 1:15-20
            No one has ever seen God.  Of all the people in the Bible, Moses came closest.  On Mount Sinai he asked to see God.  Since seeing God’s face would result in death, Moses was allowed to see God’s back.  Even that view was enough to make Moses’ face glow in a manner that frightened the Israelites.
            It’s interesting how frequently New Testament Scriptures parallel Old Testament Scriptures.  We know Jesus quoted biblical texts—obviously Old Testament passages, since the Hebrew Scriptures were the only Bible that existed at the time.  We know Satan quoted Scripture when he was tempting Jesus in the wilderness.  Paul and the other epistle writers frequently quoted the Old Testament to help their readers understand that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures.
            But quoting isn’t what I’m referring to here.  I’m talking about parallel thoughts, ideas or concepts, the same concept or idea expressed in similar language in both Old and New Testaments.  We have a good example here.
            The writer of this portion of Proverbs (most likely Solomon) speaks in chapter 8 about Wisdom.  He personifies Wisdom, giving the concept character—in this case a female character.  In so doing, the sacred writer stands in the European/Middle Eastern tradition of the time.  Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was said to have sprung full-grown from the head of her father, Zeus.  Maat was the European goddess of truth, order, justice and harmony—attributes associated with wisdom.  Certainly the Israelites would have been exposed to this idea during their time in Egypt.  Wisdom, in Proverbs is personified as a female who stands in public places and cries out, calling people to follow her path.
            In the latter part of this chapter we see Wisdom’s place in creation.  Wisdom is with God as the master builder, working alongside God to bring the universe and everything in it to fruition.  Wisdom was God’s delight, entertaining God during creation.  Christians believe this passage refers to Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the Master Builder.  Jesus is God’s Delight.  Jesus was begotten before creation began, and worked alongside God.
            Now look at what Paul writes to the Colossians.  He says, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
            Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as the head of the church—and more.  “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”  Jesus not only was begotten of God at the beginning (sprung, if you will, full-grown from God), but was also the firstborn of the new beginning, the resurrection from the dead.
            “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”—all the fullness of God.  No one has seen God, but we have seen Jesus.  We know Jesus is Wisdom—Wisdom beyond all human wisdom.  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” Paul tells the Corinthians (1:18), “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 
            And so the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments present the same concept.  Jesus Christ is the Wisdom that helped at creation, that began the resurrection, and that shows us God.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Better Than Luck

Better Than Luck
Romans 8:12-17
“It’s better to be lucky than good.”  We’ve all heard this expression.  Many of us have used it ourselves.  I certainly have.  To a great extent it’s true.  Someone can have all the skill in the world, but have an off-day and be beaten out by someone who just happens to be “on.”  Or, someone can be well-qualified, but not be in the right place at the right time and lose out to a person who is.  There is no accounting for luck.  It just happens.  It’s chance.
            Of course, there are those who don’t believe in chance.  My mother used to say “I don’t believe in luck.”  I’ve had someone tell me quite recently about a series of events that worked out to his advantage.  He was sure that chance played no part in it, that it was God’s leading.
            So where do you stand on this issue?  One view says that there is no such thing as random chance.  God directs our lives, sets up the circumstances under which we live, and we have no choice but to follow God’s leading.  If we take this view to the extreme we are just puppets moving in pre-ordained paths while God manipulates the strings. 
            The opposite view is that everything is chance.  God does not interfere at all, but allows us to do as we please.  This fits into the God-concept that emerged in the 18th century, the Age of Reason.  They saw God as a divine clockmaker who created the universe, set things in motion, then stepped back and let the “clock” run itself.
            Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, although not all in the same place.  It’s difficult for me to even articulate where I stand on this issue.  I find myself using language from both sides.  I also find myself moving back and forth, sometimes tending towards one pole and sometimes towards the other.
            Paul’s letter to the Romans might help us as we try to puzzle out our positions.  In 8:12-17 he tells us that if we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit we will be adopted into God’s family, becoming God’s sons and daughters.  We know how families operate.  Our parents tell us what to do when we are young.  As we mature, we get fewer commands from them and more suggestions—advice about how to live our lives.  Our parents eventually cut us loose, but by that time we should have grown enough to manage our own lives. 
            Perhaps this is how God works with us.  As we mature spiritually we find ourselves better understanding God’s will.  We are filled more and more with the Holy Spirit, and therefore able to make decisions that will affect our lives positively.  God helps us grow into mature Christians who know how to live in ways that are both pleasing to God and helpful to others.  This leading of the Holy Spirit is certainly better than luck.
            If we read farther into this chapter (verse 28) we hear Paul saying, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  One of my seminary professors talks about God weaving a tapestry.  She says that, as we make decisions about the direction of our lives, God takes those decisions and weaves them together.  The pattern is not completely predetermined, but the resulting tapestry is God’s will.  Instead, God takes our lives and our decisions and uses them for God’s good purpose.
            In my life, God has frequently opened some doors and closed others.  Once a door is closed, it seems impossible for me to open it.  On the other hand, there is often an open door in front of me.  What I do with that door is up to me, but looking back I can see how God used me. 
How does God lead you?  How do you feel God working in your life?  Be aware that, in the end, God’s purpose will be served.  How that plays out depends on us.