Sunday, March 29, 2015

We Call It "Passion Week"

We Call it “Passion Week”
Mark 11-15
            Palm Sunday is a happy occasion.  Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  He’s riding on a donkey—may not sound like much of a ride, but as far as we know it’s the only time in his adult life that he isn’t walking or sailing.  People are shouting for him.  They’re paving his way with their cloaks and with branches cut from trees, so that even the feet of his mount won’t touch the ground.  Jesus is the center of attention.  He’s a rock star.  He’s the latest greatest thing.  His status can’t get much higher with the people.  So what if the leaders reject him!  Right now he could ask his followers to do just about anything.
            How quickly situations change.  We know fame is fleeting.  When I open the browser on my computer, along with the news stories there’s a list titled “Trending.”  From day to day this list changes completely.  Sometimes even within the same day different people are “trending.”  Fifteen minutes of fame?  Perhaps not even that.  For Jesus it takes five days to go from the top to the bottom.  The week that starts off so well ends so badly.  How could this happen?
            The simple answer of course is that Jesus angered the establishment.  His preaching and teaching went against everything the religious leaders had been saying and doing for ages.  His popularity with the people threatened their position and their way of life.  Worse yet, if the people revolted it would mean bloodshed.  The Roman authorities wouldn’t tolerate insurrection.  Not only would they kill the insurgents, but the nation’s leaders would also be held accountable.  At the very least they would lose their positions.  At the worst they could lose their lives.
            That’s the political reality—and there is no doubt that politics trumped religion on this occasion as on so many others.  Even today it is not unusual for political interests to hold sway over those of religion.  We don’t have to look any further than our own leaders—national, state and local—to see how easy it is for spiritual concerns to be pushed aside so that political concerns (should we say realities?) can be addressed.  We are as worldly minded in our approach to our spiritual lives as were the Pharisees.  I have no doubt that, if Jesus were to come today, many of our leaders—religious as well as political—would hear him begin his remarks to them with the words, “You hypocrites!”  How would he speak to us?
            That’s the simple answer—but not the whole answer.  If we read carefully through these five chapters of Mark’s gospel we’ll find Jesus saying things that turned people away.  Instead of playing it safe and satisfying the Roman and Jewish leaders, Jesus chooses to make statements that put him in direct opposition to them.  Instead of saying what the people want to hear he makes his teaching more and more difficult to accept.  Jesus never takes the easy way out.  He says what needs to be said.  He doesn’t try to gather support for his agenda.  Instead he points his listeners to God.  It is clear from the events of holy week that he knows what is going to happen to him, and he does nothing to prevent it.
            I find it interesting that no healing miracles are mentioned in any of the gospel accounts of Holy Week.  Jesus tells parable after parable about the Jewish leaders’ hypocrisy, and their infidelity to God’s teaching.    He continues to chastise the Jewish leadership for being what he calls in Matthew’s account “whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones.”  He predicts the destruction of the temple, an event which will change the entire focus of Judaism.  But we don’t read of him healing anyone.  Jesus abandons the activity that brought him the most attention and gathered people to him.  Everything he does seems to be aimed at challenging his followers to accept his teaching or leave off following him. 

Which would we have done?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Bright Shiny Faces

Bright Shiny Faces
Colossians 1:15-23
            Reading this passage brings a number of thoughts to my mind.  The words that speak to me the most are the first seven:  “He is the image of the invisible God.”
            The gospels make it clear that Jesus came to show us God.  Yes, Jesus came to die on the cross for our sins in order to redeem us and reconcile us to God.  But if that had been God’s only purpose, Jesus wouldn’t have had to live on earth for thirty-three years before his execution.  As one of my seminary professors said, God could have just dropped Jesus onto the cross and the redeeming work would have been completed.  There must have been a reason for Jesus’ life as well as for his death.
 “He is the image of the invisible God.”  In these seven words we see the reason for Jesus’ life.  God has never been visible to humankind—except once, in a very limited way.  You remember the story from Exodus 33:17-23.  Moses had been with God on Mt. Sinai.  This was the second time.  After the first time, Moses had come down from the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.  In his anger he smashed the stone tablets containing God’s commandments.  Now he was back on the mountain to receive them again.
            Moses wanted assurance that God would be with him and the people.  After receiving that assurance, Moses asked to see God.  Remember God’s answer?  “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”  Seeing God is reserved for those who have passed into glory. 
            God wanted to honor Moses’ request, so Moses was placed in a cleft in the rock.  When God passed by, God covered Moses.  After God had passed by, Moses was able to see God’s back.  That was as close as Moses—or anyone—could come to seeing God.
            Do you remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain?  We read about it in Exodus 34:29-35.  Moses’ face glowed because he had been in God’s presence. It frightened the people.  They had never seen anyone with a glowing face.  This was a new experience for them and they didn’t know how to react.  They were petrified by the change in Moses’ appearance—so afraid that from that day he had to wear a veil.  He could remove it only when he went into the tabernacle to speak with God.
            We who claim the name of Christian have seen Jesus—not physically, of course.  The only person we know who has seen Jesus since his ascension is Paul on the Damascus road.  We have no record of Jesus revealing his physical presence to anyone else. 
Still, we have “seen” Jesus.  We encounter him in the gospels.  Jesus’ followers told and retold what they remembered of their time with him.  Finally someone decided a written record was needed so the stories would not be changed or lost.  As we read these records we get a picture of what Jesus did, what he said, and how people interacted with him.  We can read his words.  We can feel his power.  We can experience his love and compassion.  We get a sense of who he was and how his life influenced those around him. 
Paul tells the Colossians that Jesus is the image of God.  He tells them that though they were alienated, they have been reconciled to God through Jesus.  They know Jesus!
If we have “seen” Jesus, then we have seen God.  If seeing God made Moses’ face glow, shouldn’t our experience with Jesus make our faces glow?  If we’ve been reconciled to God then everyone should know it by our bright, shiny faces.  Gloomy faces won’t convince anyone to become a Christian.
Does your face glow?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Cinderella Story

A Cinderella Story
Ephesians 2:1-10
            There are many versions of the Cinderella story—and more keep appearing.  Every so often someone comes out with a new movie about the girl with the glass slipper.  Rogers and Hammerstein wrote one of their early musicals about her. It’s a story worth retelling.
 Everyone who retells the tale tries to find a different angle, an approach no one has tried before.  One of my favorites is The Truth about Cinderella, a musical by June Walker Rogers, Charles Strouse, and David Rogers.  In this version Cinderella is an obsessive compulsive cleaner.  She is constantly tidying up the house:  dusting, mopping, washing, waxing, and driving everyone—father, stepmother, stepsisters—crazy.  She feels this is the only way she can get her father’s attention.  She has two fairy godmothers:  one who wants her to reform, and one who encourages her OC behavior.  Cinderella is not the victim but the villain.  Perhaps this is not the most accurate portrayal of the character, but it certainly is a unique and interesting interpretation of the story.
In today’s Scripture passage we might be able to see ourselves as Cinderella.  Like the obsessive compulsive Cinderella of the musical our troubles are of our own making.  We have chosen the wrong path because of our selfishness—our desire to have things our way.  We have been encouraged in our ego-driven journey by the prince of the power of the air—Satan—who loves to see us pursuing our desires.  Every time we come to a crossroads he is waiting to lure us down the road that leads us farther away from God—and we are willing victims.  Like the negative fairy godmother he convinces us that this is the only way to happiness.  So we go blissfully along, driven by the winds of envy, covetousness, and anger until we find ourselves dead—dead in the water and dead in sin, with no hope of finding our way back.
We may talk about the sins of the flesh, and imagine that they are the worst we can commit, but make no mistake:  they are not the cause of our sinfulness; they are the result.  The center of our evil nature is not our body but our mind.  If, as some theologians tell us, we are totally depraved, the condition begins between our ears.  Satan knows this, and fills our minds with wicked thoughts that lead to evil actions. 
Right in the middle of this passage, when Paul has made it clear that the sinful life is not one of freedom but of following the wrong leader, he turns on a dime and says the two words that change everything:  “But God…”
But God, in infinite love, provided a way out of the sinfulness that so easily and successfully leads us astray.
But God, who is rich in mercy, brings us from death in sin to life together with Jesus Christ.
Bur God, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has extended grace to us—grace that saves us from a fate worse than death and opens a channel whereby we can live in heavenly places.  Nor do we have to wait for those heavenly places.  We can enjoy them right now, since God’s kingdom has come to earth.

How shall we live?  We live our lives in gratitude for God’s good gift.  How do we show our gratitude?  We demonstrate our thankfulness by what we do.  No amount of talking about our salvation will help us.  Our lives are not ours to live as we please, nor as Satan encourages us to live.  Rather, we show our love of God by our actions.  We are saved by the work God has done, but we demonstrate our salvation by the works that we do, as we spend our lives producing fruits of the Spirit.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Guerilla Warfare

Guerilla Warfare
Ephesians 6:10-20
            Paul loves athletic metaphors.  He talks about wrestling, about running races, about striving for the prize—and these are effective ways to describe the Christian life, especially to the people of his generation.  The Greeks and Romans loved sports (although the Roman sports seem to have been a bit more for the bloodthirsty). We have no biblical evidence of athletics holding a place of high esteem in Jewish culture.  However, since Paul wrote his letters to primarily Gentile congregations, these metaphors would have been entirely appropriate. 
            The idea of guerilla warfare is on our minds these days.  Ever since 9/11 we have been aware of how easy it can be for a group of dedicated people to attack us in this manner.  The neighbor from next door or down the street suddenly becomes a terrorist (or freedom fighter, depending on which side you’re on).  You never know which person you pass on the street, or sit next to on the bus might pull a gun, or detonate a bomb, or otherwise cause death and destruction.
            Spiritually, we should be prepared for guerilla warfare because we should expect it.  It’s the way our spiritual enemy has always fought.  Seldom are we attacked head on.  Direct confrontation seems to happen, if at all, when the enemy is desperate to get to us.  Most of the time we are attacked subtly, sneakily, when, where, and how we least expect.
            It’s been said that the big frustrations in life are easy to deal with.  What gets to us are the little things:  not finding a parking space when we’re in a hurry; losing our car keys when we most need them.  Having our computer break down when we’re facing an important deadline.  This is when we become annoyed to the point of losing our patience and saying or doing something we shouldn’t.
            Temptations work the same way.  We can usually spot the big ones and deflect them.  It’s the little ones, those that don’t seem like temptations that get us.  This has been true all the way back to Eve.  The serpent didn’t say, “Come on, enjoy the fruit!  You deserve to eat well.”  Instead he said, “You’re not going to die!  That’s God’s scare tactics.  One little bite and you’ll be wiser than you could ever imagine.”
            And she fell for it!  Would we have reacted any differently?  I’m afraid we’d be as susceptible to the ego ploy as Eve was—if not more so.
            Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesians that they’re going to fight a pitched battle against a human foe.  When early Christians faced such fights they almost always responded with supreme courage, accepting martyrdom as the price they had to pay for being followers of Christ.  After all, if their Lord and Savior had suffered crucifixion, why should they expect any better?
            Using one of his famous sports metaphors Paul says, (v. 12), “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  How are we going to stand up to cosmic powers?  How are we going to confront spiritual forces?  Even the rulers and authorities he mentions are less physical opponents than spiritual ones.  They’re not going to come at us in full frontal attack.  They’re going to sneak up on us, hit us from behind, blindside us—anything to undermine our faith in God.  How do we fight such enemies?

            Paul tells us to be fully armed, of course, but this will only protect us, not get rid of the problem.  As an offensive weapon Paul advises us to know the word of God so thoroughly that we can use it like a sword.  Paul also says pray—pray for ourselves, pray for our neighbors, pray especially for strength to resist guerilla attacks.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

In the Wrong Place

In the Wrong Place
2 Samuel 11
            “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel.  And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.”
            God had taken the kingdom away from Saul.  Saul had displeased God by committing the sin of arrogance.  He had attempted to usurp Samuel’s place as prophet and priest.  Instead of fulfilling the role God had given him, Saul sought to be more, and so failed as king and failed in battle.  Not only did he lose the kingdom for himself, but also for his descendants.  Even a man as good as his son Jonathan was cut off from inheriting his father’s crown.
            God turned his favor from the house of Saul to the house of David.  The young shepherd boy became the man after God’s own heart, and God appointed him the shepherd-king of Israel.  He was loved by his people.  He was able to unite the entire land of Israel under his leadership.  He was able to make Jerusalem his capitol—the holy city of God.  What more could a person ask?  What more could a person want? 
            There is no doubt in my mind that whatever David had asked of God it would have been given him.  More victories?  Done!  More wealth?  Done!  More wives, more descendants?  Done!  As long as David kept the precepts of God’s law (see Psalm 119) God would reward him.
            Aye, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare would say.  David knew God’s law.  He knew what God required.  Furthermore, he loved God’s law.  Psalm 119 is a hymn of praise to it.  You don’t have to read all 176 verses to understand that.  Open to anywhere in the psalm and read at random.  You’ll see that God’s law meant the world to David.  And yet he knowingly broke God’s commandments.
            He desired another man’s wife—you shall not covet (#10).
            He had sexual relations with her—you shall not commit adultery (#7).
            He had her husband killed—you shall not murder (#6)
            He took the woman, pregnant with his child, to be his own—you shall not steal (#8)
In so doing, he dishonored God, who had given him not only the kingdom of Israel but anything and everything David could possibly have asked for or needed. 
How did it all start?  David was in the wrong place.
            In the spring of the year, when kings go out to battle, David remained in Jerusalem.  David should have been with his army.  He should have been at the front.  He should have been leading Israel in the fight against its enemies.  Instead, David stayed home.
            Say what we might about Bathsheba being in the wrong place (Surely she should have known that her bath was visible from the king’s palace!  If he could see her, she would have been able to see him), had David performed his duty as king—leading his troops into battle—he would not have been in a position to see what he shouldn’t have seen and do what he shouldn’t have done.

            How often do we get ourselves in trouble by being in the wrong place?  We know what our obligations are.  We know where we should be.  We know what we ought to be doing, but we’re in a place where temptation can easily reach us—and that’s when the trouble starts.