Sunday, July 26, 2015

Getting Away From it All

Getting Away From it All
Mark 6:30-32
            Recently my wife and I have had a number of responsibilities pile up on us.  We seem to be rushing from one activity to another until late in the evening.  When we finally get a chance to slow down it takes us a while before we can unwind enough to go to bed.  As a result, on a recent weekend, we did nothing.  Except for church on Sunday we didn’t leave the house from Friday night to Monday morning.  We have an idea of how Jesus and his disciples must have felt.
            Earlier in this chapter, Jesus sent his disciples out to practice what he had been teaching them.  Mark doesn’t tell us how long they were gone, but when they returned they must have been both exhausted and exhilarated.  We can see them talking to Jesus, probably all at once, telling him of their successes, their failures, the wonderful things they had seen and experienced, all while their eyes were half shut because they were falling asleep.
            Jesus recognized the symptoms.  Hadn’t he sometimes become exhausted while being about his Father’s business?  Hadn’t he needed to get off by himself and pray, renewing his energy through contact with the One who sent him?  So Jesus suggested a little R&R.  “Come away by yourselves,” he said, “to a desolate place and rest a while.” 
            We must not take this word desolate too seriously.  When we use the word we usually mean something devoid of any beauty, a bare landscape with nothing to recommend it as a vacation spot—like the badlands in the Dakotas, perhaps.  I believe Mark is indicating a place with no distractions—no fast food restaurants, no movie theatres, no amusement parks.  This is a place where they can be alone together and decompress while Jesus debriefs them.
            We know it didn’t work out that way.  When they got into the boat and headed for their private retreat, people saw them and took off on foot, knowing the shortcuts that would get them there first.  By the time the boat pulled in to shore a crowd of over five thousand had gathered, waiting to be fed.  Jesus had no choice but to feed them—spiritually as well as physically.  As Mark tells us, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
            We don’t know when the disciples got time to relax.  We do know Jesus spent much of that night praying alone, recharging his spiritual batteries, before walking across the water to them.  We can be sure that at some point they must have had time to refresh themselves, to recoup their energy.  No one can go on forever without some down time.  As my wife and I spent last weekend doing much of nothing, so the disciples had to eventually find time to be alone with Jesus.
            So often we allow ourselves to overwork.  We’re tired—we know it.  We’re running on empty—we know it.  Our batteries desperately need recharging—we know it.  Still, we push on.  People need us.  There’s work to be done.  There are projects that must be completed; messes to be tidied up; meals to be cooked; children to be cared for.  How can we possibly take time off?  But Jesus says to us, “Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and rest a while.”
            If we don’t heed Jesus’ words we might run out of steam at the moment we’re needed most.  When our bodies and our spirits crave rest we owe it to those who are dependent on us, to all the work that must be done (and work will always need to be done!), and to all the projects that need to be completed, to gather our strength for what lies ahead.

            “Come away,” Jesus says.  “Take some time off to be alone with me.  Let me feed you.  Talk to me.  Tell me what’s going on in your life.  Tell me what you need.  Decompress and let me debrief you for a while.  It will be good for your body—and your soul.”

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Too Many Men

Too Many Men
Judges 7:1-23
            When I was a young boy I loved to hear my father tell Bible stories.  When I was older, and counseling at church camps, I told the boys in my cabin the same stories during nightly devotions.  I hope the stories were as memorable for them as my father made them for me. 
One of my favorites was the story of Gideon.  You can find him in chapters 6-8 in the Book of Judges. 
Once again the people of Israel had turned their backs on God.  The writer of Judges tells us they did evil in God’s sight.  Their punishment was the Midianites. After the Israelite farmers had done all the hard work, the Midianites swept down at harvest time and stole the crops.  Since Israel had no standing army, they were sitting ducks.
            God came to Gideon in the person of an angel, and told him he had been chosen to lead Israel against her oppressors.  Gideon asked for proof.  After all, this was no small task, leading a disorganized bunch of farmers against a trained army so large it couldn’t be numbered.  God supplied the proof to Gideon’s satisfaction, and Gideon sent out a call for fighters.
            We’re told 32,000 showed up at the spring of Harod.  We can be sure they didn’t look much like soldiers.  Gideon must have been disappointed at the ragtag bunch.  Then God surprised him by saying, “Gideon, you have too many men!”
            There was a method to God’s madness.  God wanted to be sure Israel understood that it was God who had saved them from their enemies and not themselves.  It was not a question of strength, but of whose strength would win the battle.  If Israel had strength of force—even untrained force, the people might continue to rely on themselves instead of turning back to God.
            Gideon gathered his troops and announced, “If any of you are afraid to fight, or if obligations at home would distract you from concentrating on the battle, feel free to leave.”  Twenty-two thousand men left, which meant Gideon had ten thousand untrained troops to fight against the disciplined Midianite army.  God said again, “Gideon, you have too many men.”
            With (I’m sure) a sigh, Gideon led the men to the spring and told them to take a drink.  Most knelt on both knees and used both hands, discarding their weapons so they could get more water.  A significant few, on one knee, scooped up a little water in one hand while they kept their weapons at the ready.  God said, “Send the others home.  This is your fighting force.”  Gideon looked around.  He was left with only 300 men—but they were ready to fight.
            That night, Gideon divided his troops into groups of 100, and placed them around three sides of the Midianite camp.  Each fighter had a trumpet and a torch covered with a jar.  At Gideon’s command, everyone blew their trumpets, smashed the jars, exposing the torches, and cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”
            You can imagine what happened.  The camp was in an uproar, with everyone running around half asleep, and fighting with anyone they encountered.  Gideon’s men waited until the enemy had sufficiently decimated itself to make the mop-up operation easy.  The Bible tells how Gideon’s force, now joined by other Israelites, pursued the Midianites and completed the rout of the once unbeatable army.

            Just so does God lead us in battle against our enemies.  These enemies will most often be spiritual rather than physical, but they are the ones that threaten our souls.  We haven’t the strength to conquer these foes, but God does.  If we listen to God, and use the tools God provides, we are assured of victory.  With God’s help we can all be Gideons.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jesus and Women

Jesus and Women
John 4:1-42
            Jesus was constantly breaking rules.  When we read the accounts of his life we applaud his individuality, the way he stood up to authority, his willingness to defy the leaders of his day and put them in their reactionary place.  Then we turn around and construct rules that are every bit as binding as those Jesus fought against.  Worse yet, we use Scripture to justify those rules, just as the Pharisees used their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures to justify their binding, smothering rules in Jesus’ day.
            Nowhere is Jesus’ rule-breaking more evident than in his interactions with women.  Relationships between men and women in first-century Judea were very structured.  Men didn’t talk to women—even their relatives—in public.  While the rules governing women’s movements were not as strict as those Islamic extremists seek to put in place today, females had no status in society other than that of daughter, wife or mother.  They were their father’s daughter until they became their husband’s wife—that is, always under the control of a man.  Only by death—their own or their husband’s—could they be freed from this control.  If her husband was wealthy, a woman might be left well-off by his death.  Usually, however, the husband was from the working class, if not downright poor, and the widow would be destitute.
            Jesus turned all these rules upside down.  Luke tells us that several women followed him as he travelled from place to place.  Some of them provided financial support for his ministry.  Jesus also had women friends who were not his relatives, among them the sisters Mary and Martha.  We’ve heard about them for so long that the relationship doesn’t seem remarkable to us, but in the first century such an association would have been unimaginable—for anyone but Jesus.
            There are many stories in the gospels that give us insight into Jesus’ dealings with women:  the woman with a hemorrhagic condition; the woman caught in adultery; the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet; the Syro-Phoenician woman.  There is speculation that Mary Magdalene might have been a member of his inner circle.  She was, after all, the only woman mentioned by all four gospel writers as being at the tomb on Easter morning.  Perhaps the male disciples, not fully understanding or accepting Jesus’ radical attitude towards women “air brushed” her out of the picture.
            One of the most interesting stories of Jesus’ interaction with a woman took place at a well in Samaria.  Jesus broke many rules that day.  First, he talked with a Samaritan, something a Jew would never do—especially a rabbi, a teacher of the law.  This alone would have been shocking. 
            Second, he broke the cardinal rule against speaking with a woman in public.  Third, he asked her for a drink.  Asking an unrelated woman for anything was just not done—especially this woman.  You see, she came to the well at the wrong hour of the day.  Women went for water early in the morning or at dusk, not in the heat of the afternoon.  Later in the story we are given hints that she came when she would not expect to encounter anyone because of her less-than-acceptable lifestyle.
            Yet Jesus spoke to her, gave her words of life, and offered redemption.  She became the first female evangelist.  When she was given grace, rather than keep it to herself, she ran to the village and told everyone about Jesus and his message of salvation.  She led them to Christ.

            When Paul says God is no respecter of persons, he is recognizing what Jesus taught throughout his ministry.  Gender, race, economic status, political affiliation don’t matter.  We are all valuable in God’s sight, and God wants to have a relationship with all of us.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

More than Conquerors

More than Conquerors
Romans 8:31-39
Paul has spun out a long theological argument, stating that if we focus on life in the Spirit rather than the life of the flesh we will be “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”  What a promise!  This is the legal language of a last will and testament.  We will be remembered in God’s will.  (Yes, I know:  God is not going to die—but no metaphor is perfect.)  Our future reward is secure:  life eternal with God and fellowship with Jesus Christ.
When we read the next verses, those in today’s passage, there seems to have been some objection raised.  It sounds as if someone said, “How secure is this promise?  What if someone or something gets in the way and messes things up?  Isn’t it possible we could lose our inheritance?  After all, wills can be challenged.”
Paul answers firmly:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  This is the God who created us.  This is the God who sent Jesus Christ, God’s own Son—“gave him up for us all” is how Paul puts it.  This same Jesus Christ, who died for us and was raised from the dead, stands as advocate for us.  If God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son are for us, who will be able to stand against them?  Our future—our inheritance—is secure.
Paul then asks:  “ Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”  Two verses later he answers the question:  “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more affirmative statement.  Paul doesn’t leave much out.  While the list in his answer doesn’t exactly parallel the list in his question, we get the idea.  Nothing nor no one will be able to separate us from God!  Paul left out only one possibility—ourselves.
Remember the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7)?  We’re not told how the sheep got lost, but with what we know about sheep we can figure it out.  Sheep aren’t very smart, and when they’re concentrating on eating, they forget everything else.  Imagine for a moment that you’re a sheep, feeding on some delicious grass on the hillside.  “Here’s a great tuft; and over there, there’s another; and there!  There!  Look at that!  A whole lot of tasty grass!  And I have it all to myself.  No one else has found it.”  You wander from one patch of grass to another, and another, and another, until—where did everyone go?
Suddenly you realize it’s getting late, and you can’t see the shepherd or the other sheep, and you’ve wandered into a grove of trees, and—you’re lost!  How will you get home?  There are no signposts or familiar landmarks to guide you back.  What do you do now?
Just so we can wander away from God.  It has happened to me, and I’m sure it has happened to someone you know—perhaps even yourself.  Our lack of attention to God may cause us to grow apart from God.  Sometimes we wander far enough away that we can’t find the way back.
Thank heavens God doesn’t give up on us.  Like the good shepherd, God comes looking.  We may not know the way home, but God can find us and bring us back—back to the fold and safety.  We have the assurance that God keeps looking, and calling our name, just as the shepherd calls the name of the lost sheep, waiting to hear a response.

Can anything separate us from the love of God?  No!  Even if we wander from God’s presence, God calls us back, searching until we return, conquering all obstacles with God’s help.