Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Symbolic Christmas

A Symbolic Christmas
Matthew 2:1-18
            The Bible is full of symbolism.  It’s also full of symbolic language, but that’s not the same thing.  The Book of Psalms frequently uses symbolic (poetic) language, creating images that arouse our emotions and engage our imaginations. 
Symbols are things that represent other things.  Christmas cards provide good examples.  We see a crèche and think of the baby Jesus, “asleep on the hay.”  We see an odd-shaped star and think of the wise men. 
Our Scripture for today is primarily the story of the wise men, so it is more appropriate for Epiphany than for Christmas.  We’ll most likely revisit it during Epiphany to talk about the magi, but today let’s concentrate on the other major figure in the story—Herod.
If this story was set as an old-fashioned melodrama, whenever Herod came onstage the audience would boo.  He might respond by sneering or making some threatening gesture.  This is not to make light of his wicked deeds, but to create a symbolic picture.
Herod himself is a symbol.  He stands for everything evil in this story.  In the same way that the serpent represents evil in the story of Adam and Eve, Herod is the evil figure in the Christmas story.  Everyone else we meet is good.  Joseph is “just.”  Mary is virtuous.  Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous before the Lord.”  The shepherds are honest workmen, doing their job, taking care of the sheep.  The wise men are likely priests of a monotheistic Middle Eastern religion.  Only Herod stands out as evil.  He becomes the symbol for wickedness.
There is no doubt that he earned his title.  He was not a Jew by birth.  His family was from Edom, an area of the Middle East which is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  His father converted to Judaism, so Herod was raised as a Jew, but he lacked the credentials to sit on the throne of David.  He was appointed king by Rome.  Therefore, he could rule as long as he kept the peace and pleased his Roman masters.
Like Rome itself, Herod kept the peace by force rather than by caring for his subjects.  He has been described as being both depressive and paranoiac.  His actions bear this out.  He was especially nervous when it came to possible successors.  He executed anyone he felt was a threat, including his sons.  If you worried Herod your days were numbered.
Although claiming to be a Jew, he lived a lavish lifestyle unencumbered by obedience to Jewish law.  He ran afoul of the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees, whose slavish devotion to the law later earned them Jesus’ most damning criticism.  Still, everyone had to be cautious of complaining too loudly or too much.
It is Herod’s behavior in today’s Scripture that earns him his place as the evil entity in the Christmas story.  He tells the wise men to report back to him when they have found the child.  Although Matthew doesn’t tell us this, it should be obvious that Herod’s intent is to eliminate a rival.  When his plans are thwarted by the wise men’s dream-warning, he retaliates by slaying all the babies in the Bethlehem region.  This “slaughter of the innocents” is pure wickedness.

From the beginning evil has always been present in creation.  We don’t know why, or how, but we know evil exists.  Herod is one of a long line of evil persons in the march of history.  He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.  We have not seen the end of evil.  That will not occur until Jesus Christ returns.  Until then, we have to acknowledge the presence of Herod-like figures in our midst, and limit their effectiveness by doing everything we can to bring God’s kingdom to fruition.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Different Audiences, Different Stories

Different Audiences, Different Stories
Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38
            Growing up, I heard the story of Jesus’ birth every Christmas morning.  Mom, Dad and I would sit around the tree while Dad read Luke 2:1-21.  Then, with those words as a framework, we would share our gifts with each other.  Dad always paused before reading verse 16, and said, “And here’s the verse that, no matter how you say it out loud, it doesn’t sound right.”  Then he would read, “And [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”  Pretty crowded manger.
            Matthew doesn’t really describe the birth scene.  He says (2:1), “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…” and launches into the story of the wise men and Herod.
            What I find interesting about the birth story happens before the actual event.  Matthew gives us important information about Joseph; Luke tells us more about Mary.  Why the different approaches?  The answer lies in the title of this piece: “Different Audiences, Different Stories.”
            Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience.  They would have been concerned with Jesus’ ancestry, especially his connection to David.  If he were to be accepted as King by Jewish converts to Christianity, his credentials would have to be impeccable.  He would have to be shown to have descended from David in an uninterrupted line.  The Jewish people already had one illegitimate king—Herod—and weren’t about to replace him, even in a spiritual way, with another king whose lineage was suspect. 
            So Matthew begins by listing Jesus’ ancestors, stating that Jesus was descended from David through Solomon.  Connecting Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, to the Davidic line was essential.  Remember, while Joseph had no part in the conception (Matthew’s gospel makes that clear in v. 25), he was Jesus’ legal father, so his lineage was Jesus’ lineage as well.
            Luke was writing for a Gentile audience.  As far as we can tell, Luke was a Greek, a physician, and possibly a valued household slave.  He addresses both his volumes (the Lukan gospel and the Book of Acts) to a person with a Greek name:  Theophilus (God-lover).  This could have been an actual person, or a generic title representing all Greeks who loved the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
            What did Luke want to get across to his audience?  Jesus’ Jewishness was not a priority for him.  He gives us his version of Jesus’ genealogy much later, when he begins his account of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus’ Jewish credentials would have been less important to Luke and his audience than the miraculous aspects of the birth story.  The angel Gabriel pays Mary a visit and tells her that she will have a child whose Father is God.  She will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit in some way that none of us can understand—nor is it important that we do.  Enough that God chose to work a miracle through this young woman.
            Luke also tells us about the visitation by the shepherds.  How did they find out about the birth?  More angels: first, one telling them about the newborn baby, then “a multitude of the heavenly host” singing gloriously in praise of the Messiah.  Luke includes other miraculous events tied to the birth of John the Baptist, but that’s another story for another time.

            So…here we have two accounts for two different audiences, Matthew emphasizing Joseph for his Jewish converts, Luke emphasizing Mary for those coming to Christianity from a pagan background.  Contradictory? No!  Complimentary.  Jesus is the Messiah for the whole world, and his story holds truth and relevance for all people.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Who Is Correct?

Who Is Correct?
Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38
            There are those who claim that every word in the Bible is true—no questions, no exceptions.  At the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that nothing in the Bible is true.  Most people fall somewhere in the middle.  At the heart of this controversy is an important question, the one that Pilate asked Jesus:  What is truth? 
            In today’s climate of distorted truths, half-truths/half-lies, and out-and-out lies this question might seem to have little if any relevance, but it most certainly does.  For one thing there are different kinds of truth.  I know this answer will not be received well in some quarters, but hear me out. 
There are mathematical truths, such as 1+1=2.  In our arithmetic system this is considered true.  If you have one apple, and someone gives you another apple, you will have two apples. 
There are factual truths.  J.S. Bach was born in 1685 and died in 1750. 
There are natural truths.  In our world, the law of gravity prevails.  If you throw something in the air, it will come down.
            In this light, the Bible cannot be said to be completely true.  Science and other historical documents have proved that portions of the Bible are not true in this way
But there are other kinds of truths—for example, spiritual truths.  In this regard, the Bible can be said to be completely true.  The one great truth of the Bible is that it is a record of how God interacts with humanity.  At heart, the message of the Bible is this:  God created the cosmos and everything in it.  God cares for God’s creation and loves God’s creatures.  God sent Jesus Christ to earth to provide reconciliation between God and humankind.  If we are reconciled to God, we will inherit the kingdom of God.
            Back to factual truth.  There are two versions of Jesus Christ’s genealogy in the New Testament.  The first is in Matthew’s Gospel, the second is in Luke’s.  Matthew begins his gospel with his version of Jesus’ lineage.  Luke waits until he describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to list his ancestors.  This is not the only difference.
            Matthew lists 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus.  Luke gives us many more—in fact, Luke goes all the way back to Adam (to God, actually).  Matthew names five women:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.  Luke mentions no women at all.  Matthew says Jesus was descended from David through Solomon.  Luke says his Davidic ancestor was Nathan.  There are other places where the genealogies don’t match up, but these are the most prominent ones, except that Matthew begins with Abraham and works forward.  Luke begins with Jesus and works backward—personal preference, I’m sure, and not something that affects the internal organization of the lists.
            So—which one is correct?  Or is neither correct?  The one thing we know for certain is that they can’t both be correct; at least not so far as factual correctness is concerned.
            At this point I should mention that some people question why we trace Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph.  Jesus was, after all, God’s Son.  Joseph had nothing to do with his conception. 
            By Jewish custom, if a man claimed a child as his, that was the end of the discussion.  By this custom, Joseph was Jesus’ legal father.
            We know genealogies were very important in Jewish families, which is why the two gospel writers who relate the story of Jesus’ birth also give us his ancestry.  We also know that Luke gives us a more accurate listing of the line of kings from David to the Babylonian exile.  Finally, we know (because he tells us) that Luke’s gospel is—insofar as it was possible at the time—a research document.  He assures Theophilus—and his other readers—that before he wrote he spoke to many people who had intimate knowledge of Jesus’ life.
            So—what is the answer to our question?  Quite likely there are factual errors in both lists, but that’s not the important point.  What’s important is that each one tells us spiritual truths, truths about Jesus which will help us understand who he is and what his background is.  Jesus was a legitimate, legal descendant of David through his earthly father, Joseph.  He was a son of the Torah and a child of Abraham.   He had every right to call himself King of the Jews—far more right than Herod, who was neither a descendant of David nor a Jew.  Jesus was indeed King of kings through his ancestry, and Lord of lords through his Father. 

What more truth do we need?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bookending Jesus

Bookending Jesus
Matthew 2:2-7:29
            We love to think of Jesus as a baby.  In addition to the love we naturally have for children, the birth story is so miraculous that we glory in the whole Christmas experience.  I am concerned that we spend too much time on the gift-giving part of Christmas—Black Friday has almost become a holiday in itself—but that’s one of the cultural aspects that would be difficult to overcome.  It would be so countercultural not to make a big deal about gift giving that we would be labeled Scrooges if we didn’t participate. 
            But we love all the Christ things about Christmas as well:  the carols, the beautiful worship services, the manger scenes in homes and churches.  It’s the whole experience of this special baby, born in this special way that stirs our hearts with love and joy.
            We love the Jesus of Holy Week also—the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection.  Remembering Christ’s death on the cross and his rising again—which gives us hope for our own resurrection—is equally joyful for us.  Yes, the bookends of Jesus’ life are important, for we recognize the connection between the two events and understand their significance.
            All this is well and good, but not enough.  As momentous as the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are, they are only part of the story.  I think Jesus himself, if he were here might say, “Wait!  You’ve missed a really important part!”
            One of my seminary professors said that if the only significant events in the Jesus story were his death and resurrection, God could have dropped Jesus from heaven onto the cross.  There must have been a reason for the 33 years between his birth and his death.  There had to be a purpose to those years—and there was.
            If you checked out the Scripture passage before you started reading this you noticed two things.  First, it’s very long—three whole chapters to be exact.  Do I expect you to read the whole three chapters?  Yes, I do!
            Second, the perceptive reader will recognize this passage as the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s Jesus’ message in a nutshell.  If you read it carefully, and digest it, you’ll understand its significance to Jesus’ ministry. 
            I remember reading a story about a young African man who became a Christian.  His pastor suggested he study the Sermon on the Mount.  Some time later the young man came back and told the pastor he’d memorized the whole passage.  When the pastor asked him how he had managed such an overwhelming task, the young man said, “It was easy.  I just went out and did what it said a little bit at a time and memorized it that way.”
            Easy, he said.  Memorized by doing, he said.  How many of us can say we’ve memorized three whole chapters of Scripture—any three?  I can’t, and surely not these three.  Yet this young man had not only committed them to memory, he had committed them to action—a much more significant accomplishment.
            If you read carefully through the Sermon on the Mount, and then read any (preferably all) of the gospels, you will find that not only is this a summation of Jesus’ teaching, but also the way he conducted his life.  Everything he said here he lived out in his ministry.  In the Sermon on the Mount he talked the talk.  In his life he walked the walk.  Jesus’ life was not just a matter of saying the right thing, but of doing the right thing.  He lived what he taught.

            Let’s not forget the bookends of Jesus’ life, but let’s not forget the middle either, for it is here that we learn how we must live.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hindsight Is 20-20

Hindsight Is 20-20
Matthew 3:1-12
            We like to think we’re wiser than those who came before us, that we would make better decisions and avoid the traps previous generations have fallen into.  No way would we have voted for Candidate A.  We would have known instantly that he was trouble in the making.  We would have seen his weaknesses and voted for Candidate B instead. 
            The same goes for religion.  We would have recognized immediately that Jesus was the Son of God, and would have worshiped and obeyed him without question.  The crazy things the disciples said?  The off-the-wall questions they asked?  Not us!  How could they be so dense?
            Nor would we have behaved like the Pharisees.  They saw Jesus as a threat to their power.  If he was right, they were wrong.  They saw their base moving away from them.  These are human failings, but we would not have succumbed to them.  We would have understood that Jesus was bringing in a new world order, and would have recognized his superiority, given over our power and position to him, and gladly, willingly taken a back seat.
            When we’re honest with ourselves we know that none of this is true.  We would have missed the signs that made Candidate A unsuitable for the position.  We would have asked questions and made statements equally as foolish as the disciples—if not more so.  We would have clung to our power positions as desperately as a drowning person grasps a life ring, holding on for dear life to the last shred of authority.  All of these are indeed human failings, and most people in every generation fall into the same traps and commit the same errors.
            John the Baptist was the rare exception.  He understood his role in the story.  He knew he wasn’t the main attraction.  His job was to prepare the audience for the star performer.  He knew where he fit into the gospel story.  His job was not to bring the good news, but to prepare the way for the One who would not only bring the good news, but be the good news.  And so he went before the King, proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” so that all who heard would be ready.
            Of course, John had an advantage.  He must have known from a very early age who he was and what his role would be.  He knew he wasn’t the second banana, or the second string, or the warm-up act.  He was the messenger, filling the honored position of opening the door for the One who would bring reconciliation to the world.
            But John was a little weird.  Matthew makes sure we see John as the people of his day saw him.  He didn’t wear normal clothes, he didn’t eat normal foods, he didn’t live where normal people lived.  His contemporaries saw him as an oddity, a curiosity.  They most likely went out not to hear and accept his message, his call to repentance, but to see the show, the weirdo, the nut case.  Once there they were overwhelmed by the power of his message, felt the strength of his passion, and responded to his call.
            Where do we fit in to this story?  Would we have accepted John’s message?  Would we have said, “What must I do to be saved?”  Would we have rushed eagerly forward to be baptized?  Or would we have written John off as a kook, fun to watch and maybe even laugh at, like the guy who came to our college when I was a freshman.  He went all over proclaiming himself the king of each place he visited.  He stood on the gym steps and proclaimed himself king of Syracuse University.  We laughed at him.  A few of the braver students made comments about his mental state; and then everybody left.  No one took him seriously.

            How would we have responded to John?  To Jesus?  How do we respond today?  Careful now!  Remember, hindsight is 20-20!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

How to Change the World

How to Change the World
Romans 12:1-2
“The world isn’t on the right path, and if we don’t like it we need to change it.”
So said Raymond Knous in 2006.  That was ten years ago—and it’s still true today.  In fact, many of us would say that it’s truer today than ten years ago.
            We prefer to blame someone else for the world’s wrong direction.  It’s the government’s fault.  Or the schools’ fault.  Or that other country’s fault—you know, the one whose political system is different from ours.  Or the other party’s presidential candidate.  Or the liberals’ fault, or the conservatives’ fault—anyone but ours.
            To a certain extent, it is the government’s fault, and the schools’ fault, and the liberals’ fault and the conservatives’ fault—because it’s everybody’s fault; and that includes us!
            What we don’t want to admit is that we are all responsible for the state of the world.  Someone once said we get the government we deserve, and that’s a good observation.  If those who don’t vote don’t like the shape of the country, they have no one to blame but themselves.  If we don’t like the people who are running for office, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  It’s our job in a democracy to 1) vote; 2) get involved in the process of choosing candidates; 3) get involved in supporting candidates; and 4) if we don’t like any of the candidates, perhaps to run for office ourselves.
            If we don’t like the schools it’s our job to get involved and change them.  Any school administrator will tell you that the golden charm for making schools work is parental involvement.  I’ve worked in schools where parents were involved in their children’s education, both in ensuring their children were doing the work assigned to them and in holding the schools to high standards.  I’ve worked in schools where these things didn’t happen.  I can tell you from firsthand experience that parental involvement makes a difference.
            What about Christians?  Should we be any less involved with getting the world on the right path?  Should we leave the “things of the world” to the world and concentrate on religion?  Absolutely not!  If anything, Christians should be more involved, because our mission as God’s people is to change the world.  Knous is right:  If we don’t like the path the world is on, we must realize that God is calling us to get it on the right path.
            Paul understood that changing the world begins with changing ourselves.  We are—each of us—to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.  Paul also knew that no change was possible if we didn’t change our minds—and that begins with repentance.  Repentance means being sorry enough to quit.  We talk about changing our hearts, but it’s our minds that control what we do.  Change your mind, your heart follows.  The reverse isn’t always true.
But it isn’t enough to talk about change, to preach about change, to write about change.  Change is something we do.  Alan Lyne prayed, “Help us, Lord, not just to speak the Good News, but to be the Good News.”  We may have heard the statement, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Unless we change, and make that change visible to those around us, we can’t expect the world around us to be any different than it is right now.  If the world around us doesn’t change, we can’t expect changes to happen in the larger world outside our sphere of influence. 
            Improvements happen a little bit at a time.  If I change, I have the opportunity to help make changes in those around me.  If they change, they have the opportunity to help make changes in those around them.  After a while, change begins to spread like ripples on a pond. 

            And it all begins when we discern the will of God and renew our minds.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Here--and After

Here—and After
Matthew 25:31-46
            Here I am, returning once again to what I consider to be one of the definitive Scripture passages concerning the end of time as we know it, and the continuation of time as God knows it.  We find several important passages about the hereafter in the New Testament.  There are a few in Revelation, but we should remember that they are addressed to first century Christians suffering through abuse and torture for their faith.  There is the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18), but true as it might be, it isn’t what we want to believe about the afterlife.  There is Matthew 22:23-33, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about marriage in the resurrection, but that is a specific answer to a specific question.  None of these passages gives us an understanding of what we must do to gain access to God’s presence.
            Recently, I found four statements about the hereafter which I find interesting.  The first is from Confucius.  When asked by one of his pupils, “What about death,”  the master replied, “When we do not yet know enough about life, why worry about death?”  I’m sure Confucius believed that whatever happened after death would take care of itself.  He says we need to worry more about how we live this life.  Sounds like Confucius had read Jesus’ words in Matthew 25—except that he lived about 500 years before Christ.
            Does Confucius have anything to say to Christians?  I believe so.  If we look at his words in light of Matthew’s description of the final judgment, we might say, “Seek to understand what God wants of us here on earth.  If we follow Jesus’ teaching we will devote ourselves to lives of service.  Then when we stand in front of the great Judge, we’ll have nothing to worry about.”
            Charlotte Perkins Gilman sent somewhat the same message when she said, “Eternity is not something that begins after you’re dead.  It’s going on all the time.  We are in it now.”  We believe that God’s time is timeless.  It stretches from forever to forever.  We also believe that millions upon millions of people have already “passed into eternity,” meaning that they have left this life and begun another one.  If this is true then we are, as Gilman says, in the midst of eternity even now, and God’s kingdom is already here.  Look at Matthew 25 to see what that means for us.
            We hear Don Osman echoing the same thought.  He says, “What about the ‘hereafter?’  The after depends on the here.”  We can’t wait to begin living our life after death until after death.  We must live it now.  We should celebrate God’s presence with us and God’s kingdom in everything we do.  Return to Matthew 25 to see how this should play out in our lives.
            Finally, John Sutherland Bonnell said, “What a person believes about immortality will color his [her] thinking in every area of life.” I teach a course entitled “World Religions,” so these words hold special interest for me.  Each religion has a belief about what happens after death.  Some believe nothing happens:  once we die, everything ends and there is nothing more.  Some believe in reincarnation:  we should strive to be the best we can in this life to ensure a better existence in the next life and a final freedom from rebirth.  Some believe we must develop a personal relationship with God now—be reconciled with God while we can.  This, they feel, will ensure union with God after death.

            All these religions teach that our objective in this life should be to do good.  Most religions subscribe to some form of the Golden Rule:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That takes us back again to Matthew 25.  Which side we are sent to depends upon the life we live:  loving service in the name of the God who calls us—or not.  Our after depends upon our here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Staying the Course

Staying the Course
Romans 5:1-5
            At the beginning of World War II Germany overran most of Europe.  There was a handful of countries that were not under Nazi control, a group whose number constantly diminished.  British, French and Belgian troops were pushed back to a beachhead at Dunkirk, France, and surrounded by the German army.  They seemed doomed; but a hastily assembled armada of boats of every kind and description rescued 338,226 soldiers over an eight-day period.  From this auspicious beginning, the Allied forces began to push back against Hitler’s hegemony, resulting in the freeing of all European territory.
            One of the most significant figures in the battle for Britain and eventually Europe was the British prime minister, Winston Churchill.  His speeches and his never-say-die attitude inspired not only the British army, but the entire citizenry to stand firm.  His resoluteness spread far beyond Britain’s shores and had a lasting influence on the world.
            Churchill, faced with an almost impossible situation, said, “Never give up.  Never, never give up.  Never, never, never give up.”  That’s a lot of “nevers!”
Many years later, Jim Valvano, who won a NCAA basketball championship as coach of North Carolina State, was battling cancer.  In a speech to his supporters he used almost the same words as Churchill.  Valvano eventually lost his battle, but he never quit fighting.  Cancer may have killed him, but it didn’t defeat him.
I think Paul had somewhat the same idea in mind when he wrote his epistle to the Christians in Rome.  Because we have faith in God and in the reconciling power of Jesus Christ, we have access to God’s grace.  That makes all the difference in our lives.  From the moment we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior our lives change.  Our relationship with God is restored, and we have all the encouragement we need to move forward with confidence. 
We know we cannot escape suffering, whether of the personal variety like Jim Valvano, or that which affects whole groups of people, such as World War II Europe.  Suffering will come, and not even God’s grace can stop it from reaching us.  But Paul says it doesn’t have to control us.  Grace will help us use suffering to build endurance.  Endurance in turn produces character, Paul tells us, which gives us hope, “and hope does not put us to shame.”  Another translation reads, “Hope does not disappoint.”
William Barclay said, “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing but to turn it into glory.”  Like the oyster which reacts to an annoying grain of sand by surrounding it with a protective substance, we can learn—with God’s help—to turn our suffering into pearls of hope. 
It would have been easy for the soldiers embattled at Dunkirk, or the British people under constant bombardment to accept defeat and give up hope.  The soldiers would have languished in prison camps, where many would have died.  The citizens of Great Britain would have lived (who knows how long victory might have taken—if ever?) under Nazi control.
It would have been easy for Jim Valvano to give in to cancer, give up hope and pass quietly away.  What an inspiration we would have lost!  Because he fought, many others have been saved by the foundation which bears his name.

Can we do any less?  When God has supplied us with so much grace—grace for every one of our struggles, shouldn’t we, like so many others before us, endure in the sure and certain knowledge of hope  and glory?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Righteous Anger

Righteous Anger
Matthew 21:12-13
            We love the phrase “righteous anger.”  We believe we have the right to invoke it any time we imagine there is a just cause.  As with so many other concepts, in our brokenness we abuse righteous anger.  Any reason for losing our temper will do as long as we think we have a legitimate case.
            We must be very careful with anger.  It is definitely a two-edged sword.  In the third chapter of his epistle, James warns his readers (and us!) about the trouble the tongue can cause.  I’m sure he knew the tongue wasn’t at fault; it was the mind behind it that caused the trouble.  When the mind is distorted with anger or other negative emotions, he was saying, a whole army of bad things can happen—and usually do.
            Bill Van Sickle said, “Anger is only one letter short of danger.”  One letter separates the two words.  Even less space separates our anger from actions that can cause danger—danger for us and for those who get in the way of our wrath.
            Even knowing this—intellectually—we still hold on to our right to express our anger when we feel justified.  As long as we can put a righteous face on it we believe it’s all right to say whatever—or do whatever—comes to mind.  It’s not evil—it’s righteous anger.  Forget the trouble it causes—the hurt feelings; the broken relationships; the ruined lives.  We have a right to our righteous anger.
            Some of our justification, I believe, comes from places in the Hebrew Scriptures where God becomes angry:  with the Israelites in the wilderness; with the enemies of Israel in the Promised Land; with Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile.  We hear that anger in God’s conversations with Moses and in the words of the prophets, and we say, “If God can be angry in a righteous cause, why can’t I?  Don’t I have a right to be angry here?  Aren’t I justified?  Isn’t this what God would do?  Isn’t this how God would speak or act?  But we forget—we’re not God.
            Aristotle believed that virtue lay at a balance point—a mean between two extremes, both of which were vices.  Expressing that concept he said, “Anyone can be angry.  That is easy.  But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not easy.”  In other words, control your anger, focus it in the right direction, and use it in a constructive rather than a destructive way.
            Once again we have Jesus Christ as our example.  In the light of Aristotle’s statement, look at the times Jesus displayed anger.  He was never angry at anyone who came to him asking for help.  He was never angry at his disciples even when they said and did really stupid things.  Above all, he never showed anger to those who hurt him in any way—including those who executed him.  Instead he said, “Father, forgive them…”
            Jesus was angry at hypocrisy.  When the religious leaders claimed to be acting righteously but were actually taking advantage of the people for whom they were responsible, he called them “whited sepulchers, full of dead men’s bones.”  When these same leaders took money that was intended for the care of their parents and used it for themselves he said they were defiled from within.
            In today’s reading we have the supreme example of Jesus’ righteous anger.  People were selling and buying in the temple, a clear violation of Mosaic Law.  Jesus upset their businesses like a holy hurricane, telling them they had no business doing business in God’s house.

            Unless our anger meets Jesus criteria, we have no business being angry.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Thirst that Drives Us

The Thirst that Drives Us
Matthew 5:1-12
            What is the hunger that drives you?  What is the thirst that motivates you?
            We call them “the Beatitudes.”   They are the statements with which Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount.  Because they are his opening remarks we can assume they’re important.  The word “beatitude” means “blessed,” and each statement begins with that word.  Jesus is teaching his disciples.  He wants them to know what they must do to receive God’s blessings.
            The first thing we notice is how different Jesus’ standards are from the world’s standards.  These aren’t “dog eat dog” statements, not “do unto others before they do unto you” proclamations.  The Beatitudes are about as far removed from what society preaches as you can get.  In order to succeed in God’s world you have to be poor in spirit, be able to mourn over the losses in your life, be merciful, be a peacemaker, and be pure in heart.  When you are reviled and persecuted for following God’s standards rather than the world’s you must not return evil for evil.  That’s a tall order, and one we can’t fill in our own strength.  How fortunate that God supplies the grace we need in order to achieve what we could never accomplish on our own.
            It’s the sixth verse that I want to call attention to.  It reads, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” 
            Just as physical hunger drives us to find food, and physical thirst motivates us to find something to drink, so we are moved to satisfy our spiritual needs.  Our problem is that too often we become sidetracked, and try to fill those needs with things that are at hand, that we can easily grasp.  Even if we’re aware that these things cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst we turn to them because they are within our reach.
            Sometimes we seek to quench our hunger and thirst with material goods—things that we can see, touch and hold.  If only we can have the next new item in the TV ads we’ll be happy!   We’ll be fulfilled! We’ll be satisfied!
            Often we pursue relationships, sure that if we can be a member of the right church, or the right social club, or the “in group” in our school or community we’ll never hunger, never thirst again.
            Perhaps it’s the right job, the right home, the right marriage partner,or the right number of children that we believe will fill that empty space within us.  Sooner or later we find that none of these things satisfy our hunger and thirst.
            St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Some say we have a “God-sized hole” in our hearts that nothing else can fill.  If this is true, all our efforts to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst with the things the world recommends will end in a feeling of failure and loss.
            God calls us to be righteous—to be as much like God as can we possibly be.  We know we can never be righteous on our own.  It’s only by God’s grace and God’s righteousness that we can achieve anything.  God’s righteousness—God’s “right-ness”—can and will quench the feeling of emptiness that makes us long to be filled.

            “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus said.  Once our longing is turned in the right direction, God will take care of the rest.  Jesus says when we hunger and thirst after righteousness we will be filled.  No more longing, no more emptiness, just the satisfaction of knowing we are sitting at God’s table, and our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Cost of Following Jesus

The Cost of Following Jesus
Matthew 8:18-22
            One year our boys’ soccer team won the regional championship.  I was the junior varsity coach so I shared in the victory, although peripherally.  Some of the players on that championship team had come through my program, so of course I felt proud. 
            The next fall, boys came out of the woodwork to try out for the team.  The varsity coach told me this always happens when a team wins a championship.  Everybody wants to be part of a winning program.  That’s why, when you watch a sporting event on TV, you see that the stands are more full when the home team is having a winning season.
            Most of the boys who tried out didn’t make the team.  Either they didn’t have the talent, or worse, they didn’t have the work ethic.  It takes a lot of effort to produce a winning team.  The majority of these young men wanted success without paying for it.  Our varsity coach was a disciplinarian.  He insisted that his players play the game the right way, paying attention to fundamentals, strategy, and conditioning—a high price to pay for those not committed. 
            “At heart, discipleship is obedience,” say Julia L. Roller and Lynda L. Graybeal.  They understood what so many would-be athletes don’t.  You have to be willing to follow your leader, obey his/her instructions, and subordinate your own talents, ego and will for the good of the team.
            Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this principle.  He said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”—and that means, of course, no Christianity at all.  How can you have a movement if you turn your back on the leader for whom you should be willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to achieve success?
            If anyone understood sacrificing in order to follow Jesus Christ it was Bonhoeffer.  At a time when the Christian Church in Germany had either sold out to Adolph Hitler or chosen to sit on the sidelines as he obliterated freedom at home and abroad, Bonhoeffer took a different path.  He stood against Hitler and against his fellow Christians—stood for what he believed was right.  By opposing the Nazis he condemned himself to arrest, prison, and eventually death—but stand he did.  Today we remember him for his discipleship.
            The problem with becoming a member of a winning team is that you have to give up so much to achieve it:  free time to do what you want; late nights awake and early mornings in bed; weekends to hang out with friends; bodily comfort—all so you can say, “We are the champions!”
The same is true in the Christian life.  Every bit of who we are must be turned over to Jesus Christ.  His ideals, his will, his work must come first in our lives.  Paul Tripp put it this way:  “If Christ does not reign over the mundane events in our lives, he does not reign at all.”  If Jesus Christ is Lord, then no one nor anything else can be.  Everything is subservient to Christ.
            Today’s reading tells of two persons whose encounters with Christ—while brief—forced them to make a choice.  The first offered to follow Jesus wherever he went.  Jesus told him how difficult the life could be, perhaps even lacking a place to call home.  The second person wanted to fulfill his obligation to his parents before taking up the life of discipleship.  Jesus told him that unless his commitment to his Master took precedence he wouldn’t make the team.
            Did these two make the cut?  We don’t know.  We’re not told their decisions.  What we do know is what G.K. Chesterton said about discipleship.  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and untried.”


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Politics and Christians

Politics and Christians
Matthew 25:31-46
            Many years ago I was talking with my (then) pastor about salvation.  He said, “Once your ticket is punched, you’re saved.  Your place in heaven is assured.”  I thought it was a bit glib, a bit too easy, and my reading of Scripture convinces me I was right.  While the ticket punching might get me on the train, it won’t guarantee I’ll make it to the end of the line.  There are too many stops along the way, too many opportunities for train wrecks and other potential disasters.
            This time of year we’re bombarded with messages from every candidate for every political position from president to dogcatcher.  It seems to start earlier every year, and get nastier every year, and more expensive every year until we want to scream, “STOP!”
            But it goes on, and on, and on.  What’s a person to do?  What’s a Christian to do?
            Last Sunday I urged my congregation to lay aside personal concerns as they made their voting decisions.  Forget party affiliation.  Forget hot-button issues.  Forget the various political agendas that threaten to overwhelm us.  Instead, ask, “What is God’s agenda?”
            It should not surprise you that the first place to look for God’s agenda is in Scripture, but not just the sound-byte, proof text verses we’ve become accustomed to.  Instead, read huge chunks:  Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, Micah, Zechariah, and perhaps most important, the gospels, paying close attention to what Jesus said.
            Here’s the difficult part of this assignment:  you must put aside everything you’ve been told about Scripture, everything you think you know, and concentrate on what it says.  Our scriptural prejudices lie deep and wide within us, so coming to the Bible with fresh eyes and ears won’t be easy—but it will be revealing and enlightening.  What you find may surprise you.
            One passage in particular I would recommend—Matthew 25:31-46.  It’s called, “The Final Judgment.”  The title alone should give us pause.  This is the last stop on the train—the ultimate station.  It’s where we all exit and find out what our destination will be.
            Jesus says the Stationmaster will separate us into two groups as we disembark.  Some of us will go to the left, some to the right.  The division will be made not on whether our ticket has been punched, but on what we’ve done in our associations with “the least of these,” the Judge’s brothers and sisters.  It won’t be enough to have a punched ticket—even if it’s for first class.  What you’ve done along the way will decide your final destination.
            What does this have to do with elections?  I think we’ll be held responsible for more than what we’ve done personally to help the least of these.  I believe we’ll also be questioned as to whose agenda we’ve supported when we’ve donated to campaigns, who we’ve voted for, and whether or not we’ve held them responsible for their attitude towards the least of these.
            What have we/they done for children?  Have we/they ensured adequate school funding?  Equal educational opportunities?  Safe, well-run, supportive schools?  After-school programs that will help guarantee their future success?
            What about the homeless?  Have we/they assured them of the availability of a cup of cold water?  Of adequate food and shelter?  Of medical care?  Of emotional and psychological counseling and support where necessary?
            What about the poor?  Have we/they supported adequate housing?  The availability of jobs and job training?  Adequate transportation to those jobs?

            Take a look at your ticket.  Where are you sitting?  Are you with the sheep—or the goats?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Life After Life

Life After Life
John 14:1-3
            I begin by admitting I stole the title.  Some years ago Dr. Raymond Moody wrote a book entitled Life after Life about near death experiences.  This column will not be about that topic, but the title is appropriate.
            In my office I have a great Far Side cartoon.  The grim reaper is leaving his house for “work,” with his sickle over his shoulder.  His wife, dressed identically to her husband but with an apron, says to him, “Knock ‘em dead today, honey!” 
            We often find humor in death.  It’s one of the ways we cope with a subject we’d rather avoid.  We don’t like to think about the end of this life—even if we expect a better one afterwards.  Still, we know we must face death.  That’s why we buy life insurance and make wills, so that our loved ones will be taken care of after we are gone.
            George Hood says, “Death has a way of interrupting our lives.”  Amen to that!  The Latin phrase, Media vita in morte sumus translates, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  We know we can’t escape death.  It will come when it will come.  Nothing we can do will prepare us or our loved ones completely for our death.  Also, we know there’s nothing sure but death and taxes.  The worst part of that is that even after our death someone has to pay the taxes.
            There are books written about death.  Movies have been made about the subject.  Plays have been written.  You name it—every genre of literature, fiction or non-fiction, has dealt with the subject.  After all that has been written—all that has been said—we are no nearer being able to face death and cope with it than we have ever been.
            Those of us who claim the name Christian believe that death is not the end, but the beginning.  As Evangeline Booth said, “When our days are gone we’ll find death is not night at all, but breaking sun.”  I believe she was referencing Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night when she referred to death as not the beginning of night but rather the beginning of a new day.
            Christians believe that we will spend eternity with God in heaven, and that life will be lived in a never-ending, cloudless day.  Although Revelation 21 sounds as if it describes the afterlife occurring on a regenerated, restored earth, that doesn’t change the picture of unending day uninterrupted by any darkness.  We will need no sun or electric lights, because God will be our light.
            We have Jesus’ word on the subject.  In his final discourse to his disciples, on the night before his execution, he said that he was going to prepare a place for them and that he would come again and take them there.  Because we are Christ’s disciples, we claim that promise for ourselves.  Jesus will return at some undetermined time in the future.  If we are still alive he will take us to live with him and with God.  If we have died, he will call us from our graves to go with him (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

            Of course, what we hope for is that we will be united with God and reunited with our loved ones who have gone on before immediately after death, but the Bible does not seem to promise that.  Whatever happens, we believe death is not the end, not to be feared, and not to be worried about.  Our future—an unending day—is assured.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure
Matthew 25:14-30
            I love plays on words.  I guess I inherit the interest from my father.  He was a great punster.  I knew I had joined the right church when I learned that several members celebrate “Punny Wednesday”—although they are not above punning on other days of the week.
            I loved it when our seminary professors would reveal some of the word plays in the Bible.  It seems Hebrew is a great language for puns, and the Jewish writers enjoyed creating them.
            Here’s a pun I read recently:  “Anyone who buries his or her talents is making a grave mistake.”  (I added italics for those to whom puns don’t make sense.) 
When I read this statement my mind went right to Jesus’ parable of the talents.  If you remember, the master divided at least a portionof his wealth among his servants while he went on a long journey.  He knew his men well, and so gave them amounts he thought they could handle.  One received five talents.  Another was given two.  The third got one.
A talent was worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer.  This tells us two things about the master.  First, he was really rich.  Second, he trusted these three servants to not simply care for his money, but to use it as he would.
I’m sure you remember what happened.  The first one invested his five talents and made five more.  The second also doubled his master’s money.  These two servants rewarded their master’s trust and were therefore rewarded in return.  They received huge promotions.
Ah, but the third servant!  He wasn’t much of a risk-taker.  He buried his talent in the ground to keep it safe until the master’s return. 
But that wasn’t what the master wanted him to do.  He had been given the talent to use.  I suspect that if he had made a bad investment and lost the talent, or only made a little money, the master would have been more forgiving.  Instead the servant incurred his master’s wrath.  He was called “wicked and slothful,” two epithets no one wants to hear.  Surely this servant made a grave mistake.
I also read recently that God doesn’t give people talents that God doesn’t want them to use.  Of course, we know that the master in this story is God.  It is God who gives each of us talents—abilities we are to make use of for the good of others, for the good of the community, and for the building up of the kingdom of heaven.  When we refuse to make use of them—when we bury them in the ground—we are making a grave mistake.
It’s easy to say, “I only have one little talent.  Surely God isn’t expecting me to use it!  The people around me are so much more talented.  I look hopeless and helpless next to them.  I’ll just bury myself in the corner.  Perhaps no one will notice me and I can slide through life without attracting attention.”
Not likely.  God knows what each of us has been given, and God has expectations for each of us.  Perhaps our one talent, small and insignificant as it may seem in the grand scheme of things, is the very ability our family, our community, or our church needs to grow and succeed.  If we bury that talent, if we refuse to use it, we may be responsible for those around us not growing, not succeeding as they should.

I find it interesting that in Matthew’s gospel this parable comes right before the passage on the Final Judgment.  Perhaps all we can do is give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, or give someone a warm coat for the winter, or visit someone in the hospital.  Jesus says if we don’t do what we can we are making a grave mistake.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Connecting to the Fountain

Connecting to the Fountain
John 4:7-15
            Recently a dear friend blessed me with the gift of a book entitled, The Valley of Vision.  It is a collection of prayers from the Puritan tradition.  We usually think of Puritans in one of two lights.  We remember them as the group of Christians who were so persecuted by the Church of England in the 17th century that they immigrated first to Holland, and later to what is now Massachusetts.  We also remember them as the unforgiving, overly strict Protestant sect responsible for the Salem witch trials.
            While we should keep both of these images in our minds, we must also remember that the Puritans, like all of us, were multidimensional.  They were more than an abused group who had to flee to the New World for religious freedom, and more than a denomination who in turn persecuted those who did not agree with their strict interpretation of the Bible.  The Puritans were passionate about their relationship with God and passionate about their salvation.  The prayers in this book demonstrate this vividly.  They were also excellent writers, an important part of the literary tradition of both their homeland and their adopted country.
            The editor of this collection, Arthur Bennett, identifies the authors of the prayers in his preface, but does not attach a specific name to specific prayers in the main body of the work.  Therefore, it is impossible to give credit to anyone for lines quoted.
            One image that moved me occurs at the end of a prayer entitled, “Self-Knowledge.”  The author says, “And let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain, never touching the eternal spring, never drawing water from above.”
            The Bible has a lot to say about water, and wells, and fountains, and thirst.  This is understandable in any land, but especially one in which wilderness is so plentiful and water so scarce.  Isaiah speaks of the wells of salvation, and of coming to the waters.  Abraham’s servants fought with Lot’s servants about which wells belonged to which master. 
            Perhaps the longest passage having to do with water is found in John’s gospel, where he relates the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  Jesus breaks protocol by asking her for a drink.  No Jew would speak to a Samaritan, and no man would speak to a woman to whom he was not related—it just wasn’t done!  But Jesus never stood on protocol.  He reached out to everyone in need.
            Without relating the whole story—which you can read for yourself—remember that Jesus offered her the gift of living water—water that would become a fountain springing up within her and quenching her thirst forever.  While she didn’t understand his metaphor at first, he was able to show her that he was speaking not of digging deep in the ground to bring water up, but about looking to God to bring water down.  When she finally understood, she couldn’t wait to tell everyone about her discovery.
Using the imagery of the Puritan poet, we can see that, with Jesus’ help, she connected her pipe directly to the fountain—the source of the living water that had been promised her.  She was able to not only touch the eternal spring, but develop a secure connection to it, so that she could always receive water from above.

Jesus waits to help us make the same connection.  He knows how easy it is to lay our pipe too short.  He wants to make sure we are constantly receiving water from God’s fountain.