Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God
Mark 1:9-15
            Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry, his coming out party if you will.  He appears onstage for the first time in Mark’s gospel.  John is still the center of attention, but Jesus is moving toward center stage.  He is ready to announce his message to the world.
            Or is he?  Mark tells us (as do other evangelists) that Jesus is immediately whisked away (Mark says driven by the Spirit) into the wilderness.   This is his final preparation.  Can he stand up to the tough times? 
Native American tribes call this experience the vision quest.  In order to be accepted as an adult by the tribe, a young man must go off by himself and spend time in solitude.  Alone with his thoughts, he is free to explore the breadth and depth of his mind, to determine what he is made of.  Can he take on an adult role in his society?  Can he contribute something of value to that society?  Can he stand up to the tough times in his life?  In the life of the tribe?
            In a similar manner, Jesus is alone in the wilderness.  Mark (and others) says he is tempted by Satan.  Will he be able to stand up to the difficult days that lie ahead?  Will he be able to contribute something of value to his society?  We know the answer.  Satan is no match for the Son of God.  Jesus’ follows God’s plan to the bitter end.
            Jesus emerges from the wilderness declaring that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The kingdom has broken into the world and is about to be fulfilled.  People are called to prepare by repenting and believing the good news of the kingdom.
            We know the story:  the message, the miracles, the torture, the execution—the resurrection.  In the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God had indeed broken in to the world, and the world would never be the same.  Two thousand years on, the kingdom is still breaking in to the world, although we often despair of its complete fulfillment when we see the evil around us.
            But did the breaking-in of the kingdom begin with the baptism, or the wilderness temptation, or Jesus proclamation?  Was this the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, or did it begin much earlier?
            The kingdom of God broke in to the history of the world in the person of the child in the manger.  The Christmas story declares it in no uncertain terms.  Luke describes the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, who were told a Savior, Christ the Lord, had been born.  The Messiah was here!
            Matthew tells us wise men—magi, priests—traveled from the east, perhaps from as far away as Persia, to seek the child born king of the Jews.  This news so upset the ruling king, Herod, that he sought to murder his rival in his crib.  The kingdom of God had broken into the world, and the world would never be the same.
            Before Jesus called his first disciples, before he worked his first miracle, before he uttered a word of his message, before his wilderness experience and his baptism—before he could speak a word, the kingdom of God had been declared by angels, shepherds and magi.
            Jesus Christ entered the world, not as a conquering king, not as a military leader, but as a tiny baby, helpless and without official pomp or recognition.  The kingdom of God has indeed broken into the world, and the world will never be the same.
            We inherit the message from angels, shepherds and magi.  Go into the world and spread the good news.  The kingdom of God is here!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Transactional Christianity

Transactional Christianity
Philippians 2:5-11
            One of the topics I find it difficult to preach on is heaven.  Too many (most?  all?) of the things we say about heaven are human constructs.  We’ve taken the very little information we find in the Bible and created a view of heaven that reflects what we imagine would be an ideal life on earth.  If you think about the jokes we tell about heaven you’ll see what I mean.
            I also find it difficult to talk about heaven because we tend to emphasize the eternal life aspect of Christianity at the expense of the earthly life aspect.  As William Booth said, we become so heavenly-minded that we’re of no earthly use.
            I’ve begun to think of this mindset as transactional Christianity.  Many are into the religion for what they can get out of it—for the reward at the end of the journey, not for the journey itself.
            Think of the occupations we follow.  Would we go to our job day after day, year after year if we didn’t get paid for doing so?  Perhaps there are some people who find their work so rewarding that they would show up every day just for the joy of a fulfilling task; or jobs that are so meaningful that we’d be glad to do them for free; but those people and those jobs are a small minority of the workforce and the job market.
            Too many Christians, I believe, approach their religion in the same way.  They endure it so (they believe) they will be able to walk around heaven for eternity, enjoying the hereafter more than the here. 
I don’t believe that’s what God intended for us.  I think God had something quite different in mind.
            God made the universe and everything in it for the pleasure of the creatures that inhabit it.  Right now, as far as we can prove, those creatures are limited to the ones on earth, since we have not yet found extraterrestrial life. 
We’re not supposed to view our life here on earth as a slog to drudge our way through until we die.  Yes, I know, life is not an unending bowl of cherries.  We all face the potential problems of disease, serious physical conditions, aging, job loss, family disappointments—so many potential hardships that it is easy to let them overwhelm our enjoyment of life.  Surely, this is not the way God intended it; but we know it’s the way life is.  God has given us this life, this planet, this universe to enjoy, and enjoy it we should.
            God has given us work to do—not the job where we earn enough to buy the things we need for survival and want for pleasure, but the work we are called to do for God.  It is this work which should give us the greatest pleasure of all.
            I believe this is part of what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words to the church at Philippi.  Jesus didn’t empty himself because at the end of the road he would become Lord of the universe, with every creature acknowledging the superiority of his name.  Jesus emptied himself because it was the right thing to do.  It was his work assignment from God, the Father.  Was it always easy?  Of course not!  Was the ending of his life painful and degrading?  Of course it was!  Life wasn’t perfect for Jesus any more than it is for us—perhaps, in some ways, less so than for many of us.  Jesus’ relationship with the Father was not transactional.  It was a relationship of service.
            This is the life we are called to, a life of joyful service to the God who created us, who loves us, and sustains us.  If Jesus fulfilled his Father’s will can we do anything less? 

Sunday, December 8, 2019


Isaiah 40:1-5
            A company famous for condiments had a ketchup ad campaign that featured the song Anticipation by Carly Simon.  In one ad a man set a bottle of ketchup on the edge of the roof of a building with the bottle open and the neck hanging over the side.  Then he ran down the stairs with a hot dog on a bun and arrived just in time to catch the first drops.  Clever.  You got the idea that the ketchup was so rich, so thick—and so flavorful—that it was worth waiting for.  I guess you weren’t supposed to ask if the hot dog got cold while you were anticipating.
            “All good things come to those who wait,” we’re told; and maybe it’s true.  But are some of the things we want really worth the wait?  That, of course, is something every person must decide.  It’s an individual choice.  What’s worth waiting for?  What’s not worth the wait?  I can assure you, there’s not a ketchup in the world that I’d wait even a second for.  Yuck!
We know what a child goes through waiting for Christmas—or a birthday, or any other day when presents are received.  They say they can’t wait, even when they know they must.  The anticipation drives them—and us—nearly crazy.  We devise ways of making the time go faster.
Someone invented Advent calendars, I think, just for this reason.  Each day a tiny door is opened, or a figure is hung on the calendar.  It probably doesn’t make the time go faster, but it does give the child something to do.  He/she can see the time passing, even if it’s a slow passage. Some Advent calendars have an activity for the child to complete each day.  This occupies more time, and gives the child something useful to do as well.  Those of you with children who are so antsy you can’t stand it might give this kind of calendar a try.
            Isaiah knew the Israelites were anxious for the arrival of a figure who would end the long years of exile and lead them back to their homeland.  They anticipated a military hero who would free them from their captors and let them return in victory, with honor and dignity.  Isaiah used words and images that were usually reserved for royalty.
            “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he thundered, giving the people the image of a herald announcing the coming of a king.  He described a wilderness road, rutted and full of rocks, and perhaps so twisted that the ride would not only be bumpy but dizzying.  The herald announces:
            “Raise up the low places!  Flatten the hills!  Level the uneven ground and make the rough places smooth.  If you do this, the glory of the Lord will be seen by everyone.”  By what authority was Isaiah making this announcement?  The Lord himself had given the command.  The king was coming, and the work must begin immediately.
            We can imagine that people received the news with joy and great anticipation.  They had been waiting nearly seventy years.  Many of those who had begun the exile were no longer alive.  Many now present hadn’t been born when Babylon carried their families away.  Now salvation was coming.  They would be free!  Free to return, and the king would lead them over smooth, well-tended roads.  No crossing raging rivers for them.  No trackless wilderness.  Even if they must go through wild areas there would be a clear, easy path for them to follow.  Meanwhile they had work to do.  The preparation was up to them.
            John the Baptist, the new Isaiah, came to prepare the way of the Lord, to announce that the people’s cry had been heard, but they had work to do—the work of repentance, of changing their lives. 
We have the same work to do today.  God calls us to prepare the way for the Lord’s return—not for a short royal visit, but to rule the new creation. 
How will we spend the time of our anticipation?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Coming King

The Coming King
Revelation 1:5-8
            As I post this, it is the first Sunday—the first day—of Advent, 2019.  Not every Christian church celebrates Advent, but for those who do, today is the first day of the Christian year, which begins with the preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.
            On a secular level, the preparation for Christmas has been going on for weeks.  The official beginning is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when every retailer tries to get a jump on every other retailer by opening its doors at some unreasonable hour (I’m a night person) and offering what they advertise as once in a lifetime sale prices on all the items you and your loved ones must have for Christmas. 
            Unfortunately, the official beginning isn’t the beginning at all.  Well before Thanksgiving stores advertise pre-Black Friday sales with even better prices, while the TV channels are full of Christmas ads.  It amazes me how many car ads we see, with new cars sitting in snow-covered driveways, huge bow attached to the roof, as some family member or other jumps up and down.  I wonder…how many people actually give automobiles as Christmas gifts?  I’ve not met any.
            Under the heavy bombardment brought to us by our capitalist society, we might find it difficult to locate the Christ child.  Look closely.  He is there, waiting for us to discover him and welcome him.
            In a sense, we’re play-acting during Advent.  We’re pretending that the Christ child hasn’t been born yet, and we’re waiting for his birth.  We know the birth occurred over two thousand years ago, but it means so much to us—means so much to the world—that we try to experience it again for the first time, enjoying the anticipation, the buildup of excitement, the pleasant tension this waiting brings.
            But the celebration of Christ’s birth is only part of the reason for Advent.  As pleasant and thrilling as this is, there is another component which is just as important.  Jesus speaks of it in the gospels.  Paul speaks about it in some of his letters.  Another good source is Revelation.
            Revelation was written to encourage Christians to stand firm during a period of intense persecution by Rome.  “Don’t give up,” the author says.  “Jesus is coming.  We don’t know when, but we know he is coming.  And when he comes all will be well.  Meanwhile, believe his promises.  They are true.”
            Although written specifically to the seven churches in Asia Minor, Revelation has a much wider application.  Read what the Spirit has to say to each of these churches (chapters 2-3), and see how much is applicable to today’s congregations. 
            Even before these chapters, the writer speaks directly to us.  He tells us Jesus loves us and has freed us from sin.  He tells us we have been given a kingdom and made priests in that kingdom.  He tells us glory and dominion should be given to Jesus, not just now, but “forever and ever.  Amen.”
            And then comes the second reason for Advent.  Jesus will return, and every eye will see him.  There will be no way to miss him, no way to avoid him.  Matthew 25:31-46 speaks of the final judgment which will occur when Jesus returns.  We are told all the nations of the world will appear before him, and he will reveal to each person the reward or punishment that awaits.  No exceptions; we will all stand before Jesus, the righteous judge.
            “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” Jesus says, “who is and who was and is to come…”  Our response is found at the end of Revelation (22:20).
            “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!”

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Taking a Stand Against Corrupt Leadership

Taking a Stand Against Corrupt Leadership
Mark 11:18, 14:1-2
            John Adams said, “If ever the time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”
            Throughout the course of history this has been true.  Time after time, in country after country, vain, aspiring, corrupt persons (not always males) have risen to commandeer the highest seats in government.  One by one they have met their doom.  Their aspirations grew too great to be sustained, and they fell.  Dictator after dictator, evil king after evil king, corrupt politician after corrupt politician has risen to control a state, a nation, an empire, only to see it come crashing down, aspirations fallen into the dust.  Patriots either aided in the downfall or came forward afterward to help pick up the pieces.
                In his poem Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelly tells of such a leader.  The poet meets a man who tells him of a desert where two stone legs and a head lie in the sand.  Inscribed on the pedestal supporting the legs are the words:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!”

Nothing else remains except endless sand.

            Shelly’s Ozymandias believed his might was so overwhelming that he would rule forever.  He made the same mistake all others who have ruled from might, fear, and intimidation have made; they overestimated their strength.  In time, experienced patriots arose to overthrow them, or outlasted them and took control once they fell of their own weight, or met whatever fate divine forces had in store for them.
            Jesus faced the same situation.  Vain and aspiring men ruled in Rome, and exercised their power to control much of the then-known world.  They inspired other vain and aspiring men to take control of parts of the empire, including Palestine.  Pilate in his fortress, Herod on his throne, Judah’s religious leaders, each controlled their little part of the empire.  What were needed were patriots to rise up and take control again.
            One of my seminary professors said that if the only reason for Jesus to come to earth was to die, God could have dropped him directly from heaven onto the cross.  Jesus didn’t have to be born a baby, grow to be an itinerant preacher and healer, and suffer excruciating torture before his death.  God must have had some overwhelming reason for Jesus to live on earth for thirty-three years.
            I believe that, at least in part, Jesus’ life was meant to show us how to live.  “This is what it means to be a human being,” he said, with every word, every act, every step.  “This is what God intended you to be.  This is how you are called to live.”
            The main component of that behavior is love.  We are to love as Christ loved, not parceling out our love a little at a time to those we like and agree with, but to practice a love that extends to everyone we meet.  This love says “I love you no matter what.”  It says, “I forgive you regardless of what you’ve done to me.”  It demonstrates its abundance by standing for what is right no matter the cost.  It means being patriot enough to stand against the dictators, the wicked kings, the corrupt leaders wherever they may be, even if it means discomfort or death.
            Jesus showed us how to live and how to die.  To say, “That’s not right!”  To die to make others free, if that’s what is necessary.  To be the kind of patriot that brings about the end of vain and aspiring men no matter the personal cost.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
1 John 3:1
            Amy Peterson, writing for the devotional booklet Our Daily Bread, recounts the story told in the children’s book Nothing, by Mick Inkpen.  The central character is an old, worn-out stuffed animal.  He is so faded he can’t remember who he is.  He hears movers refer to him as nothing, and thinks that’s his name.
            Nothing meets other animals and begins to remember things about himself.  He remembers he used to have a tail, and whiskers, and stripes.  Eventually he meets a tabby cat who helps him find his way home.  Nothing finally remembers who he is:  a stuffed cat named Toby.  His owner gives him renewed life by sewing on new ears, a new tail, new whiskers and stripes.  Toby is restored to his original condition, and to his loving family.
            It is so easy for us to forget who we are.  The chapel in a music camp I used to attend had a sign over the pulpit which read, “I come here to find myself; it is so easy to get lost in the world.”  I read that sign many times.  Over the years it helped me redefine who I was, clarify my identity, and prepare me for adult life.  The days I spent in that camp setting may well have been the deciding factor in my decision to pursue a career in music education.
            It is easy for us to lose our way in the world.  The cares and worries of everyday life, the struggle to maintain our identity in the face of competing claims on our hearts, souls and minds, the many voices that call us to follow new, interesting, but sometimes dangerous paths—all these can lead us astray and make us feel lost and alone in a big, wide, often scary world.
            Once lost it becomes easy to forget who we are.  How can we know who we are when we don’t know where we are, or in which direction we should be heading?  Like the small child who has let go of his parent’s hand in a crowded store, we stand still, frozen to the spot, casting our eyes in all directions, trying to find something or someone familiar, something we can grasp hold of, someone we can cling to for comfort, security, identity.
            John the evangelist came from a secure family.  He and his brother James helped their father, Zebedee earn the family income through fishing.  They woke every morning knowing who they were, where they were going, and what each day would hold. 
            Then Jesus called them, and they followed.  There must have been times when they wondered who they were, where they were going, and what would happen to them that day.  They became so lost that they made a request of Jesus which was out of line for who they were and how they had been raised.  Jesus could have chastised them for their ignorance and impertinence.  Instead he treated them lovingly, gently reprimanding them and helping them find their path again. Still, it wasn’t until after the resurrection that they fully understood who they were and where their lives were headed. 
            John was the writer in the family.  Although we believe someone else wrote down the words we read in the gospel which bears his name, we have three letters he addressed to the early church.  In his first letter he said, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are!” (italics mine). 
            John knew who he was.  He was a child of God.  God had, in effect, sewn his missing parts back on, restored his identity, made him whole and beautiful.
            But John’s discovery of his true identity was only the beginning.  He extends the family relationship to all of us.  We are all God’s children.  We’ve all had our identities renewed and refreshed. 
When someone asks who we are, we can reply, “I’m not nothing; I’m a child of God!”

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Caring for the Oppressed

                                          Caring for the Oppressed     
Zechariah 7:4-14
            The Exodus and 40-year wilderness experience formed Israel into a nation.  From slavery to freedom, from disunity to unity, from a leaderless people to God’s chosen people, the Israelites grew—haltingly, two steps forward/one step back, sometimes kicking and screaming, but they became a nation—God’s nation.
            With the gift of the Torah—God’s instructions for living together as a people—God established rules the Israelites must follow if they wanted God’s blessings to be showered upon them.  A major ingredient in the Torah was how foreigners and the poor were to be treated.  Exodus 22:21-27 gives instructions for both these groups.  Sojourners are not to be wronged nor oppressed.  Israel is to remember it was enslaved and oppressed in Egypt.  Instead of paying the evil treatment forward they are to behave towards the stranger as God has behaved toward them.
            The poor are not to be oppressed nor mistreated.  They are God’s children, and must be treated by their fellow Israelites as God would treat them—lovingly, with dignity and justice.
            A reading of Israel’s experience in the Promised Land reveals that, for much of its history, the people didn’t follow God’s instructions.  Strangers were seldom welcomed with open arms.  True, many of the peoples surrounding Israel tried their best to conquer the little nation.  Israel’s suspicion of foreigners was well-founded and understandable; but we have no record of Israel extending hospitality even to benign outsiders.
            As for the poor, the prophets make it clear that the less fortunate were taken advantage of, mistreated, and kept in poverty.  It appears the Year of Jubilee and the Sabbath of the Land were never observed, especially the cancelling of debts and the return of land to its ancestral owners. 
            Amos tells Israel that sacrifices and worship are not enough.  Justice and righteousness are what will assure God’s favor for the nation.
            Micah reminds Israel that God requires God’s people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  There’s no room here for oppression or mistreatment of the poor.
            Through Zechariah God says, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
            These are not the only prophetic words against oppression; but this is enough of a sample to show that God does not want anyone to be oppressed.
            Criticism of oppression does not end with the Bible.  It continues today.  Nor is it enough not to oppress.  We are reminded to take a stand against oppression wherever we find it.
            Elie Wiesel, who knew oppression firsthand said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
            Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Bishop of South Africa, suffered oppression under apartheid.  He said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
            Nor will God.  God always comes down on the side of the oppressed.  Any system, any government, any individual which chooses to oppress any people, or refuses to stand with the oppressed to end oppression, will not win God’s favor.  It does not matter whether the oppressed is a brother or sister, a fellow citizen, or a sojourner/foreigner in our midst.  God will surely remember both the oppressed and the oppressor, one with favor, the other with judgment.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Recipe for a Lasting Peace

Recipe for a Lasting Peace
Amos 5:21-24
Micah 6:6-8

            O how we love rules!  We love them for two contradictory reasons.  We love them because living within rules is easy.  When we have a situation that requires making a decision, all we have to do is remember the appropriate rule, apply it, and we’ll be sure we are doing the right thing.  No need to think through the problem.  No need to worry about the appropriateness of our action.  We’ve followed the rule.  End of discussion.
            On the other hand we love rules because they give us something to work against.  If we don’t like the rule (obeying speed limits, paying taxes, stopping at stop signs) we can break it with impunity and feel like we’re above all regulations.  We’re getting away with something.
            We love rules because they make tough decisions easier.  We love rules because breaking them makes us feel defiant, in charge.  In both cases, we choose to deal with rules in the wrong way for the wrong reason.
            Dwight D. Eisenhower was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He rose through the ranks to become the commanding general of the United States Army in Europe during World War II.  His success in that assignment propelled him to the presidency of the United States.  As a military man he knew the necessity for rules.  As both a general and a president he faced difficult decisions.  Sometimes the right decision went against the accepted rules or the most commonly used strategy. 
            I imagine there were times when Eisenhower agonized over decisions, trying to determine what was the right course of action.  What strategy would win the battle with the loss of the fewest soldiers.  What path would most benefit the country he had been chosen to lead.  There must have been sleepless nights and worrisome days as he tried to determine which course of action would be best.
            As a commander he understood the use of force.  He knew how effective force could be in winning the day.  I suspect he also knew when force would lose the day, when other approaches would be more effective.  Perhaps it was this knowledge which led him to say, “Though force can protect in an emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead [human beings] to the dawn of eternal peace.”  With these words he echoed two of the Hebrew prophets. 
            Amos quoted God when he said, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”  The political and religious leaders of Israel were sure that if they followed the rules, if they performed their religious rituals correctly, they would be on God’s good side.  All they had to do was offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate times and all would be well.  But God saw their hearts.  He knew this was only surface obedience.  They were neglecting what God really wanted from them; the deeper obedience of treating people the way God wanted people to be treated.  Instead of following the rules of worship, God wanted them to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
            Micah addressed the same problem.  He determined that God would not be pleased with “thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil.”  God would not even be pleased with the offer of a firstborn child.  Micah asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
            We will never please God until we find the deeper meaning behind the rules, until we achieve lasting peace through justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Who Is Correct?

Who Is Correct?
Matthew 28:1-10
Mark 16:1-8
Luke 24:1-12
John 20:1-10

            The differences among the gospel accounts of the resurrection are striking.  This has been on my mind recently as I work my way through the four gospels in my devotions.  I’ve just finished Luke’s account, so the topic is fresh in my mind.
Matthew says there were two women at the tomb (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary).  An angel came and rolled the stone away.  Jesus met and spoke with the women as they returned to the city.  None of the disciples went to the tomb to corroborate the women’s account.  Matthew is the only one to mention the presence of soldiers guarding the tomb.
Mark names three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome). There is one “young man” (presumably an angel) who greets the women.  Jesus does not appear.  No disciples go to the tomb because the women say nothing to anyone.
Luke identifies three women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James) by name, and says there were other women present.  In Luke’s account there are two men in dazzling apparel (again, presumably angels) who greet the women.  Jesus does not appear.  The women return to the city and tell the apostles.  Most of the men think this is “an idle tale,” but Peter goes to the tomb to see for himself.  At the end of the Emmaus Road story we learn that Peter has seen the risen Jesus.
John mentions only Mary Magdalene at to the tomb.  She finds it empty, and returns to tell the disciples.  Peter and (presumably) John run back to see for themselves.  Mary returns to the tomb, and, after the men have left, has an extended conversation with Jesus.
Who do we believe?  Which version is correct?  How do we decide which gospel writer tells the true story of what happened that morning?  How many women?  How many angels?  How many disciples?  Did Jesus appear or not?
We don’t have to choose.  We could say either all four are correct, or none of them are correct.  If we say all four are correct, biblical literalism must be rejected.  If we try to make all four correct we’ll tie ourselves in knots explaining the differences.  If we reject all four accounts we have no idea what happened at the tomb.
What if we say all four are correct, and none are completely correct?  Does this give us a place to begin understanding the events surrounding the resurrection?
We are aware that four people, looking at the same event from four different locations, may see four different events.  Each will interpret the event from his/her point of reference, but none of them will have the whole truth.  This is why those who review plays at sporting events look at all possible camera angles before making a decision.  Accuracy is cumulative.
Do we synthesize the four gospel accounts into one?  Do we try to come up with a composite picture?  To do so denies the richness of the story as it has come down to us.  The different observers remembered the event differently.  Also, memories fade and change over time.  What we think we remember might not be what actually happened. 
Each account must stand alone as a witness to the resurrection.  Each account tells us something miraculous happened that morning.  That miraculous event should be the focus of our interest, not trying to parse out which details are the correct ones. 
When Jesus’ followers discovered he was alive they rejoiced.  So should we.

Sunday, October 20, 2019


Hebrews 12:1-2
            “The force of the waves is in their perseverance.” (Gila Guri)
            Years ago Harry Belafonte recorded a song about a wave and a rock.  I can’t remember the title or the lyrics, but the message of the song is that change comes slowly.  The wave crashes over the rock and breaks up, but in its action it wears away a bit of the rock.  Day after day, year after year, wave after wave the rock is changed, worn away, smoothed.
            I’ve experienced a speeded-up version of this action.  One year for Christmas my daughter received a machine that smoothed rocks to make jewelry.  The stone was placed in a container with water and some substance that wore down the rough edges.  Little by little the stone was changed until its inner beauty became evident, and it could be set in a necklace, or bracelet or ring.  It didn’t take as long as the action of the waves, but it was the same idea.  The perseverance of the machine changed the rock.
            We experience perseverance in our spiritual lives.  An old hymn begins, “God is working His purpose out as year turns into year.”  The melody reinforces the words, as a single note is repeated to enhance the impression of slow, deliberate movement.  The text speaks of God’s action over extended time, working to bring about the age when “the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”
            God has all the time in the world.  We think in shorter terms because that is all we have on this earth.  Whatever we accomplish must be done in the comparatively few years of life we are given.  God, however, has as long as it takes to change the world and fulfill God’s plan.  Like the water washing away the rock bit by bit, God is constantly moving the world to the pristine condition for which it was intended.
            Over a much more abbreviated time, in a much more speeded-up manner, God is working His purpose out in us.  Little by little the waves of God’s Spirit work in us and on us to bring about God’s purpose for us.  The Spirit washes over us with the same inevitability of the waves on the rock, smoothing us out, wearing away the rough edges, making our inner beauty more evident.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  The change is often imperceptible.  We may know we’re changing, but the world may not recognize the difference for weeks, months, even years.  What was alright for us yesterday becomes something to change today.  Old habits must be discarded.  Outmoded ways of thinking must be eliminated.  Speech patterns must be changed, until God’s purpose for us is revealed in all its beauty.
            These are not separate actions.  They are interrelated and interwoven.  God cannot change the world unless individuals are changed.  The waves of God’s Spirit wash over us first; then we become the waves that wash over the world.  God is working His purpose out, and the change comes through us.
            Could God change everything in an instant to bring about the perfection of creation?  We believe that is possible; but for whatever reason, God has chosen to work by means of spiritual evolution, slowly but surely, one person at a time, one wave at a time, one rock at a time.
            How long will it take?  We have no idea, nor should we worry about it.  All we can concern ourselves with is the changes that must occur in us.  We fit into God’s overall plan the way God sees fit.
            So let us run the race we’re called to run, laying aside all that weighs us down, all the rough edges, all the protruding corners, until we are smoothed out, until God’s beauty shines through us, and our purpose becomes clear. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Simple Joy of Childhood

The Simple Joy of Childhood
Luke 18:15-17
            I love to watch young children in public places, like fast food restaurants.  They live in their own worlds, making up games, inventing characters, creating their own entertainment.  They are totally ingenuous.  They don’t care if anyone is watching—don’t know anyone is watching.  They are being, in the truest sense of the word.
            Then they grow up.  I taught middle school for many, many years.  Most of my students were self-conscious, convinced the whole world was looking at them, worried about how their peers would see them.  There were days when I longed to see the absolute innocence of the little ones.  I think—without being aware of it—one of my goals for my students was to help them recapture that time in their lives.
            Tony Horning captured the innocent wonder of childhood when he wrote the following piece about a show-and-tell experience.
            “Jamie came to school one morning with a rolled-up towel that secured his priceless treasure.  Waiting to share was frustrating for both Jamie and Mr. Taylor.  This little boy, eager to share his discovery, interrupted lesson after lesson.
            “When Jamie’s time finally came, the students formed a circle on the floor.  Jamie lowered his towel to the floor with much care and slowly unrolled it to reveal a handful of old, soggy, brown leaves from his yard—not the beautiful leaves of autumn with their vibrant reds and yellows; just plain, old, brown leaves.
            “As Mr. Taylor looked around that circle, he was surprised to see on the children’s faces amazement, wonder, joy!
            “Listening to the class you would have thought they were staring into the Grand Canyon.  Captivated, these children held those soggy leaves as if they were newborn kittens.
            “There in that circle, the teacher became the student.  For a brief moment, Mr. Taylor could remember a time when the simplest things in life brought wonder and joy to him as well.”
            I think Jesus must have felt the same joy I feel—and Mr. Taylor felt—as he watched the mothers bring their little children to him.  No problems with people trying to trap him.  No arguments over who would be first in the kingdom.  No one seeking something from him.  Just kids, loving life and living in their own worlds. 
            And Jesus loved them.  In a culture where children were mostly ignored, Jesus gave them his complete attention.  They were, as the old hymn says, precious in his sight.  No wonder he reacted negatively—perhaps even angrily—when the disciples tried to keep them away.  Not only was he enjoying the interaction with them, he knew their importance.
            “Don’t send them away,” he said.  “They are what God’s kingdom is all about.  I tell you the solemn truth; if you don’t come to God’s kingdom with the innocence and love these children are demonstrating, you’ll be on the outside looking in.  Let them come.  I welcome them.”
            Some of us have experienced horrible-acting children, and we might be skeptical of Jesus’ words.  But if you’ve ever watched little ones when they’re lost in their own magical worlds of play, or held them in your arms and felt the beauty and completeness of their love, you understand exactly what Jesus meant.
            “Let the children come to me,” Jesus says today, “and do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God.”  And we’re all children in God’s sight.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

God's Preference

God’s Preference
Luke 1:46-55
            One of the biggest problems we have with Scripture (aside from wanting to believe only those parts we agree with) is trying to understand an ancient document in modern times.  We tend to think of our culture as similar to biblical times.  In contrast, we realize how much the world has changed in our lifetimes.  Many of us speak longingly of the “good old days, when…,”—and we complete the sentence with (often inaccurate) memories from times when we believe things were better.
            Why is it we can see the changes in our own lifetime but not understand how much the world has changed since the Bible was written down and canonized?  If the world has changed so much in our “three score years and ten” (or however long we’ve been on this earth), how much more must it have changed in the thousands of years since Scripture came into being?
            Throughout the Bible we read of God’s care and preference for the poor.  The concept is enshrined in the Torah, God’s law—God’s instructions to the fledgling nation of Israel.  Throughout the ensuing generations God’s prophets were called on to remind Israel of its obligation to care for the poor in God’s name.  Jesus reiterated this prophetic message for his generation, and demonstrated what he meant by his actions toward those who were on society’s bottom rungs.  The only way we can miss God’s preference for the poor is by ignoring the biblical record.
            God cares for the poor.  God insists that God’s people care for the poor.  Jesus makes it clear (Matthew 25:31-46) how those who would inherit the kingdom of God are to behave toward the poor.  We ignore this message at the peril of our souls.
            Who were these instructions addressed to?  Who does God expect to care for the poor?  Who is under the obligation to provide for those unfortunate enough to not have enough?  This is where the cultural problem comes in.
            When we read these words in the context of our own culture we often conclude that it is up to the church, or to individual members of the church to provide for the poor.  This is a good start, but not the whole answer. 
What Jesus said painted an entirely different picture of God than that presented by the religious leaders.  When Jesus spoke the words in Matthew 25 he addressed the poor—the working poor.  Most of those who gathered to hear Jesus were from the working class.  They understood it was their responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves, but they could only do so much with their limited resources. 
But Jesus was really speaking to the religious leaders.  They were the ones with the resources to make a difference in the lives of the poor.  They were also the ones who were sure they had already qualified for the kingdom.  They didn’t believe they had to go out of their way to help anyone.
Today we try to separate the church from the government—and rightly so.  No one religion should be able to call the shots for everyone, no matter how sure we are that we are right.  In the first century—and in the centuries before—the church and the government were one.  God was the ruler, and the leaders were God’s representatives, chosen to care for all the people.  Jesus made it clear that those in charge were to provide for those who could not provide for themselves.  These were the ones to whom Jesus addressed his message.  These were the ones who had the means to make a difference.  Just as God had spelled out in the Torah, just as God had reinforced the Torah through the words of the prophets, just as Jesus made it clear to his generation, so we must all band together to eliminate poverty—for Jesus’ sake and for our own.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
And of our willingness to obey God.