Wednesday, April 28, 2010

god's great concern (jonah - OMEGA)

The story of Jonah – is it true?

When people ask me that question what they usually want to know is, did it really happen? Did that dude really get swallowed by a fish and then live to tell about it? Whether Jonah falls under the genre of history or allegory is an interesting question to consider, but it’s by no means the most interesting question. More interesting than the question “did it happen” is the question “does it happen?”

The story of Jonah – does it happen? Well, to answer that question, lets go ahead and dive into the story.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)

This is where our story begins. God calls Jonah and Jonah runs away. God sends him to Nineveh but he flees to Tarshish. He finds a ship, buys a one-way ticket, and Jonah runs away from God.

Now, of all the places that Jonah could flee to, why would he go to Tarshish? Well for starters Tarshish is a lot more exciting than Nineveh, which had a reputation for being full of brutish and pathetic pagans. When you hear Nineveh think modern day College Station. But Tarshish on the hand, Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was an adventure. According to 1 Kings, King Solomon sent ships to Tarshish and they came back with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks. That’s right – monkeys and peacocks. Pretty exciting stuff.

Of course there’s more to the story than that. Jonah has a pretty good reason for not wanting to go to Nineveh. Like I said, the people of Nineveh were known for being a bunch of spiritually ignorant and bloodthirsty brutes. And to make matters worse, they attacked, conquered, and at one point even slaughtered ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. For you non-math majors, that’s 83% of God’s elect people, which is no small thing. And so Jonah hates the Ninevites, and if Jonah had his way, God would hate the Ninevites, too. And so when Jonah begins to sense that God loves the Ninevites, that He wants to save the Ninevites, and that God wants to use him as part of the plan, Jonah runs away. Or perhaps to be more accurate, he sails away. Jonah wants nothing to do with bringing God’s love to such horrible, nasty people and so he sails away to Tarshish.

Back to the question of the night. Does it happen? Does God ever tell us to do something that we don’t want to do, or to go to a place that we’d rather not go, and when that happens, do we ever get freaked out and run away? Or if we look deep into our souls, do we have a Tarshish that appeals to us more than the presence of God – an adventurous city of gold that seduces us away from the Living God?

We’ll leave that question hanging for a bit …

Well, as the story goes Jonah boards a ship to Tarshish pretty confident that he’s the one in control of his life. Lesson #1 about the book of Jonah – he’s not – because God responds to Jonah’s disobedience by sending a horrible storm. Jonah’s ship begins to sink and everyone on board knows that Jonah is the problem and so the sailors decide to throw him overboard. And just as he’s about to drown, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. For three days and three nights the belly of the fish becomes Jonah’s home. Jonah is trapped, helpless and he has nowhere else to go. He’s trapped. You see there’s not a whole lot one can do to entertain one’s self in the belly of a fish and so Jonah does the only thing he can do. He prays. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prays, and God hears Jonah’s prayer because the fish spits Jonah up near the great city of Nineveh.

Once again, does it happen?

Have we ever been certain that we were in complete control of our lives only to discover that, actually, we weren’t in control at all? Has our journey to Tarshish – the one we mapped out for our self – ever been ruined by a storm? Have we ever been hit by a storm so great that we were brought to our knees – trapped and helpless – with nowhere to go but to God in prayer? That’s the question. Does it happen?

We’ll go ahead and leave that question hanging, too.

I kind of feel bad for Jonah. He’s worked so hard to get to Tarshish, but God thwarts his plans and Jonah finds himself on the outskirts of Nineveh – the one place he did not want to go. And to make matters worse, God asks Jonah a second time to ask the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent. It’s a three-day journey to Nineveh and this time Jonah goes, albeit reluctantly. He pouts the entire time.

Now, if you haven’t figured this out yet, no one ever listens to the prophets in the Old Testament, and it’s not because they’re not persistent. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah – they all preached for like twenty or thirty years and they weren’t all that successful. Only a few people repented. But Jonah – Jonah storms to the center of Nineveh and preaches the shortest and to be honest the worst sermon that’s recorded in our Bible. “In forty days,” Jonah says, “Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s it. That’s all Jonah says. “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s his entire sermon. Jonah says seven words and then he calls it a day.

But here’s what so amazing – it works! Not one person, not one family, but the entire city of Nineveh repents. The king tears his garments and declares a city wide fast. Even the animals are forced to wear burlap sacks and are denied food and water. Make no mistake, this is hard-core repentance, and God, who loves the Ninevites, is pleased – God is pleased that the Ninevites denounce their sinful ways and turn to the truth; and God is even more pleased to show Nineveh His mercy, His forgiveness and His love. God’s free and unmerited grace prevails and because of that, God is pleased.

But do you think Jonah is pleased? He’s not because when Nineveh repents this is essentially what Jonah tells God: “if you’re not going to kill those bloodthirsty brutes, then kill me. Because I’m better off dead.” Now, think about what Jonah is saying to God for a minute. Jonah’s primary concern is that Nineveh be destroyed. Jonah hates the Ninevites. And if Jonah had his way, God would hate the Ninevites too.

Does it happen?

Since we’re a community of Christ-followers, I’d like to assume there’s no one we openly hate. But is there anyone we’d just assume never see again? Conservatives, liberals, immigrants, terrorists, feminists, fundamentalists, consumerists, activists, attorneys, cops, soldiers, hippies, Greeks, non-Greeks, the rich, the poor, the homeless? Is it possible that we’re avoiding a group that God’s calling us to embrace? Do we have any Ninevites of our own? Are we inclined to exclude, isolate, leave out, or push anyone away? Does it happen?

Well, there’s one more scene, and it’s a showdown between God and Jonah. You see when God saves the Ninevites Jonah storms out of the city, he sits down, and then he begins to pout. And apparently it’s a really, really hot day and the heat makes Jonah even angrier. And so God does something nice for Jonah. God makes a bush miraculously grow right above him so that Jonah has shade from the heat. And according to the Bible, this makes Jonah really, really happy. Jonah, of course, doesn’t thank God for the miraculous bush that’s been planted because in Jonah’s mind, it’s the least God could do for not killing the Ninevites. Well, all is well for a while, but then God sends a massive worm, and this massive worm eats the entire bush. Well, this pisses Jonah off and so listen to how the book of Jonah ends.

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Does it happen?

Are we ever concerned with one thing, perhaps even consumed by one thing, only to discover that God is concerned about something far greater? Has God ever done something dramatic to show us that the thing that most concerns us is shallow and unimportant?

Make no mistake Jonah’s primary concern is Jonah. He’s concerned with the bush and not having any shade. He’s concerned about his trip to Tarshish that didn’t work out. He’s concerned with getting revenge on the Ninevites for what they did to his people. But do you know what Jonah’s not concerned with?


Does that ever happen?

You see God’s concern is to save Nineveh and to give Jonah the joy and the privilege of being part of the action. But Jonah, he’s concerned about the heat and pouting like a baby because his trip to Tarshish got cancelled.

Does it happen? Do we ever view life through such a narrow lens that we miss the great concern of God? Does it happen?

It wouldn’t be fitting for me to answer that question. You see, the book of Jonah ends with a question – there is a crucial question that the Book of Jonah just leaves hanging. There is no resolution to the story. Jonah is the only book in the Bible I know of that ends with a question. You see the book ends with Jonah arguing with God, and with God arguing back. The book ends with Jonah asking God, “should I not be concerned about the bush?” and with God responding, “Jonah, wake up! Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”

Now obviously this isn’t the end of their conversation. God asks Jonah a question and God’s questions always demand an answer. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh? Another way of asking the question is this – is My concern not far greater than yours?

Jonah’s answer to God’s question is missing from the story, which of course isn’t a mistake. The writer withholds Jonah’s answer to force us to answer God’s question. Jonah? John? ____? Is my concern not far greater than yours?

You may recall that we began tonight’s talk with a question. The story of Jonah – is it true? And obviously, the answer is yes. Jonah’s story is my story and it’s your story, too. You see the story of Jonah happens. The Living God calls us and pursues us and like Jonah, we run away looking for an idol that’s just a little more exotic. The story of Jonah is the story of fallen humanity. We take control of our own lives – that is, of course, until the storm comes and we find ourselves trapped in the belly of the fish. And when that fish spits us out, we either buy another ticker to Tarshish, or like Jonah, we just sit around and pout. But what we fail to see is the greater purpose, or the greater concern, of God. The whole time God is asking us a question. Jonah? John? ___? Is my concern not far greater than yours?

If we think that God doesn’t want us to be joyful, then we haven’t understood the book of Jonah, or God for that matter. I really believe that our joy is God’s chief concern. I’d go as far as saying that our joy is tied to God’s glory. Our joy gives God glory. But at the same time, God is smart. And God knows that Tarshish will never bring us joy. God didn’t make us to live in Tarshish. He made us to live in His presence. But if God is going to do that, in an odd way, the witness of Jonah is that God has to break us. He has to send the storm. Or at a bare minimum, God must allow it and cannot intervene.

But in my own humble opinion, I think God sends some storms our way. And you know what? I think that the storm is grace. I think that the fish is grace. I think that when God sends the bush its grace and that when God sends the worm its grace. And do you know why? Because I honestly believe that every detail of our life is packed with meaning and purpose, and that little by little, God is working to break us from the petty, shortsighted concerns that govern our lives. And I honestly believe that God does this for a reason – to help us find our purpose in the things that concern God, both for our joy and for His glory.

Now, I’m going to close tonight’s talk by throwing a little curveball. On the one hand, the story of Jonah is true. But on the other hand, the story of Jonah isn’t true at all. You see there was another man that God called to save a group of spiritually ignorant and bloodthirsty brutes, but it wasn’t Nineveh. It was the world. And the man wasn’t Jonah. It was Jesus.

And Jesus had plenty of chances to board that ship to Tarshish, to walk away from the work that God gave him to do. But he never did. Not once. You see when God called Jesus to that place that he just didn’t want to go to – which for Jesus was a cross – he went. And when God told him to spend three days in the belly of the fish – which for him was a tomb – he went. That’s the story of Jesus. It’s a story of complete and total surrender. And as Christians our hope, our faith, is that Jesus’ story most certainly is true, and that because it happened in human history, it’s the only story that matters. And so what that means is that through faith, Jesus’ obedience is our obedience. Jesus’ righteousness is our righteousness. Jesus’ story is our story.

The story of Jesus is true.

Is the story of Jonah? We’ll go ahead and just leave that one hanging.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

the good shepherd

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one.

A few years ago I went to the island of Iona, the birthplace of Celtic Christianity. Iona’s beauty and history make it a “thin” place – a place where heaven invades earth in a way that’s too tangible to deny. And if you’ve never been, Iona is chock-full of biblical metaphors – it’s full of raging winds and narrow paths and foaming seas and solid rocks and flowing hills and drooping valleys, and of course sheep. Iona has tons of sheep. And I remember seeing one lamb in particular that wandered outside her pen, but upon realizing that she was outside the pen she started to panic – bleeping or bahhing or whatever it is that scared sheep do. Well, the gate was just ten feet away, but she wasn’t smart enough to walk back through it. And so she tried running through the barbed wire fence. Well, that didn’t work. Either time. And so she turned to plan B – running in circles – and of course she was baffled when that didn’t work. Meanwhile the sheep inside the pen started to freak out because apparently a sheep’s fear is contagious. What followed was the most painful sound you can imagine – 50 sheep frantically bleeping and bahhing all at once. It was loud and off rhythm and obnoxious. It kind of sounded like a Nickleback song. Anyway, I had an epiphany – those sheep needed a shepherd. Sheep need a shepherd, because, well for sheep having a shepherd is a matter of life and death. When left alone they get lost and they panic and they wander outside the pen and spin around in circles simply because they don’t know what else to do. Sheep need a shepherd.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. My sheep will never parish.” To describe to us what it means to be his disciple Jesus tells us that He is the shepherd and that we are his sheep.

Now I did some research on sheep. Sheep are skittish and aloof. They lack initiative and they smell. It’s not uncommon for a sheep to wander off a cliff or to get tangled up in brush. They also have what’s called a strong “lead-follow” tendency. One sheep moves and the others follow suit – even it’s right off a cliff. Their IQ is just below that of a pig – an animal whose joy derives from wallowing in the mud. My point is this – the relationship of shepherd and sheep is not a sentimental one – it’s an essential one. For the sheep, it’s a matter of life and death. Sheep don’t have what it takes to make it on their own. Sheep need a shepherd.

And so here’s the question we’re going to wrestle with tonight. What does it mean to say that we are Jesus’ sheep? Or to flip it around, what does it mean to say that Jesus is our shepherd? Well, there are three things that all shepherds do. A shepherd speaks. A shepherd leads. A shepherd protects. A shepherd speaks to his sheep. A shepherd leads his sheep. A shepherd protects his sheep.

First, a shepherd speaks to his sheep. I read somewhere that sheep can remember human faces for years. I imagine they can distinguish between voices, too. At least, Jesus assumes they can. “My sheep,” He says, “hear my voice.” In other words, “I’ve trained my sheep to be able to tell when I’m the One speaking, when the words they’re hearing are coming from Me and not from some imposter.” To say that Jesus is our shepherd is to assume that Jesus speaks to us and that we can actually learn to hear Jesus’ voice and to trust Jesus’ voice. And this is a skill we must learn. We’re not born with it. A couple years ago I got a call from a telemarketer who wouldn’t stop rambling and so I had to interrupt. “Listen sir, you seem like a nice guy. But I’m just not interested.” The telemarketer then informed me she was a woman. My point is that we learn to distinguish between voices. A day comes when an infant learns he can trust the voice of his mother but before that day she’s just another woman. Hearing Jesus’ voice is a learned skill – a skill we acquire by soaking ourselves in scripture, sitting before God in silence, and by spending time with people who have learned to hear Jesus’ voice. But to say that Jesus is our shepherd is to say that He speaks to us. Our shepherd speaks to his sheep.

Second, a shepherd leads his sheep. As tonight’s psalm puts, “He leads me beside still waters. He guides me along right paths for his Name’s sake.” Or as Jesus puts it, “my sheep follow me.” In other words, I lead them and not the other way around. Now, if you think about it, that’s a scary idea and it may even go against what we’ve grown up believing. We tend to think that faith is about making our own plans, about charting our own course, and then getting Jesus to help us out. “I want to go to this grad school. Lord, help me get in. I want to marry this person. Lord, open their eyes to see how freaking stupid they are for not feeling the same way.” Now, these are fine prayers – but they’re lousy, faith-crushing attitudes to have imbedded in our heart. All frustration with God comes from the illusion that we’re the ones leading, that we’re the ones in control. But as the author of Proverbs noted long ago, “the human mind may plan the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” And sometimes God directs us away from the very thing we’ve set our heart on, especially when what we want is not what we need. That is why we need a shepherd – to lead us away from the idols we’re pursuing and towards the greener pastures of the Kingdom of God. Our shepherd leads his sheep.

Third, a shepherd protects his sheep. As tonight’s psalm suggests, sheep live their lives in the valley of the shadow of death but they’re led safely through. Or as Jesus says tonight, “No one can ever snatch my sheep out of my hand.” Jesus wants us to feel secure. He wants us to know that every hair on our head is accounted for and that nothing can happen to us apart from the will of God. In his letter to the Romans Paul writes “for we know that all things work for the good of those who love God, … for I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that’s in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, I am convinced – Paul says – that my life is held firmly in Jesus’ hands and that nothing and no one will ever snatch me out of them. Because Jesus won’t let them - Jesus is my shepherd. Our shepherd protects his sheep.

There are three things that all shepherds do. Shepherds speak. Shepherds lead. Shepherds protect. That being said, the good news of the Christian Gospel isn’t that Jesus is just some shepherd – one of many you might think about following. It’s that He’s the good shepherd; that he’s the only shepherd worth trusting because He knows His sheep better than they know themselves. And so what we celebrate tonight is not that Jesus is just a shepherd – it’s that He’s the Good Shepherd, that He’s done something for us that no other shepherd would ever think about doing for his sheep even if they could – die for them.

What’s so amazing about our faith is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is also the Lamb – the Lamb who left His Father’s pen to seek and save a wayward flock, the Lamb who gave Himself to the wolves so that sheep like us could walk back through the gate we wandered out of in the first place. To quote the Gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In other words, all shepherds speak and lead and protect their sheep. But only Jesus loves his sheep. Only Jesus saves his sheep. Only Jesus died for his sheep.

I love the way tonight’s reading from Revelation ends. “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life.” In other words, the sheep-shepherd relationship we have with Jesus isn’t a temporary relationship – it’s an eternal one. Jesus will always speak to us. Jesus will always lead us. Jesus will always protect us. Jesus will always love us. He’s the Good Shepherd. He laid down his life for the sheep. “Surely his goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

learning from a hooker (Hosea - OMEGA)

Hosea (learning from a hooker)

“For my ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts,” says the Lord. This verse comes from the book of Isaiah, and I think we’d all agree. God’s ways are not our ways. God is different.

Now, we may not understand God, but we sure do try. If someone asks us what God is like we usually say something like God is ___ (love). Great, but let me ask you this – what’s love? If God is love, then God has to love us – right? But what happens if we reject God’s love? Does God still love us?

Rejection sucks. I know this guy – his name is, uh, Ron Newman – and Ron has an amazing capacity to forget people that reject him. Ron, if he’s motivated enough, can completely write off another human being. He can convince himself that a person he cares for doesn’t even exist. I know Ron pretty well. He fights this tendency. But isn’t that sad?

I’ve got other friends, and they deal with rejection differently. A lot of them pout and start feeling all insecure and whiney. A lot of them are chameleons – always changing, even if they have to compromise their deepest values, wearing a mask they think that others won’t reject. And a lot of my friends get violent. They just slander and gossip and badmouth the person they feel rejected by.

Loving someone that loves us – that’s easy. But what happens when we love someone and they reject us? We forget them. We pout. We compromise. We get violent. In the face of rejection, these are our ways. Thankfully, God’s ways are different, and that is what the Book of Hosea is all about – God’s reckless love for the very people that reject Him.

I’ve chosen three verses that sum up the problem that Hosea responds to. Let’s look at the problem, then we’ll move on to God’s solution.

“I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals, when she offered incense to them and went after other lovers and forgot me, says the Lord.” – Hosea 2:13

“You calf is rejected, O Samaria. An artisan made it. It is not God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces.” – Hosea 8: 5-6

“Though the Lord loves the people of Israel, they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” Hosea 3:1

That last verse is hands down my favorite. Who knew? God apparently hates raisin cakes. But, does anyone know why? Back in the day, people made raisin cakes to honor the fertility gods of the Canaanites. Idolatry – the worship and love of other gods – that is the problem that Hosea is dealing with. God loves Israel. Israel loves raisin cakes. God loves Israel. Israel loves Baal. God loves Israel. Israel loves a golden calf.

Speaking of, what do you remember about golden calves in the Bible? Moses walks up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, he stays on the mountaintop a little bit too long, and the people get anxious. And so what do the Israelites do? They complain so much that Aaron has to make a golden calf to shut the people up. And so when Moses gets back from his trip up the mountain, he is shocked to see that the people, who have just been freed from Egyptian slavery by the way, are having an orgy and worshipping the calf that Aaron made them. Exodus 32 – you can read it for yourself. I’m not clever enough to make this stuff up.

Well, Moses is pissed and so he responds by taking the tablets of stone – the Ten Commandments – and smashing them. The Israelites, meanwhile, are all scrambling to get their clothes back on. Moses, still pretty upset, proceeds to take their calf, grind it to a powder, and then, he makes the people drink the ground up calf as a punishment for their sin. Now, there’s something significant about this punishment. Part of Israelite Law said that if a person committed adultery they had to drink ground up stone and rocks as a punishment. And so by taking the calf, grinding it to a powder, and then making the people drink it, Moses is basically saying –“you people are adulterers. You are cheating on God.”

God loves Israel. Israel loves a calf. Spiritual adultery. Idolatry. Cheating on God. Call it whatever you want, but that’s the problem. And so here’s my question – what does God do?

Well, God calls a prophet by the name of Hosea and says, “Hosea, I want you to get married and I’ve got just the girl in mind. Her name is Gomer.” Now, Hosea’s a bachelor, and so he’s excited about the prospect, but then God throws in a pretty disturbing detail. “There’s something you need to know about this girl, Hosea. She’s going to cheat on you. She’s going to leave you. She’s going to break your heart. But I want you to marry her anyway. And, I want you to have children with her. And when they’re born, I’m going to name them for you.”

Now, I’ve mentioned this before, but God told the prophets to do really strange symbolic things. Symbols were God’s way of getting through to the people. Ezekiel, for example, cooked a meal at God’s command over his own poop to show the people how unclean they were. Jeremiah preached while holding a dirty pair of underwear – a symbol of how disgusting Israel’s behavior was. Isaiah preached naked for three years, though I’m still not sure what that was a symbol of. But my point is this – all of these are dramatic, symbolic acts that God used to get through to His people. And so here’s the question. How does God get through to people that are breaking His heart by committing spiritual adultery over and over and over again? Well, apparently, God tracks down Hosea and forces him to marry a prostitute.

And as the story goes, Hosea and Gomer get hitched and at first, things are wonderful. Hosea falls hard for this girl and it’s not long before they have a son. And God tells Hosea to name him Jezreel, which means “cast away.” Now remember, God loves symbols. This name is God’s way of warning Israel. “If you don’t stop worshiping Baal and the golden calf and eating those damn raisin cakes, you too will be cast away.”

Next, they have a daughter named Loruhamah, which means “not pitied.” Granted, this isn’t the prettiest name for a girl, but once again, it’s a symbol. “Not pitied” is God’s way of warning the people that they’re on the verge of going too far. “Keep walking this path,” God says, “and the time will come when I will no longer pity you.”

And finally, a third boy is born – a young tyke name Loammi. Loammi means “no longer my people.” This symbol’s pretty self-explanatory.

“My ways are not your ways says the Lord.” When we love someone that rejects us, we forget them. We pout. We compromise. We get violent. In the face of rejection, these are our ways. The question we’re asking tonight is, what happens when we reject God’s love? Does God still love us? Because at first, it sounds like God would respond just like we would. And frankly, who could blame Him? We reject God. God casts us away. We reject God. God ceases to pity us. We reject God. God says, “You are no longer my people.” And so this leaves us wondering. Are Gods ways really different than our ways? Does God still love us if we reject that love?

Using some creative reinterpretation, here’s what happens in Hosea chapter 2. Gomer leaves Hosea, just like God predicts. She bounces from man to man, and each guy she clings to treats her worst than the one before. Lover #1 gives her clothes from Neimans and feeds her lobster – he treats her like a queen. But Gomer leaves him for Lover #2, who sends her to K-Mart and feeds her McDonalds. Lover #3 directs her to Goodwill and tells her to get her own food. Eventually, we get to lover #17 – an unshaven ex-con named Bruce that wears beer stained wife beaters and hangs out at the local saloon.

Now Bruce – he could not care less about Gomer, who by this point is starving and dressed in rags. Hosea hears about it and, moved with pity, goes down to the local tavern and to find Bruce. “Are you the man living with Gomer?” he asks. “As a matter of fact I am, what do you care?” “I’m her husband,” he says. Well, I imagine a tense silence followed that Hosea eventually broke. “Look, I know you’re having a hard time providing for Gomer. Here – take this money and buy her some food and some new clothes. I’d give it to her myself but she won’t talk to me. I just love her so much and it kills me to see her go hungry.

Well, we don’t know how long this went on, but by the time we get to chapter 3, things go from bad to worst. Gomer is sold as a slave. Now, if at this point we hear that Hosea tries to forget about Gomer, we wouldn’t be that upset. And if Hosea were my friend, that’s exactly what I’d tell him to do. You would too. “Cut your losses and move on.” Right? That’s the rational thing to do. Or if Hosea began to pout or if he started badmouthing Gomer – we’d all understand. But here’s the miracle – that’s not what happens.

At the beginning of chapter 3, God and Hosea have another conversation, and once again, I’m taking a little creative license, but here’s the gist of what they say. Hosea is heartbroken and comes to God weeping. Tears streaming down his face, Hosea asks God a question – “God, what am I supposed to do about my wife?” God then responds with a question of his own. “Hosea, do you still love this woman, even after everything that she’s put you through?” Hosea thinks for a moment and then starts nodding through his tears. “I do.” And so this is what God says. “Hosea, I know exactly how you feel. After all they’ve put me through, I still love my people Israel. And so here’s what I want you to do – do for Gomer what I do for Israel. Love her. Get her back. Love Gomer the same way that I love Israel. Do whatever it takes to get her back. Do not cast her away. Do not cease to pity her. Do not pretend that she’s not your wife. I want you to go and to get her back.

And that’s exactly what Hosea does. He liquidates everything he owns and he buys her back out of slavery. At enormous cost to himself, Hosea buys his wife back.

Well, as the story goes, Hosea’s love changed Gomer’s life. When Gomer thought about what Hosea did for her and how undeserving she was, it was more love than one person could take. Loved changed Gomer’s life. From that moment on, Gomer became an honest and faithful wife. There was just something about being “bought back” that made her fall in love with her husband again. There was something about being “bought back” that gave her a fresh start.

I love this story so much. You know why? Because it’s true. You and I are Gomer. I’m not trying to make us feel bad, but in the Biblical narrative, that’s just who we are. You see the Bible describes God as a jealous husband. But do you know what that means? We’re the wayward wives that shack up with Bruce.

When Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son – you know that story about the son that leaves his Father’s house and squanders his inheritance – I’d be willing to bet everything I own that Jesus had Gomer in the back of his mind. And when Jesus talks about the Father – the One whose love is so reckless that he kills the fatted calf when his son finally comes home – I know that Jesus was thinking about Hosea, and about the heart his Father that Hosea revealed.

Now, I seriously doubt that we have a problem with raisin cakes, but I know that we all have idols and that we leave God to chase after them, just like Gomer and the Prodigal Son did. But after all the wandering and running leaves us broken and thirsty and we think that all hope is lost, God finds us, tugs on our sleeve, and whispers “come back home. I AM love. My nature is love and I must act in a manner consistent with who I AM. I’ve bought you back. I’ve slaughter the fatted calf. Just come back home.”

And isn’t this the story of the New Testament? The New Testament talks about how, through Jesus’ death, we have redemption. But do you know what that word means? The word redeem is best translated, “to buy back.” The whole idea of redemption is that when God became human in the person of Jesus, God entered a slave market. The Gospel begins with God entering a world where humans are prostituting themselves and living a cheapened life. Just for a moment, think about what that must have been like for Jesus.

Because no one ever loved people more than Jesus did. I imagine the night before he died, when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was heartbroken and came to God weeping. Tears streaming down his face, Jesus asks God a question – “Abba, what am I supposed to do about these people?” And in response, God asks him a question. “Do you love them?” Jesus doesn’t even have to think and he starts nodding right away through his tears. “I do.” “Then get them back. Do not cast them away. Do not cease to pity them. Do not pretend that they’re not your family. My Son, if you love them, I want you to get them back.”

And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He empties himself, takes the form of a slave, and he buys us back. At enormous cost to himself, Jesus was nailed to a tree and he bought back the people of God.

Remember, there was just something about being “bought back” that made Gomer fall in love with her husband again. She knew she had a fresh start. Hosea’s love changed Gomer’s life. The question I leave us with is this. Has Jesus’ love changed ours?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

the God that refuses to leave

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

About ten years ago I decided to read the Bible from cover to cover. The truth is, I didn’t really know the story. I knew the climax – Jesus’ death and resurrection. And I knew some of the pieces – stories about Moses and a talking snake and a multi-colored coat. But the glue that held the pieces together? Well, that’s what I wanted to find. And so I opened the Bible and started – “in the beginning.” And at first nothing really surprised me. When the snake was like “hey eat this fruit – it’s really not that big of deal” – well, I wasn’t fooled. But what I read after that kind of surprised me. You see I had always assumed that people in the Bible were, I don’t know, decent human beings. But I found them to be the exact opposite – a bunch of misfits that were always leaving the God that loved them. And the more I read the more I noticed a pattern. God would claim people as His own – He’d mark them out and give them an identity as His special people. But eventually those people would forget about God, leave, and try to find an identity somewhere else. That was the basic storyline that kept repeating itself. God would bless and love and claim a people for Himself – but the recipients of His grace would forget who they were and what God had done for them and because of that, they would leave.

The Bible surprised me because I thought it was a textbook on how to be good. And of course, there’s some truth to that view. But I had always imagined that God was like a talent scout on a quest to find great moral athletes who could help His team win. But then I read about Abraham, who gave his wife to two foreign kings pretending that she was his sister; and Elisha, whose self-esteem was crushed when some kids mocked him for being bald and responded by praying – not for their forgiveness but that a bear would come and eat them; and the Israelites, who were saved from slavery on a Wednesday and began worshipping a golden calf on a Friday; and Peter, who on the toughest night of Jesus’ life took a power nap, chopped off someone’s ear, and denied his Lord three consecutive times. In other words, I was surprised to learn that the God we worship claims people as His own – that he marks them out and gives them an identity as His special people – before they do anything good. And even more surprising was that God’s people would routinely forget about Him, leave, and decide to find an identity somewhere else. But the most shocking reality of all was the glue that held these misfits together – God’s utter refusal to leave them. It didn’t matter how many times people left God. God utterly refused to leave them.

In tonight’s Gospel we hear the story of “doubting Thomas,” which is not a nickname I approve of. We don’t give pejorative nicknames to anyone else. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no “persecutor Paul” or “impulsive Peter.” But more than that, it’s an understatement. Tomas doesn’t have doubts. Thomas quits. In his heart, Thomas leaves – he walks away from God. Forget that Jesus spoke openly about his death and resurrection before they even happened. After all, Thomas has – he has forgotten everything Jesus said and did before he died that was meant to prepare him for this moment. Now understandably, the cross was devastating. Thomas’ master is dead, life seems absurd, and Thomas decides that he’s had enough. And so when the disciples proclaim, “we have seen the Lord,” Thomas’ response makes sense. “You know what. I think I’m going to count my losses here and walk away. Believe whatever you want – but until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I’m just not going to believe. You want to hold on the dream? That’s fine. But as for me, I’m leaving.”

It would be great if Thomas’ story were an isolated incident – if Thomas were some weirdo freak that we just couldn’t relate to. But let’s be honest, life is painful at times and faith doesn’t always come easily – for the depressed, or the burnt out, or the lonely, or the guilt-ridden, or for those who suffer, or when people we love suffer. And God knows faith isn’t easy in a secular world that wants us to believe a different story than the Gospel – a story that ends, not with resurrection, but with the cross. It’d be great if Thomas were an exception to the rule and not the perfect example of it, but let’s be honest. At some point in our life, we either have been or will be right there with Thomas and Peter and the Israelites and Elisha and Abraham and the whole band of misfits that, as the hymn says, “are prone to leave the God we love.” Eventually – if only in our heart, and for a million different reasons – we all get discouraged. We all get confused. We all leave God.

The miracle of Easter – the miracle the church celebrates week after week – is that God refuses to leave us. Yes, we leave God. But God never leaves us. And so, is it really that surprising that Jesus comes back for Thomas? In other words, if by walking away Thomas does what we’re all prone to do at times – isn’t God just doing what His loving nature demands – come back for the people He loves? You see, in tonight’s story about Jesus and Thomas we have the entire Bible in a nutshell. Like Thomas, we’re all prone to walk away from God. But in Christ, God does whatever it takes to get us back. He refuses to let us go.

To be a disciple of Jesus is root our life in the story we heard tonight, this story that’s glued together by God’s refusal to leave His people. To follow Jesus is to say that this story is our story, that this God – the One that refused to leave Thomas even though Thomas had left Him – is our God. For in giving our lives to Jesus we receive a completely new identity – an identity that’s marked by the faithfulness of God.

This morning I preached at my goddaughter’s baptism, and a lot of people I know have a problem with infant baptism. Their argument is that the children aren’t old enough to decide for themselves. Here’s why I think they’re wrong. To be a Christian isn’t to say that we’re good but that God’s good; it’s not to say that we’re faithful, but that God’s faithful; it’s not to say that we choose God, but that God chooses us. You see, in baptizing people before they think or speak or do anything good or bad we are claiming something profound about the awesome character of God – that God reaches out to us before we reach out to Him, that God loves us before we ever love Him, that God gives us a new identity – an identity that’s marked by His refusal to leave us – simply because He wants to.

To be a disciple of Jesus is root our life in the story we heard tonight, this story that’s glued together by God’s refusal to leave us – because we’re tempted every single day to find meaning in a different story, a story that ends with the cross, or a story that says we have to prove ourselves for God to love us, or clean ourselves up before God will love us. But that’s why the church is so important. You see our job is to do for each other what Jesus did for Thomas, to do for each other what God does for us – utterly refuse to leave! And so if someone you love wakes up tomorrow and is anxiously wrestling with who they are and they’ve forgotten what gives them worth, our job is to remind them of who they are in Christ; to remind them that, contrary to what the world would have them believe, they are not what they do. They are not their reputation. They are not the sum total of their achievements or their mistakes. They are what they feel. They are not how they look. They are not their portfolio. They are not their IQ. They are not as good as their latest sermon or their latest relationship or their latest test score or their latest service project. Our job is to remind them of their true identity in Christ. And they will forget. And so will we. We forget our story, our true identity in Christ every single day. But, the good news of the Christian Gospel is that God doesn’t forget, that He can’t forget. Because at the end of the day our worth has nothing to do with our ability to be faithful to God and everything to do with God’s promise to be faithful to us. AMEN.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

hanging in there (Jeremiah - OMEGA)

jeremiah (hanging in there)

In Jesus’ day the Pharisees told people that being rich and comfortable meant that you were at the center of God’s will – that God would reward the faithful with money and a comfortable, painless existence. Of course, the Pharisees also taught that the opposite was true – that pain and poverty were signs that you were not at the center of God’s will. The Pharisee’s message was simple. If your life is hard, God is not with you. Pain and persecution mean the absence of God.

Pharisees have not gone extinct. Sadly, they’re not even an endangered species. Has anyone ever heard the term “prosperity preacher?” A prosperity preacher’s message is simple. The greater your faith, the more money you’ll give (to them, of course), and the more money you give, the more money God is going to give back to you. It’s like a heavenly ponzi scheme. To quote one prosperity preacher, “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get you that money.” Modern day Pharisees may have a different name – prosperity preachers – but their message hasn’t changed. “If your life is hard or if you don’t have money or if you’re feeling overwhelmed, God isn’t with you. Pain and persecution mean the absence of God.” That’s their message.

Now, a little career advice in case you’re thinking about becoming a prosperity preacher. Whatever you do, do not preach on Jeremiah. And try not to open the Bible either. I’m just saying – it’d be career suicide. You will not find one ounce of support in the book of Jeremiah to suggest that obedience to God will lead to safe, painless life or that when you follow God things will typically go your way. The book of Jeremiah actually suggests the opposite.

Jeremiah was chosen for a hard assignment. The year was 620 BC. Historically speaking, Assyria has already destroyed the Northern Kingdom and now the Southern Kingdom of Israel is on the verge of being destroyed by the Babylonians. The people had broken the covenant and Jeremiah’s job was to call the people of Israel to repent so that the consequences of their disobedience might be averted. “You have two choices. Repent or be conquered.” That’s the Word that God gives Jeremiah to preach.

Now, I’m sure you know this, but there’s no formal discernment process to become a prophet. Jeremiah didn’t make an appointment with the bishop or meet with the Commission on Ministry or go to seminary. In fact, he didn’t even go to college. In fact Jeremiah, if living today in America, would have been a freshman in high school when God called him to be a prophet, and this is what God tells him:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ 
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 
Do not be afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ … [Therefore] gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.

Last Omega we talked about being chosen, and I gave us four C’s to guide our discussion. Does anyone remember the four C’s of being chosen? Context, confrontation, conversion and call. This week, to talk about Jeremiah and what it means to be chosen for difficult Kingdom of God work, I want to give us three F’s – fervor, frustration and fortitude.


Fervor is defined as a feeling of great warmth and intensity. Think about being infatuated with another person. There can be a million reasons why you shouldn’t date them, but the fervor is so strong – your feelings are so intense – that you cannot see the difficulty that lies in your future. God tells Jeremiah that he’s being sent to speak “against the kings of Judah, it’s princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” That’s a difficult job. But Jeremiah is excited! He begins his mission with passion and intensity. To steal a phrase from Rick Warren, Jeremiah is living a “purpose driven life.” And if you read the first few chapters of the book, you get this sense that Jeremiah is pumped up. After all, God chose him before he was born and has promised to never forsake him. We can almost imagine Jeremiah saying to himself, “I’m going to speak the words of God to anyone He tells me to. I don’t care how powerful they are or how unpopular I’ll become. I don’t care what it costs me.”

I imagine that most of us have had a Jeremiah moment, a moment of life changing regeneration. Spiritual writers call this “the first fervor.” The first fervor is a time in our life where we’re infatuated with God. For a lot of us it happened at camp. We felt God’s warmth and love and we made a vow – “I will follow you wherever you lead. I don’t care what it costs me.” Maybe it happened in church, or in a quiet moment of personal prayer, or when we accepted Jesus as our Savior, or perhaps when a friend shared their faith with us. It sounds cheesy but I still remember the day I fell in love with God – September 10, 1998. I read this crappy book called “The Journey” and for reasons unbeknownst to me my life was changed forever.

Now, I honestly believe that this fervor, this infatuation, is a wonderful thing. It’s where the vast majority of romantic relationships begin, and it’s usually where our relationship with God begins. There are no doubt exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, fervor or infatuation is where relationship begins. Fervor is good. Infatuation is good. But there’s only one problem. Fervor dies. Man cannot live by zeal alone. Feelings of great warmth and intensity are not enough to sustain mature relationships, and this includes our relationship with God. Eventually, we experience the second F.


Jeremiah is sent to kings, princes, priests, and the people to speak words of judgment. Now, try and imagine being sent by God, shortly after your 8th grade graduation, to speak words of judgment against the president, both the federal and the state government, your priests and your bishops, your parents, your parent’s friends, and anyone else you can think of. Picture yourself marching up the steps of the Lincoln memorial, being handed a microphone and having the attention of every major news network in America, and then speaking these words: “Listen up America. Thus saith the Lord. Stop drilling for oil, even if that means losing electricity. Start giving your janitors the same privileges you give your CEO’s. Throw away your passports, for the nations belong to the Lord and you have no right to put up walls. If you do these things, then you will live. But woe unto you if you don’t do them, for the Canadians will invade our land!”

Do you think people would listen? What do you think they’d say? I’ll tell you exactly what they’d say. “Shut up you snotty nosed punk. You have no idea how the real world works.” And that’s basically what the people told Jeremiah. There was a lot of laughing and mocking and jeering and ignoring. People did not respond well to his warnings. Like any prophet, Jeremiah wants his people to feel what God feels but his words fall on deaf ears and on hard hearts. Now, this is very frustrating – both for God and for Jeremiah – and so after a couple of years of failed sermons, God and Jeremiah decide to up the ante a bit.

God said to me, "Go, buy a clay pot. Then get a few leaders from the people and a few of the leading priests … and preach there what I tell you. "Say, 'Listen to God's Word, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem! I'm about to bring doom crashing down on this place. … "Say all this, and then smash the pot in front of the men who have come with you. Then say, 'This is what God says: I'll smash this people and this city like a man who smashes a clay pot into so many pieces it can never be put together again. (Excerpt from The Message, Jeremiah 19)

Fast forward. You’re not in 8th grade anymore. You’re 20 years old and a member of the Episcopal Student Center and you come to see that the ways of your missioner are corrupt. You set up a meeting with the bishop. I’m there. The bishop is there. You’re there. But, instead of bringing some talking points, you bring this glass, and when the bishop tries to shake your hand and ask you how he can help, you do the following (hold up the glass)! “Thus saith the Lord, remove John Newton from his post or the Canadians will trample the land. And while you’re at it, bishop, repent of your own sins, too or else this will happen.” (smash the glass) If that happened, do you think you’d be welcome back at the student center again?

But that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. And do you know how his priest responded? He had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks right outside the temple. As a side note, let that be a lesson to you. You don’t want to mess with your priest.

Here’s my point. For Jeremiah, the glamorous veneer of prophetic ministry is gone. Jeremiah’s infatuation with God is gone. His fervor is gone. And in its place is a big, fat dose of frustration. You see not in a million years did Jeremiah envision this happening to him. After all, God promised him, “I will protect you and rescue you and never abandon you.” But here’s Jeremiah in the stocks and he feels abandoned. Can you imagine the frustration? One day God’s telling him “I love you Jeremiah. I’ve chosen you Jeremiah. I’m with you Jeremiah.” But the next day he’s in the stocks with wounds bleeding, body aching, and people taunting.

Like Jeremiah, we’re all going have to come to terms with frustration. For some of us, our commitment to Jesus will only bring a few days of pain, sorrow and rejection. But for others, rejection and sorrow will be par for the course. Either way, I honestly believe that the frustration we experience is a testament to God’s grace. In fact, frustration is inevitable if we want to be mature disciples of Jesus.

For example, the apostle Paul had a friend named Timothy, and ole’ Timmy was also a preacher. Like Jeremiah, Timothy started out strong, but his infatuation turned to frustration. Timothy was frustrated because his people weren’t responding and I imagine that Timothy thought that he was a failure. Well, Paul knew this and so he wrote Timothy a letter and in that letter Paul said the following – “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) In other words, I know you’re frustrated Timothy. But here’s what I’d like to say to you about that – “congratulations.” Because it you’re frustrated, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re on the right track.

Frustration is just a part of mature discipleship. Knowing that, we can move on to F3 – fortitude.


You don’t really hear much about fortitude anymore, which is a shame, because it’s actually one of the four cardinal virtues. Fortitude, by definition, is what enables us to act rightly and to persevere in the face of frustration. Fortitude is about not quitting; it’s about hanging in there. I know this sounds weird, but sometimes God just calls us to just “hang in there.”

After spending that first night in the stocks Jeremiah’s life actually gets harder. A few things happen. First, he gets thrown into a dungeon and later on into a pit, where he’s left for dead. He receives beating after beating for speaking God’s word to the people. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that this goes on for forty years – forty years! – and the people never repent. The Babylonians invade and the Israelites lose their freedom.

Now, I want you to imagine this from Jeremiah’s perspective. Jeremiah has spent the last forty years of his life trying to avert what just happened. He was sent to preach repentance, the people never did it, and because they didn’t listen to him Jerusalem fell to Her enemies. Can you imagine what Jeremiah must have thought? “For the last forty years, I was humiliated, beaten, intimidated, disrespected, and I spent half my life in a dungeon. What was the point? They never listened. All of my preaching and all of my praying - was it all for nothing?”

I think we also can get discouraged when we try and do something for God and it doesn’t “work.” We too can feel as if our devotion and our faithfulness have yielded nothing. Think about praying and pleading for an alcoholic that never changes, or a friend who after years of your continual prayer still has contempt for your faith. After a while, we start asking ourselves – “what was the point? They never listened. Was it all for nothing?”

Fortitude is that virtue that gives us the courage to say, “no. The praying and the pleading is meaningful because God told me to do it. I may not know what the point was, but God does, and I trust God. He formed me in the womb, He called me, and I trust Him.”

Fortitude is about hanging in there. You see Jeremiah learned something important throughout his life. God doesn’t measure success the same way that we do. It matters very little to God if we’re successful. What matters to God is that we’re faithful. Jeremiah learned that God’s ways are not our ways. And so there are going to be times in our life when we pray for things and work for things that we know are pleasing to God and they just don’t happen. And when seen through a worldly lens, we will fail. It happened to Jeremiah. It happened to Jesus. It’ll happen to us. We’ll all end up on the cross eventually – one way or another.

Fortunately, God doesn’t view our life through a worldly lens but through a heavenly one. And so the question isn’t whether or not we’ll get frustrated. The question is whether or not we’ll exercise fortitude. The question is whether or not we’ll have the courage to just hang in there. Because sometimes, believe it or not, hanging in there is all that God wants from us.

My favorite Bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11, which says “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Plans “to prosper you.” I guess I was wrong. Jeremiah was a prosperity preacher after all. But what that tells me is that maybe – just maybe – we need to rethink prosperity. When our life is the hardest, maybe that means that God is the closest He’s ever been. Maybe pain and persecution mean the presence of God.

Jeremiah’s life was messy and he didn’t die knowing how valuable his ministry would be. And I’m not going to sugarcoat it – we too may die not knowing the impact that our life will have.

But God does. He’s the One who formed us in the womb. He’s the One that promised never to leave us. He’s worth trusting.

And so hang in there.

Monday, April 5, 2010

most to be envied (EASTER SERMON)

A couple weeks ago someone asked me a question. “What belief, if any, is so important to Christianity that if proven wrong you’d walk away from the faith?” I didn’t even have to think. “The bodily resurrection of Jesus.” That was my answer. In other words, if a bone-filled tomb is discovered with the following inscription – here lies Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, brother of James, cousin of John the Baptist, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who walked around Galilee with twelve disciples and was hailed as their teacher and Lord, yes the same Jesus that fed 5000 people and pissed off the Pharisees and socialized with sinners and was called Son of David by some and the Christ by others – well, I’d give you all a big hug, pack up my things, and pursue a career in professional wrestling. Why? Because trying to put the smack down on Hulk Hogan or whoever’s dominating the WFW these days would make more sense than following a Jesus who was dead. Paul puts it like this: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” And a few verses earlier he says this: “if Christ hasn’t been raised your faith is meaningless and you’re still in your sins.” In other words, if Jesus is still dead than so are we. Our hope depends on the truth of his resurrection.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking – isn’t that a little, I don’t know, dramatic? “Isn’t faith,” people will ask “primarily about friendship and warm feelings and helping us find our life’s passion, and isn’t God a senile, benevolent grandfather type who longs for nothing more than to give us all ice cream cones in heaven?” To which I will reply – no. You see a lot of people miss the point of the Gospel because they don’t understand the problem that Jesus came to solve. In other words, people wrongly assume that their main problem in life is their broken marriage or their depression or their inability to find work that excites them, and because they’ve misunderstood their problem, they don’t fully grasp God’s solution.

The reason Christianity hinges on the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is because none of these things – not one – is our primary problem. They’re all symptoms of the giant problem that plagues us. Divorce and depression and cancer and meanness and pride and natural disaster and various disabilities and insecurity are not our primary problem. They’re symptoms. Think about it. If broken relationships were really our problem then why not worship Dr. Phil? But – if humanity’s problem is something far worse, something we cannot solve on our own, then the solution required must itself be dramatic. And that’s exactly what Jesus’ resurrection claims to be: a dramatic solution to a horrible problem. But if Jesus hasn’t been raised? Well, that means we’re left dealing with that problem on our own.

Now, failing to understand the problem the Gospel responds to isn’t a new phenomenon. Apparently, there were some Corinthians who also forgot what their real problem was and they were claiming that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. And so Paul reminds them: “for in Adam, “ he says, “all die.” “For in Adam all die.” And a few verses earlier he tells them, “you are still in your sins.” Sin and death. These, Paul reminds the Corinthians, are the problems that plague humanity, the cancers that infects the cosmos. Sin and death. These, and nothing else, are the problems the first Christians risked their lives to tell the world that Jesus’ resurrection had solved. Sin and death. That’s what we have to deal with if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead. And so Paul asks them – “You know what that means don’t you, if Jesus hasn’t been raised? It means that of all people we are most to be pitied. Because our hope depends on the truth of his resurrection.”

The reason we are here tonight, the reason we gather week after week to celebrate Jesus’ life, the reason that we of all people are most to be envied is because the One we’ve put our trust in, the One we seek to follow, the One that we call Lord – He’s alive. Jesus is alive. Yes, he tasted death. Yes, he bore our sin. But, he did so to defeat them both by rising from the dead. Yes, Paul says tonight, in Adam all die. But in Christ we are made alive.” And then Paul asks them. “You know what it means don’t you if Jesus has been raised? It means that of all people we are most to be envied. Because, as a matter of fact, Christ has been raised and our hope depends on the truth of his resurrection.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and our future resurrection that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees, are the bedrocks of the Christian faith. Of course our hope in Christ is for this life, but our hope in Christ is not, as Paul says, for this life only. After all, because Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, we who belong to Christ will also be raised in our bodies when He returns to judge the world. Should we die before that happens, which I imagine we will, we will of course be safe with God in heaven. But, the hope of heaven is not what we celebrate at Easter. Heaven is not the end. Resurrection is the end. This earth, the one we inhabit now, being flooded with the glory of God – that is the end. The defeat of our enemies – sin and death – that is our hope.

In other words, resurrection is what the entire creation is waiting for, the grand finale to God’s good but fallen creation, that moment in time when what happened to Jesus will happen to us, too. And it is this hope – and no other hope – this hope that Jesus’ resurrection has launched new life – it is this hope that invests meaning in the life we now live. We have hope now, in this life, because Jesus’ tomb is empty. Now, there are a million reasons why this is true but I’ll end tonight by mentioning two.

First, if sin and death have been defeated and God is sovereign and resurrection awaits us, then nothing that happens in this life is irredeemably tragic. All things work for our good. As Paul writes in Romans, “in the end all things work for the good of those who love God.” All things – painful things, seemingly senseless things, sinful things – all things work for our good. After all, when Jesus was raised from the dead he still had holes in his hands and his side from the crucifixion. But in the resurrection those holes were his glory. In the same way, when we are raised from the dead at the end of the age we will still have holes as well. But in the resurrection those holes we have from the crosses we bore and those holes we have from the mistakes we made will be our glory, too. Why? Because they will be filled with the mercy and healing and love of God.

But there’s another reason the resurrection invests our life with meaning now. Not only does God use evil for good. He also multiplies the good that we do on earth a hundredfold in the resurrection. That’s what Jesus means when he talks about storing up treasures in heaven or what Paul means when he talks about working for an imperishable crown. God will take our every act of love and blessing and healing and forgiveness and celebration and use it in the grand finale that awaits our world. Our work here on earth, the work we do in faith because we love Jesus, all of it will be used eternally for our joy and for God’s glory. What that means is that every moment in this life is an opportunity – an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to God’s new world. In other words, no day on earth is ordinary. No day is boring. No day is meaningless. That is, of course, unless we let it be by not living now with an eye to God’s resurrected future.

Alleluia Christ is risen! 

The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

You’re right. Which means that we of all people are most to be envied. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

let God serve you

I read an interesting article this week on the Internet with the following title: “how to get a girl in your karate class to like you.” And in case you’re wondering whether or not this title is a metaphor for something else, it’s not – I really read an article about how to get a girl in your karate class to like you. Now for the record, I’m not currently taking a karate class, but in case some of you are, the article had some pretty good suggestions. Step one – you friend her on facebook. Step 2 – don’t make fun of her when she does a bad kick. Step 3 – while sparring with her do not go too easy. Always remember, she’s learning the same skills as you are. Step 4 – always compliment her karate skills after class. I’ll stop here but the list goes on – there were like 19 of these steps. And if followed to a tee, at least according to the article, there’s a chance you might just get the girl in your karate class to like you. Of course the article had a disclaimer – “we do not guarantee that if you follow these steps the girl will actually like you.”

In a weird way, that’s kind of how people approached the gods in the Roman world, which is where the Gospel was first proclaimed. It was a world that believed that many gods governed the lives of humans. Ancient Roman religion basically boiled down to one thing: appease the gods that controlled human life. And each god or goddess had a different list that had to be met. And since they controlled your life the point of religion was to get them to like you. To serve them. To do the perfect things, to make the perfect sacrifice, so that maybe – just maybe – you could get the right god to like you. But of course the gods were fickle and because of that Roman religion came with a disclaimer of it’s own– “we do not guarantee that if you follow these steps the gods will actually like you.”

Even we have inherited a belief that God has a list, haven’t we? And because we cannot keep that list our relationship with God is fickle. Yes we believe that God accepts us but that doesn’t mean we feel His love. The problem that follows is that faith gets reduced to routine. We fall short. We feel guilty. We seek to atone for ourselves, perhaps by going to church or by donating money or by doing “good deeds.” And as routine becomes habit we start to think, perhaps unconsciously, that we’re actually serving God! That God needs our worship and our money and our good deeds to get on with His earthly project. We’d never say this but our hearts see faith as a contract. And the terms of this contract go something like this: “we can’t keep God’s list, God accepts us anyway through Jesus, we’re indebted to God, and because we’re indebted our job is to serve. To take make the right sacrifices. To take the right steps.” And so we know that God accepts us. But that God actually likes us? Well, there’s just no guarantee.

Tonight’s gospel wasn’t just written to expose the absurdity of Roman paganism, with its many strategies on how to appease the gods. It was written to mock the very belief that we can serve God. Because the Gospel isn’t about us serving God. The Gospel is about God serving us.

In tonight’s Gospel John writes the following: “having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end. And during supper, knowing … that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus got up from the table … and began to wash his disciples’ feet.” The point being made here isn’t that Jesus is God, but you know what the heck, he decided to wash their feet anyway. No – that’s not the point. John’s point is that washing his disciple’s feet is what Jesus had to do – not in spite of the fact that he was God – but precisely because He was God! In other words, through a simple act of washing their feet Jesus revealed to his disciples who God is: the Ultimate Servant that loves because He chooses to love, that saves because He chooses to save, that washes us because He chooses to make us clean. This isn’t yet another scheme to slip the pill in the chocolate milk, John’s clever way of saying “the Gospel is about you serving God and look, watch Jesus, here’s how you do it.” No, the point being made is much more scandalous: the Gospel isn’t about us serving God but about God serving us.

What a scandal the Christian Gospel was, and what a scandal it still is! Let’s be honest – isn’t there something about Peter’s objection that captures how we feel? Do our hearts not cry out, “Lord you must never wash my feet!” You see I think part of us would rather just be accepted, that we’d rather just fulfill our end of the contract – a little money here, a little worship there, and perhaps a good deed every now and again – because that way we get to remain in control of our own life. Part of us, to be quite frank, prefers the paganism of ancient Rome. We serve God. God is appeased. We get on with our own life and we fulfill our own plans. Because if the Gospel is about us serving God, well, then let’s be realistic – there’s only so much that God can ask. But the idea that God serves us? Well, an idea like that can shatter our lives and the plans we’re pursuing.

And so this little drama with Peter is funny on the outside, but on the inside it’s a deeply serious matter reaching to the very center of the Gospel itself. “Unless I wash you,” Jesus says, “you have no share with me.” In other words, “you belong to me by letting me wash you, by letting me serve you, by letting me be God.” And you know what’s so ironic? It’s when we let Jesus do that, when see that he came not to be served but to serve that the idea of serving God actually starts to make sense. It’s only when we see that Jesus loves us because He chooses to love us that loving other people even begins to make sense. Because if we let Jesus wash us, His mercy and love will break our heart, we’ll pick up a towel, and we’ll live to wash the feet of others. And by this people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples – because we let Him serve us – and our very act of “letting” will overflow into “loving.”

Now in a matter of moments you’ll have an opportunity to come forward and have your feet washed. If you choose to come forward for this simple act of prayer, here is what I suggest: do not ask God how you can serve Him. I invite you to pray a prayer more scandalous than that. Ask God what you can do to let Him serve you.

Now, if that’s hard for you, then imagine what it was like to hear the Gospel 2000 years ago. In a world where religion was about getting the gods to like you, imagine hearing the good news that God that was trying to win your friendship. In a world where religion was about serving the gods, imagine hearing the good news that God wanted to serve you. In a world where religion was about making the perfect sacrifice for God, imagine hearing the good news that in Christ God had made the perfect sacrifice for you. After all, that simple act of foot washing was meant to point to a much more courageous act of love – a cruciform act that would wash our souls and give us something that no other god had ever thought of offering – a guarantee that we’re actually loved.