Sunday, February 28, 2010

our citizenship is in heaven

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I’d like to begin tonight with a quiz, and if you know the answers, do me a favor and shout them as loud as you can. “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s _____. Capital One: what’s in your _____. Geico: so easy a _____ (can do it). Subway: Eat _____. Taco Bell: think outside the _____. Wheaties: the breakfast of _____.” I’m impressed.

Round 2. Love means never having to say you’re _____. If you scratch my back then I’ll scratch _____. Everything I ever needed to know I learned in _____. Stand up for your _____. Nothing in life is _____. Wow, y’all are good.

Ok, time for the lightning round. For where your treasure is there you’ll find your _____ (heart). The Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord there is _____ (freedom). If you do what I command you then you are my _____ (friends). My God – what happened?

The slogans and proverbs in rounds 1 and 2 reflect values and attitudes that pervade American culture. You never studied them. You didn’t memorize them. But you know them. You’ve internalized them. Your mind has them stored. But round 3? Those come from the Bible and my guess is that even if you got a few of them right they didn’t come to mind as quickly. In other words, unless you’ve disciplined yourself to “set your mind” on the Biblical story – to study it, memorize it, know it, internalize it – you probably did better in the first two rounds.

Our world constantly bombards us with information. The average person consumes 33.8 gigabytes of information and well over a 100,000 words every single day. Here’s what’s fascinating – that doesn’t include school or work. From the moment we’re born until the day we die, billions of messages are sent our way – some subtle, some not so subtle. From parents, peers, preachers, politicians, and advertisers. Through television, the internet, youtube, and text messages. In songs, poems, publications and graffiti. Message after message, day after day, is filling our mind – messages that tell us how to live, who to trust, what gives us value, how we got here, what our purpose is, what’s wrong with our world, and what – if anything – can be done about it. Message after message. We never studied them. We didn’t memorize them. But we know them. We’ve internalized them. Our mind has them stored. The only problem is – most of these messages are destructive.

In tonight’s epistle Paul warns the Philippians how destructive the world’s message can be and here’s the gist of what he says: “there are a lot of people in the kingdom of the world whose message conflicts with the message of the cross. I’ve told you about them before, and through tears I tell you again – wake up! We are not part of this kingdom. We stand for a different one with a much more powerful king. We aren’t citizens of the world. Our citizenship is in heaven.” In other words, Paul knows the Philippians are constantly bombarded by bad ideas – that message after message is flooding their minds, and so he writes them a letter to remind them that most of these messages are destructive.

“Our citizenship is in heaven.” That is Paul’s message. Another translation of this verse, which I find more intriguing, is “we are a colony of heaven.” A colony of heaven – this metaphor the Philippians would have understood. Philippi was a Roman colony and everyone knew what citizenship meant – it meant embracing a certain message. In fact, it’s not unlikely that these Philippians – Paul’s audience – had become Roman citizens in the last generation or so. You see Philippi was a conquered city and one of the ways that Rome typically avoided revolt was to offer citizenship to newfound colonies. In scholarly circles this is known as “Romanization.” The idea of Romanization is to get the new colony, the conquered people, to conform to Roman ideals. They wanted these conquered people to adopt Rome’s message as their own. And of course, from Rome’s perspective, this was the whole point of colonizing in the first place – to extend Roman influence, to create cells and networks of people loyal to Caesar throughout the entire world – to create a world that lived and breathed the Roman message. Paul’s audience understood this – they were constantly bombarded by the Roman message, and it was seductive. A message that said “give your allegiance to Caesar, live to advance the Kingdom of Rome and your every appetite will be fed, your every need satiated, your every hunger filled.” So Paul writes them a letter. “Hey guys. We have a different King. We stand for a different kingdom. Our citizenship is in heaven.”

Paul’s concern is not with our passport. The great irony is that Paul himself was a Roman citizen. Paul’s concern is the kingdom for which we stand – he’s concerned about the message that’s shaping our hearts – the message we believe about who we are, how to live, who to trust, what gives us value, how we got here, what our purpose is, what’s wrong with our world, and what – if anything – can be done about it. And I have to give Paul credit – he’s a realist. Paul knows that we can profess Jesus with our lips and still worship Caesar in our hearts – that we can speak about heavenly things and still set our minds on earthly things. That’s what Paul’s getting at in tonight’s reading. He wants us to interpret life – he wants us to be guided – by the right message.

In another letter Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern the will of God – that which is good, acceptable and perfect.” In other words, don’t conform; transform. Don’t set your mind on earthly things; renew your mind with heavenly things. Don’t obliviously play out some script you’ve been handed; discern the will of God – that which is good, acceptable and perfect. After all, our citizenship is in heaven. We are called to be a colony of heaven.

To say that our citizenship is in heaven is to say something fundamental about who we are as a church. Paul’s not talking about how we’re waiting to be snatched up into heaven. He’s talking about heaven invading this earth, and about how Jesus’ reign – in an odd way – begins now. Through us. To say that our citizenship is in heaven is to say that we – the church – are a colony of heaven, that we’re a network of people loyal to Jesus – the true King – and that our job is to create a world of disciples that live and breathe Jesus’ message.

But do you see what that means? If you and I are citizens of heaven – if we live on earth with the values of heaven – then at times we’ll feel like aliens. Our behavior will just seem weird. In a world that says “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” citizens of heaven go out of their way to serve people that can’t pay them back. In a world that stands up for its rights, citizens of heaven stand up for their responsibilities, and for the rights of other people. In a world that teaches that nothing in life is free, citizens of heaven smile because they know that everything is free – that life is grace, that everything’s a gift – and because of that they’re generous with their lives. Citizens of heaven know that love means having to say we’re sorry; that everything we need to know isn’t learned in kindergarten but in the presence of our resurrected rabbi and that learning to be like Jesus is a lifelong process. Citizens of heaven call Jesus their friend. They live a life of freedom. Their treasure is in Jesus’ kingdom and that’s where you’ll find their heart.

I have to say, the irony of this sermon isn’t lost on me. It’s ironic to preach how you’re bombarded by bad information by bombarding you with more information. And so if you’re a little skeptical of tonight’s sermon – that’s cool. But for what it’s worth, here’s your homework for the week – or, more accurately, the homework of our lives. Set your mind on the Biblical story. I don’t mean join a bible study. I mean, set your mind on the Bible. Study it. Memorize it. Know it. Internalize it. All I’m asking is that you give Jesus’ message a fair shot. He’s got great stuff to say about how to live, who to trust, what gives us value, how we got here, what our purpose is, what’s wrong with our world, and what – if anything – is being done about it. Because whether you realize it or not, people are answering those questions for you every single day. I’ve told you about them before, but now I want to tell you again. Their minds are set on earthy things. But our citizenship is in heaven.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

fat-cow disease (amos)

Fat-cow disease (amos)

Now, I know you kids are far too young to remember, but there was a time – many, many years ago – before the iPod was invented. Now children, these were dark years. We had the Internet, but it was dial up and it ran through a phone jack connected to the wall. Back in the day we called them “landlines.” Anyway, back in the dark ages – or as its known in scholarly circles, 1992 – music was stored on a compact disk, or what some of us called a “CD.”

As you can imagine, CD’s were popular, but they were also expensive – unless, of course, you stole them from Columbia House. You see all you had to do was fill out a form, embellish the truth, and then wait for 20 CD’s to arrive in the mail on credit. Sure there was a one form per person rule, but I got my younger brother involved, we had two homes, we had friends, and over time our collection grew to over 75 CD’s, which I kept locked in my room. Now, that was a lot but it wasn’t enough, I wanted more, and so I made a plan. My younger brother was obsessed with our collection and so one day I made what I told him was a super secret proposal. For $300, I’d give him full ownership of the CD’s, with one exception – the CD’s would stay under my control and he could only listen to the CD’s with my permission. He was 8 years old at the time. The $300 was money he had saved from past Christmases and birthdays – we had a generous grandmother. Anyway, my defenseless brother gave me the $300. I then wrote a fake title of ownership. Weeks later I resold half the CD’s without telling my bother. I wish that were the end. I then stole the fake title that I gave him, and in the process secured a place for myself in hell. Anyway, I took advantage of my brother. I got richer at his expense. He, of course, got poorer.

The prophet Amos would have ripped me apart. God used Amos to give the people of Israel a serious wake up call. You see Amos’ time wasn’t that unlike our own – the rich kept getting richer and the poor kept getting poorer. In fact, the rich would use unjust economic practices to take advantage of the poor and over time they grew complacent. They thought God didn’t notice, or perhaps that He didn’t care. That is until one day Amos shows up with a message from God – “the injustice in your land makes me sick. You cannot worship me with one hand, and oppress the poor with the other. I love the poor and the defenseless and if you love me, then you have to love them too.”

Amos came onto the scene around 750 BC. He’s the first of the writing prophets. Elijah and Elisha were prophets before him, but we only know about their lives through other people. But Amos tells us a lot about himself. He was a farmer from Tekoa – a little town outside of Bethlehem – and one day God tells Amos to leave his sheep, to go to Samaria, and to give a message to the people of Israel. Now remember, God’s family got a divorce – there is a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. Samaria is the capital city of the northern kingdom. It’s the center of wealth and power in Israel, kind of like Washington DC and New York City combined. But not only that, Israel is experiencing a time of peace and growth and economic prosperity. If you’re an upper-middle class citizen, you’re wealthy and really happy with your life. To put things in modern terms, the market is up and you’re making a killing. There’s only one problem – you’re killing the poor in the process. But if you’re making money, who cares? Amos’ message is simple. God does. Here’s just a portion of what Amos says to Israel’s elite, upper class.

They buy and sell upstanding people. 
 People for them are only things—ways of making money. They'd sell a poor man for a pair of shoes. They'd sell their own grand mother! They grind the penniless into the dirt and shove the luckless into the ditch. They've extorted from the poor and … they sit around drinking wine they've conned from their victims. Amos 2:6-8, The Message

Amos is clear. The sin of Israel isn’t blatant idolatry, as it was when Elijah prophesied. The sin of Israel is how they treat the poor. And so Israel is back to worshipping God, they’re back to reading their bible so to speak. But their spiritual life is out of balance. They may be worshiping rightly, but they are living wrongly. God has blessed them with abundance and instead of helping the poor out of that abundance they are hoarding God’s provision from themselves. They are living a life of luxury, poverty is all around them, and they don’t even care. And God sends Amos to tell Israel that their greed is breaking His heart. You see, the people are worshipping God, they’re going to church on Sundays, but the same things that break God’s heart are not breaking theirs. Their spiritual life is out of balance, and I think it’s important that we understand why. You see, when the people of Israel were still in the desert, before they entered the Promised Land, this is what God told them. It’s from Deuteronomy.

Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights. Don't take the cloak of a widow as security for a loan. Don't ever forget that you were once slaves in Egypt and God got you out of there. I command you: Do what I'm telling you. When you harvest your grain and forget a sheaf back in the field, don't go back and get it; leave it for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow so that God will bless you in all your work. When you shake the olives off your trees, don't go back over the branches and strip them bare—what's left is for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. And when you cut the grapes in your vineyard, don't take every last grape—leave a few for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Don't ever forget that you were a slave in Egypt. - Deuteronomy 24: 17-22, The Message

The reason their spiritual life is out of balance is because they’ve forgotten who they are. The Israelites have spiritual amnesia. They used to be poor and God made them rich. They used to be slaves and God made them free. They used to be exiles and God brought them home. And so before they enter the Promised Land God tells them, “I saved you from your oppressors, not because you deserved it, but because I love you. And so don’t you dare go and become the oppressor when you enter the Promised Land.” But that’s exactly what they did. They became the oppressor.

One of the most common commands in scripture, believe it or not, is a single word. Remember. Throughout the bible, and the Old Testament in particular, God tells his people to remember. Remember that when you were oppressed in Egypt, I showed you compassion. Remember that because I showed you compassion, you need to show compassion to the oppressed, the outcast, and the needy. Remember that I’m saving you to reveal my heart to the world, and so extend the same grace and the same justice to others that I’ve extended to you. Don’t forget that who you are cannot be separated from what I’ve done. Remember.

In Deuteronomy, God lists three people in particular – the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Historically speaking, foreigners immigrated to the land of Israel. Like modern day illegal immigrants without US citizenship, they had no rights and no privileges. Orphans were a lot more common in Amos’ day and because the orphanage had not yet been invented, God tells his chosen people to provide for the orphans. And finally, widows are mentioned, because in a patriarchal society, a woman with no husband had no voice and no money.

The word for people like this in our day is marginalized people. By definition, marginalized people are groups that will most likely be forgotten, mistreated, oppressed and taken advantage of unless someone speaks up. And the reason God is concerned for them is because they need someone to help them, to defend them, to love them.

Now, there’s a something each of us needs to face. The nature of sin is to marginalize certain people – to find people without power and to push them to the margins, out of the way. In the days of Amos, it was the foreigner, the orphan and the widow. Our responsibility as Christians is to figure out who the marginalized in our society are, and then to extend our compassion and our love to them – to seek justice for those who are treated with injustice. And it could be anyone – persons of color, senior citizens, immigrants, the homeless, people with physical or mental disabilities, prisoners, workers whose pay keeps going down but whose workload keeps going up – it could be anyone. It is so important that we understand the heart of God toward these people and that we communicate God’s love for them.

You see, Amos was sent to a people that saw injustice all around them and just didn’t care. In fact, they even felt good about their lives and their faith because they worshipped God on a regular basis. The word for this is complacency. The people Amos preached to were asleep in their complacency. And here’s just a portion of what Amos says to wake them up.

Listen to this, you cows of Bashan, grazing on the slopes of Samaria. You women! Mean to the poor, cruel to the down-and out! Indolent and pampered, you demand of your husbands, “bring us a tall, cool drink.” This is serious – I, God, have sworn by my holiness! Be well warned: Judgment Day is coming! Amos 4:1-2, The Message

I’m not sure whether you picked up on Amos’ tone or not, but for the record, this is not a compliment. In this passage Amos is speaking to the wives of wealthy and powerful men and he calls them “cows of Bashan.” Bashan was a very fertile area. The cows of Bashan were famous for being, how should I say this, “well fed.” And so “cows of Bashan” is Amos’ way of telling the Israelites – men and women – that they’re a bunch of fat cows.

Most biblical scholars agree that they didn’t take it well. But this is not just random name-calling on Amos’ part. Think about the nature of a cow. Cows are not really known for their good deeds. In fact, they’re not really known for anything except for their eating. A cow is a walking appetite, an eating machine. In fact, cows actually have four stomachs. They consume – that’s it. The only question a cow ever asks itself is, “where can I get more?”

Now let’s be honest. We live in a society that encourages us to live like cows of Bashan. Think about the commercials and billboards and magazines that we see on a day-to-day basis. They’re always trying to sell us something. In the same way that a cow eats grass all day, our media culture wants us to become a walking appetite for food, money, and pleasure. They want us to become like a cow that only asks itself one question – “where can I get more?”

How can I get a larger house? How can I get a larger salary? How can I drive a newer car? How can I have greater sexual pleasure? How can I be more attractive? Our consumerist culture is an expert at producing cows of Bashan. And the thing about cows – they never say “enough.” A cow never asks, “Where can you get more?” A cow’s only concern is where can I get more. And that’s fine for a cow. But if we listen to Amos’ voice, being a cow of Bashan is not fine for you and for me.

Remember, Israel’s problem was that they didn’t see the connection between the way they treated the poor and the way they worshipped God. And I think it’s really easy for us to fall into this same pattern. We far too often assume that Christianity is about accepting Jesus. But it’s not. Christianity is about obeying Jesus. And from the mouth of Jesus himself, “what you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters you do also to me.”

It’s sad but a lot of people in our world worship on a regular basis, read their bible, and tithe their money and yet still have a hard heart toward the poor and the outcast. And what Amos tells us is that God wants us to feel the same compassion for the poor that he does, that God wants us to live lives where we notice the marginalized and the needy and then respond with generosity and compassion.

One of the bible’s most famous verses is Amos 5:24, which reads, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Martin Luther King, Jr. alluded to this verse in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Dr. King lived in a world where people of color were marginalized, but because he was deeply rooted in scripture he knew the heart of God, and because of that Dr. King spoke the word of God to complacent Christians who, over time, had lost touch with God’s heart. And as we all know, Martin Luther King’s impact was great. And ours can be as well.

But if our impact is to be great, we need to listen to the message of Amos, especially where he calls us cows of Bashan. Because if our world has it’s way with us, we will live our life with fat cow disease.

You may be wondering what to do, as I’m sure Amos’ audience was, and so I’ll leave you with two practical disciplines that you can work into your life as you see fit.

Be generous with your money and your time. Don’t let 100% of your money and time be spent on yourself. Things may seem tight right now, your calendar may be full and your bank account may be low. But, and I’m sorry to break the news, things will never change. Be generous, not because someone else needs your money and your time, but because you need to give it.

Reach out. Form a relationship or a friendship with someone our culture marginalizes. Jesus spent a lot of time with prostitutes. I go on record saying, you have my permission to do the same, assuming you do it in the same Spirit that Jesus did. And so prayerfully reach out and show love to someone that our culture doesn’t love – not because they need the love, but once again, because you need to give it.

And so in closing, there’s only one medicine that cures fat cow disease. REMEMBER. That’s it – we have to remember. The people of Israel forgot that they used to be poor, and so they didn’t love the poor. The people of Israel forgot that they used to be outcasts, and so they didn’t love the outcasts.

Let’s not make the same mistake. As people who believe that in Christ we are alive, let us never forget that first, we were dead in our sins. And so remember. Remember that God saved us to reveal his heart to the world and that our privilege is to extend the same grace and the same justice to others that God has extended to us.

And so “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

Jesus' faithfulness (Lent I)

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
 to protect you”, 
 “On their hands they will bear you up,
 so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

A couple of years ago, 20/20 aired a special on temptation. In an experiment with kids, child after child was led in a room and given four M&M’s. They were then told to wait – that in ten minutes someone would be back – and that if all four M&M’s were still there then the child would get four more. Basically, these kids had a choice – 4 M&M’s now or 8 M&M’s later. Well, when the adult left each one of them got restless, unable to just sit there in their hunger. The vast majority ate the four M&M’s, which left them scared and depressed and guilty because they knew they had failed the test.

If you haven’t read the Torah – spoiler alert – the people of Israel are like those kids. After 400 years of Egyptian slavery, they’re given a vision of a better future – but to get to the Promised Land they had to travel through the wilderness. And immediately following the Exodus that’s exactly where God led them – into the wilderness to test their faithfulness. But in the wilderness were certain “M&M’s” which, if eaten, would seriously jeopardize their future – the future God desired them to have. But if the people couldn’t resist temptation, if they could not remain faithful to God, the exodus-experiment would end and the Promised Land would be forfeited.

Well, Israel ate the M&M’s in front of them. When confronted with the wilderness they didn’t trust in God’s provision. You see immediately following their exodus from Egypt the Israelites started to get restless. They were in the wilderness and there wasn’t any food. And so one minute, the Israelites are rejoicing and thanking God for parting the Red Sea and the next minute, they’re complaining because they’re hungry. According to the book of Exodus, this is a paraphrase of Israel’s conversation with God.

The whole community began to grumble against God saying, “We’d be better off dead in Egypt, where, by the way, there was plenty of food, but you God have brought us into the wilderness to starve us to death.” Then the Lord responded, “I tell you what. I’m going to send bread from heaven BUT there’s a catch. I’m going to test you. I only want you to gather enough bread for one day at a time. Wake up, gather your daily bread and then when tomorrow comes I’ll send more. (Exodus 16: 2-5)

I’m sure you know what happens next. God sends the Israelites bread but instead of gathering a one-day supply they hoard as much as they can. Why? Because they don’t believe that God will send more. Imagine a kid eating dinner with his parents and stuffing dinner rolls in his jacket because he’s scared they’ll never feed him again. Pretty messed up. But that’s exactly what the Israelites do. God saves them from Egypt. Israel thinks God is trying to kill them. God sends bread from heaven and tells them “the supply will never end.” The Israelites anxiously grab as much as they can like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. They try and provide for themselves. The moment they feel hunger – literally and symbolically speaking- they start to stuff themselves. They couldn’t just sit there in their hunger. They don’t trust in God’s provision. They all failed the test.

Last week we talked about Jesus’ mission to lead God’s new exodus – that through his death in Jerusalem Jesus accomplished what the Old Covenant was powerless to do – the defeat of sin. We talked about how the Red Sea of death was split with a cross. We said that in the “new exodus” Jesus leads his people to the Kingdom of God – the ultimate Promised Land. For Jesus to lead this new exodus he has to succeed where the Israelites failed. He has to prove himself faithful. After all, when the M&M’s get eaten then the experiment is over. When Israel failed to trust God in the wilderness, in a very real sense the whole exodus experiment was ruined. Did Israel make it to the geographic “Promised Land”? Sure. But did they fully attain God’s vision for their future? Did God use them to bless and redeem the nations – to make His name known and cherished throughout the world? No – not even close.

In tonight’s Gospel the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, just like the Israelites before him. For Jesus to lead God’s new exodus he must prove faithful where Israel didn’t. He cannot fail any test, He must fully trust in God’s provision. And in tonight’s Gospel that is exactly what happens. Israel was tempted and sinned. Jesus was tempted and did not sin. Israel, when confronted with hunger, looked back to Egypt. Jesus, when confronted with hunger, looked forward to the cross. Jesus fully trusted in God’s provision.

Now perhaps you’re wondering why any of this matters. In tonight’s reading from Romans we heard that “if you confess with your lips and believe in your heart you will be saved.” In other words, we’re saved by faith in Christ, which of course is true. But when the Bible says that we’re save through faith in Christ we’re only hearing half the story. Because another translation of the Greek tells us that “faith in” could also be written, “faithfulness of.” We are saved by our “faith in” Christ on one hand, but on the other hand, we’re saved by the “faithfulness of” Christ. We’re saved by faith in Christ. We’re saved by the faithfulness of Christ. Once again, the Bible can be translated either way and both translations are true. But in my humble opinion, the second translation is where our focus should be as we enter into Lent. It takes the emphasis off of us and places it onto Jesus. In other words, we’re not saved because we are faithful. We’re saved because Jesus is faithful.

You see I’m not so sure we should place too great an emphasis on our faith at all. In fact, I’m not sure we should place any emphasis on ourselves at all. The emphasis should be on Christ – on his faithfulness and not our own – because at the end of the day we’re just like the Israelites. We’re just like the kids with four M&M’s on our plates. The moment we feel hunger – I’m talking about physical hunger, spiritual hunger, emotional hunger or mental hunger – we stuff our faces and minds and hearts with junk food – the types of food that God doesn’t want us to have and certainly not the food that He alone can provide. Our M&M’s are different – food, shopping, school, work, TV, gossip, a need to take care of people, a need to correct people – but we all use something to take our minds off the hunger that only God can fill.

The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus did not. He sat in his hunger. He waited in his hunger. He prayed in his hunger. He obeyed in his hunger. Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet did not sin. And because of Jesus’ faithfulness – and not our own – God’s new exodus moves forward.

And so here’s your homework for the week. On this first Sunday of Lent join Jesus in the wilderness and remember that what we’re celebrating – his faithfulness and not our own. Lent is about Jesus’ sinlessness. His obedience. His perfect submission to His Father’s will. And so when hungry for food, turn to the One that refused to turn stones into bread. When hungry for power, turn to the One that refused the kingdoms of the world. When hungry for recognition, turn to the One that refused to win fame by flying off the temple.

You see at the end of the day we’re not really hungry for any of these things – for food or power or recognition or any other spiritual junk food. No, I think we’re restless for something else. Our world hungers for a greater reality. Love. Our world is starving for love. What Lent reminds us is that love is known through the faithfulness of Christ – through his sacrifice for our sins on the hard wood of the cross. Lent isn’t a test. It’s not about exercising our own moral muscle and then getting scared and depressed and guilty when we see we’ve failed the test. No, Jesus has already passed every test on our behalf and so Lent isn’t a test. It’s an invitation – an invitation to join Jesus in the wilderness. An invitation to look forward to the cross. An invitation to trust in the provision of God and to follow Jesus to the Promised Land.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

god's great accomplishment

About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

I recently visited a really cool church with ten minutes of “open space” built into the service. The idea of “open space” is that we need a chance to listen to Jesus in our own creative way, and open space, by definition, is open – you can do whatever you want. Draw, paint, write a poem, pray, be silent, drink coffee, journal – you can even dance, which, of course, is the option that I chose. Just kidding, I prayed, and I was even given a question to pray about in my open space with Jesus. “God, what do you want me to accomplish in the coming year?” That was my prayer, and a really cool thing happened. I heard a voice – an unmistakable word spoken directly to my spirit. “God, what do you want me to accomplish?” And you know what God’s answer was? LESS. “I want you to accomplish less.”

At first, I thought God was talking about my lifestyle – about how I need to slow down and learn to “say no” and be a little bit more spontaneous – you know, that I needed to “do” less. But then it dawned on me. That wasn’t my question. I didn’t ask God what He wanted me to do. I asked God what He wanted me to accomplish.

So I thought about it. And I figured out that we only accomplish things that are hard. To accomplish something is to complete something that’s hard to complete. For example, I don’t care how skilled you are at tying your shoes – that is not an accomplishment, unless of course you went to A&M. And that’s when it hit me. Accomplishing something is great when it comes to our hobbies, our work, and to the personal goals we set in life. But when it comes to our spiritual life, or to our character – we can accomplish nothing. When it comes to the sins and the flaws and the inner-defects that enslave us – when it comes to throwing off the shackles of anger or lust or contempt or greed – when it comes to our hearts – we can accomplish nothing.

Think about it. Try not getting angry or anxious or jealous or lustful or bitter for an entire week. That would be quite the spiritual accomplishment. If you can do it then I stand corrected. But unless you’re a robot, you’re going to fail. Now don’t get me wrong –you’re still responsible for how you handle your anger or what you do with your anxiety or how you respond to your jealousy – but ridding yourself of them? Not going to happen. That’s just not something we have the power to accomplish.

In today’s Gospel Jesus takes Peter, James and John mountain climbing and something amazing happens when they reach the top. Jesus, upon praying, catches fire from within, his face and clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear in glory to have a conversation with Jesus. And Luke even tells us what they talked about. “They … were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” In other words, Moses and Elijah are speaking to Jesus about his impending “departure,” whatever that means. But not only that – they’re talking about Jesus’ departure like it’s going to be a really great accomplishment. But what about leaving Jerusalem would be such a great accomplishment?

The word departure is an embarrassing translation. It’d be like taking the Greek word for killer whale and translating it as goldfish. And so when you get home tonight find your bible, cross out the word departure and write the following word in its place – exodus. Elijah and Moses and Jesus were talking about the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now, I’m not just being nit-picky. This is a distinction we have to make because the Old Testament revolves around the Exodus that God accomplishes through Moses. And remember, the Exodus is about being set free from slavery. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years until God parted the Red Sea, which made it possible for God’s people to go to the Promised Land. If you haven’t read the Old Testament, 98% of it, in one way or another, is about the Exodus. It either looks forward to it, or describes it, or looks back to it. And so if I had to summarize the Old Testament in a sentence it really wouldn’t be that hard. In the Old Testament, the Exodus is God’s great accomplishment.

Now, I know this seems like a tangent, but stay with me, because over time, the prophets started speaking about a new exodus – a new exodus that God would accomplish to set us free once and for all. You see they came to realize something that’s pretty profound. Their problem was a lot bigger than they thought. The problem wasn’t slavery between people. It was slavery within people. The real problem was the sins and the flaws and the inner-defects that enslave humanity – in other words, whatever it is inside our hearts that even makes enslaving other people a possibility. The shackles of Egypt were not the problem. But it was the inner-shackles – the chains of anger and lust and contempt and greed and jealousy and hate – this, they said, was humanity’s real problem. And it was a big one – far too hard for humanity to deal with on their own. The sin within was the real enemy and only a new exodus would accomplish its defeat.

Now, with that in mind, let’s go back to that mountain and to Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah. “They … were speaking of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” See what’s happening in today’s Gospel? Moses and Elijah have come to tell Jesus that His mission, His purpose, is to lead God’s new exodus – that in Jerusalem He will accomplish what the Old Covenant was powerless to do. Like Moses before him Jesus would be the One to set God’s people free. Moses set them free from the shackles of Egypt, but Jesus will set them free from the inner shackles of sin; from the shackles of death. And that, they said as they talked on the mountain, would be God’s greatest accomplishment: “the Red Sea of death would be split with a cross and Jesus would lead his people through.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)

Now with that in mind, let’s go back to where we started – with a God calling us to accomplish less. What God wants us to realize – the heart of our Christian faith – is that through Jesus God has accomplished everything. And that’s what the new exodus is all about – the defeat of sin and the defeat of death through the cross of Jesus Christ. And unlike the first exodus, which is a weak shadow of the new one, God’s new exodus is the final exodus. It’s what 100% of the New Testament is all about. It is God’s greatest accomplishment.

And so here’s your homework for the week, and I’m cheating because I stole it from Luke, but that’s okay because Luke stole it from God. “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!” That’s your homework. Listen to Jesus. If you accomplish nothing else in life but this – if you learn to listen to Jesus – your life will be a wild success. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but don’t worry too much about your anger or greed or lust or whatever else it is that enslaves you. Let Jesus worry about that. He is, after all, the One leading the new exodus. It’s not our job to worry. Our job is to listen.

To put it differently, following Jesus isn’t about accomplishing anything at all. Following Jesus is about following Jesus and about letting Jesus accomplish transformation in our hearts. But what that means is that we have to create some open space in our lives. Open space to bathe in scripture. Open space to wait in silence. Open space to listen to Jesus and for him to accomplish what He wills to accomplish in each and every one of us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

passing the torch (elisha -omega talk)

Before I die I fully intend to participate in the Olympic games, and not in table tennis either. Though we all know I could. And not as a sumo wrester or in synchronized swimming. And not as a spectator, but as a runner. I want to carry the torch in the Olympic relay. One of my classmates got to carry the torch back in 1992 and I’ve been jealous ever since. And so mark my words, before I die, I will be a torchbearer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ritual, the Olympic Torch is ignited several months before the opening celebration and is carried around the world – thousands of runners, each with a torch, all passing one flame. One runner receives the flame, guards the flame, and then carefully passes that flame to the next runner, who must be very careful to make sure that the flame does not go out. It is considered a great honor to carry the Olympic torch and to pass the Olympic flame. Of course, the roots of the torch relay come from the ancient Greek games, where the flame was passed from runner to runner as a symbol for knowledge and life and wisdom, which the Greeks insisted be passed from one generation to the next. In other words, when it came to what was important to them – the spirit of knowledge and life and wisdom – the Greeks prided themselves on being keepers of the flame, and of course passers of the flame. The thought of letting the flame go out was scandalous. Dropping the torch? Unheard of. Because passing the flame wasn’t just considered an honor – it was a duty.

Every single one of us is here tonight because someone passed the flame of faith to us. Now, I know we’re all at different places in our faith. For some of us, the flame of faith is burning brighter than ever, and maybe for some, keeping the flame from going out is a daily struggle. But if we have faith, we have it because someone passed it on to us. Maybe it was our parents, or grandparents, a teacher, a friend, a priest, a pastor, a bible study leader, a camp counselor, a combo of all of these – but someone invested, someone prayed, someone loved – someone’s flame burned so brightly that they just had to pass it on to us. And it’s incredibly important that we understand that when it comes to faith, this passing of the flame has been God’s design from the beginning. Abraham passed the flame to Isaac who then passed it on to Jacob who then passed it on to Joseph. Moses passed the flame to Joshua. Eli passed it to Samuel. Jesus passed it to the apostles. From the very beginning, God intended his people to be torchbearers – to get the flame, to guard the flame, and finally, to pass the flame. In every generation God asks His people, “Who loves my knowledge and my life and my wisdom so much that they’re willing to pass the flame?” You see, God doesn’t give us the flame of faith for our sake alone. That would be like receiving the Olympic torch and then running home to keep the flame burning in our room. No, God gives us the flame of faith to pass it. God wants to make us torchbearers.

Now, last week we heard part of Elijah’s story, and I say part of his story because after the showdown at Carmel Elijah basically has a nervous breakdown – the stress of being a prophet is just too great and Elijah begins to pray. And for a piece of candy, does anyone know what Elijah’s prayer is? That God will kill him. That’s his prayer, and God answers Elijah’s prayer – thankfully not by giving Elijah what he wants, but by giving him what he needs – someone to share the burden, someone to take his place. In other words, God sees that Elijah is burnt out and so He tells him that it’s time to pass the torch on to someone else. And that someone else is named Elisha.

Elijah … found Elisha in a field where there were twelve pairs of yoked oxen at work plowing; Elisha was in charge of the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak over him. Elisha deserted the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, "Please! Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye—then I'll follow you." "Go ahead," said Elijah, "but, mind you, don't forget what I've just done to you." So Elisha left; he took his yoke of oxen and butchered them. He made a fire with the plow and tackle and then boiled the meat—a true farewell meal for the family. Then he left and followed Elijah, becoming his right-hand man. (1 Kings 19: 19-21, The Message)

And so Elijah, who’s looking for a successor, sees Elisha plowing in the field, walks right up to him, takes off his cloak, and then places it around Elisha’s shoulders. And this gesture, which is foreign to us, would have been very clear to Elisha. When Elijah took off his cloak and put it on Elisha, that one act said more than any combination of words ever could, because in a visible and highly symbolic way Elijah is telling Elisha, “I’m inviting you to follow me and to learn from me. I want to spend time with you and teach you. I want to pass the flame on to you. Elisha, I want your flame to burn brighter and brighter so that one day you can lead God’s people as their prophet without me being at your side.” What an amazing invitation!

Now, there’s something we need to realize, because I think it’s the main reason we run away from our duty to be torchbearers – Elijah is asking Elisha to make an enormous sacrifice. To invite another person into a relationship with God, to pass on that flame of faith, is to ask them to sacrifice everything. To quote Jesus, “take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you have to lose it for me and for the gospel.” And that’s what Elijah is asking Elisha to do – to make an enormous sacrifice – to lose his life in order to do God’s work.

Now, we don’t know a whole lot about Elijah’s background. Maybe he grew up poor and didn’t have a lot of career options and said to himself, “Since I can’t make a profit I’ll become one.” But not Elisha. He’s a rich kid. You see, in Elisha’s day your average family owned a chicken or two. If a family had an ox, they’d be wealthy. But to have twelve teams of oxen, which for you non-math majors is twenty four total, was unheard of. Elisha’s family is freaking loaded. And what Elijah is asking Elisha to do is to walk away from his secure and wealthy lifestyle in order to follow a much riskier path of becoming a prophet, which usually meant a life of poverty, hiding, and unpopular truth-telling. And so Elisha has everything! And in essence, Elijah says, “give it up! Let me tell you about what happened on Mount Carmel, about what I saw God do. Following God might be risky, but I promise you it’s exciting. And it might mean poverty, but I promise your life will be rich. And it might mean losing your life, but I promise you, you’re going to save it.”

Now, as a side note, it would have been really easy for Elijah to look at Elisha, who had everything, and to have walked past him thinking to himself, “I doubt he’s all that interested in what I have to offer.” And I think that’s a powerful lesson for each of us. A lot of us have friends we assume aren’t interested in coming to church or talking about matters of faith, and so we don’t even try. We walk right by them. And in the process, we hide a huge piece of who we are because we just figure they’re not interested, or that they relate to God in “their own way,” whatever that means. But we should never assume that anyone is so well off that they don’t need the flame of faith that is the kingdom of God. Because once we’re captured by a vision of living and serving in the kingdom of God, we find it irresistible. And God knows that so many of the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis are just one conversation away or one invitation away from being a keeper of the flame and a bearer of the torch. God has a strong track record of choosing unlikely people to be his torch bearers.

Ok, back to our story. Elisha follows Elijah and proves to be an incredibly loyal apprentice. Elijah even gives Elisha a few chances to walk away and back out of his prophetic call, but each time Elisha responds with these words: “as surely as the Lord lives, I will not leave you.” Their journey reaches it’s climax when they arrive at the Jordan River because they both know that their time together is short and that Elisha will soon be on his own. And then Elijah does something significant. He takes off his cloak – the same one he spread over Elisha when their journey first began – and with his cloak Elijah strikes the Jordan River. And just as the water separated a long time ago for Moses and Joshua, it now separates for Elijah, and Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan River on dry ground. And then Elijah does a wonderful thing. Knowing that he’s about to leave this world he turns his full attention to Elisha, his loyal disciple. And what does Elijah do? He doesn’t give Elisha any more advice or instructions or commands or secret prophet tricks. But instead he asks Elisha a question – “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” That’s it, a question– “what can I do for you?”

Now, before we look at Elisha’s response, I want you to think of some people in your life that God may be calling you to pass the torch on to – a sibling, a friend, a classmate. Remember, God doesn’t give us the flame of faith for our sake alone. From the very beginning, God intended his people to be torchbearers. And so if we want to take seriously our duty to pass the torch of faith on to the people in our life, this is a great question to ask them. And it’s so simple and non-threatening. What can I do for you? How can I serve you? What do you need to become the person God’s calling you to be? You never know, maybe they’ll just tell you. “I need prayer. I need you to bring me to church. I need to find a Bible Study. I need to do an outreach project, but I’m just too scared to go alone.” Think of the people that God has placed in your life, the people with whom you have influence. When’s the last time you asked them that question – what can I do for you?

Well, here’s how Elisha answered Elijah’s question – “let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” I have to admit, the first time I read this story, Elisha’s request sounded greedy, almost as if he was saying “I want to preach twice as well and work twice as many miracles.” But that’s not what’s going on here at all. You see Elisha is using what scholars call inheritance language. For example, back in Deuteronomy 21:17, God said that the heir of an Israelite family – the firstborn – is to receive a double portion of the inheritance. And so in Elisha’s world, to ask for a double portion is the same thing as asking to be someone’s heir. That’s why he uses the word inherit – let me “inherit” a double portion of your spirit. And so Elisha isn’t asking for two helpings of the Spirit. All he’s saying is this – “Elijah, I’ve followed you, I’ve watched you, and I’ve seen your devotion, the difference your life and faithfulness have made. Israel is a better place because of you and your ministry and I want to continue your legacy. I want my life to make a difference even after you’re gone. And so let me inherit your work.”

Well all of the sudden a chariot of fire and horses appear and take Elijah away into the sky. And as a side note, this only happens twice in the Bible – to Elijah and Enoch. And as a second side note, this is biblical proof that unicorns do exist. Anyway, Elijah is swept into the arms of God, and Elisha is left behind with a mission – it’s his turn to carry the torch. And so Elijah is gone and he only leaves one thing behind. Can anyone guess what that is? His cloak. And Elisha looks down and he sees his mentor’s cloak, which to him is a reminder – it’s a reminder of the torch that has been passed on to him. And so Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak and walks back to the Jordan River. He takes the cloak and rolls it up, just like he had seen Elijah do. He lifts his arm and says a prayer, just like he had seen Elijah do. And then, in what I think is the most pivotal moment of Elisha’s life, he strikes the water of the Jordan River, the waters part, and Elisha crosses on dry ground. He did it. By himself. The torch has been passed. Elijah’s spirit is now alive in Elisha and Elisha is ready for his mission – he’s ready to be a torchbearer for God.

Elisha goes on to have an extraordinary life. Like Elijah before him, he challenges the most powerful people in society with utter fearlessness. And at the end of his life we see Elisha passing that torch on to his own servants. Elisha, the rich kid, goes on to live an extraordinary life. Why? Because someone was bold enough to invest in him. To pray for him. To wrap his cloak around him. To pass the torch to him.

I’ve had countless people tell me that Christianity is one generation away from being extinct – that 100 years from now, following Jesus, putting on Jesus’ cloak, will be a thing of the past. Let me end by saying this – they’re all false prophets. People have been saying that for 2000 years, but followers of Jesus – well, they keep on passing the flame. Now, you and I have received an enormous invitation. As people who have the flame, God invites us to guard the flame and to run with the flame. But God wants us to go deeper. In every generation God asks the question – “Who loves my knowledge and my life and my wisdom so much that they’re willing to pass the flame?”

The ancient Greeks prided themselves on being passers of the flame, which wasn’t just considered an honor – it was a duty. And so my message tonight is this – it’s a duty for us too.

And so I hope that when college ends or grad school ends you’ll leave this place ready to be a torchbearer for God. Because if you’re not then what that means is that I’ve passed on the wrong kind of flame to you. Because the One we serve is the Light of the world, the Flame of the world. And He’s the One inviting us to run this race we call faith. You see, the Church is made up of thousands of runners with thousands of torches – but there’s only one flame. And if we catch the right flame, and we’re seduced by a vision of living and serving in the Kingdom of God, we come to see pretty quickly that the only way to keep our own flame burning is to pass it on to someone else.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

captivating people (luke 5:1-11)

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I have a love / hate relationship with catchy church signs. I love them because they’re catchy. But I also hate them because they’re catchy. Here’s a sample of real signs that churches have used to draw new people in. “Free coffee and everlasting life – membership has its privileges.” “Don’t let worries kill you – let the church help.” And perhaps my favorite of all time, a sign put up the week before Palm Sunday: “And Jesus said to his disciples – bring me that ass.” Now obviously, the purpose of these signs is to grab people’s attention, hook them, and get them to come inside. People attend church for a million different reasons – the music, the inner-peace that they feel, the coffee, the community – and the purpose of signs like these is to grab you and say, “hey, we’ve got something you’re looking for!” These signs are marketing tools. They’re designed to catch people.

Catching people – that’s what marketing is all about. In fact, I just read a great article on marketing called “How to catch them if you can.” Here’s an excerpt. “Like a highly contagious virus, good [marketing] affects people so strongly they transmit it to others, who then transmit it to their contacts and so on, continuously passing the ad along until it has reached millions.” I was intrigued by this article’s claim. “If your message is captivating enough, you’ll wind up catching more people than you ever imagined – a catch beyond your wildest dreams.”

Now with that in mind we turn to Jesus’ words to Simon Peter – “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” We can all stand to be reminded that evangelism is our mission as a church – that our mission is to bring Christ to the world. And so, here’s my question: how should we, as a church, be “catching” people?

Well, what we can’t do is catch people through a typical marketing scheme. Donald Miller writes, “I was a salesman for a while, … and I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus [when I went to church], … always pointing out the benefits of the Christian faith. That rubbed me wrong. It’s not that there aren’t benefits, there are, but they didn’t have to talk about spirituality like it’s a vacuum cleaner. I didn’t want Jesus to be a product. I wanted him to be a person.”

In other words, membership may have its privileges– free coffee and everlasting life – but we’re not called to do the work of a salesman. We’re called to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). And so we can’t rely on offering great products – whether it’s great preaching or great music or a great community – because a) it’s not our mission and b) it doesn’t work. But if we can’t use good ‘ole fashion church products to catch people, what are we going to use as bait?

Today’s Gospel comes from Luke and is also known as the “call of the first disciples.” But that’s a misnomer. Unlike Matthew and Mark’s version, today’s Gospel is not a call story – it’s a pronouncement story. Look at the reading carefully. Jesus doesn’t call Simon. He announces to Simon what he will now be doing. And it isn’t fishing. It’s catching. Remember what Jesus says in Matthew and Mark? “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” But in Luke the emphasis is different. “Now Simon don’t freak out, but from now on, you’re not going to be fishing for people. You’re going to be catching them.”

Now, what on earth is Jesus talking about? Well, the Greek word translated catch, which is only found in Luke, is a compound word that is more accurately translated to “catch alive” or to “capture alive.” But for Luke’s audience, this word had an even greater meaning. It meant “to revive” or “to restore life” to something – to capture it in order to make it come alive, to catch something with the purpose of infusing it with life. And so perhaps the best modern translation isn’t catch but captivate, a verb meaning to attract by beauty or by excellence. And so perhaps today’s Gospel is more accurately read like this. “Don’t be afraid Simon, from now on you’ll be captivating people.”

Now maybe you think that’s a weird thing for Jesus to tell Peter – that Peter wouldn’t understand what Jesus meant. But Peter knew exactly what Jesus meant because Peter himself had been captivated by Jesus. You see, unlike in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, this isn’t the first time in Luke that Jesus and Peter have met. In fact, Jesus has just left Simon’s house, where Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. But then Jesus healed her, revived her, he infused her with life. And of course Simon’s mother-in-law wasn’t the only one that Jesus caught and restored. According to Luke all kinds of people were brought to Jesus – the sick, the unclean, the demon-possessed, people on the fringes – and without fail, Jesus infused life into every single one of them. And Simon Peter has witnessed the whole thing. He’s seen first hand the beauty and the excellence of this Man that brings life to everyone that he meets. Peter is among those who have been brought to life, and because of that, today’s Gospel isn’t a call story. Peter has already been caught. Sure he tries to wiggle away – “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” – but Jesus won’t let him. “Sorry Peter, you’re caught. And from here on out, like it or not, you’re going to be catching people, too.”

And so the question I leave us with is this. Have we been caught by the love of Christ? Are we among those who have been captivated by Jesus? Do we know, firsthand, the beauty and excellence of this Man that brings life to everyone he touches? Do we understand that even if we tell Jesus to leave like Peter did, his answer will always be no?

There’s a reason I ask. To the extent that Jesus has restored our life, we will work to restore the lives of others, and to the extent that we have been caught, we will be catching other people, because when your life is caught up in the Kingdom of God, catching others for the kingdom is just what happens. Like a highly contagious virus, being caught in the Kingdom affects people so strongly they transmit it to others, who then transmit it to other, continuously passing Christ’s love until it has reached millions.

Like the fishermen in today’s gospel, I know it’s tempting to pull in our nets and to call it a day – to think to ourselves, “what’s the use, we’re not going to catch anything.” But that’s a lie. Luke goes out of his way to tell us that the crowd was pressing in on Jesus. That crowd was hungry. And believe me when I tell you, so is our world. People out there are starving for life.

But if today’s Gospel tells us anything, we’re not going to catch people until we ourselves have been caught – until our lives have been so transformed by Jesus’ love that we as a people become contagious – until we love with the same reckless abandon that Christ did – until our character becomes that of Jesus himself.

And make no mistake, this is our work as a church: to captivate people with the love of Christ; to capture them in a way that’s “life-giving” and not “life-taking;” to be as a community so enamored, so caught up in Christ, so committed to the work of the Kingdom that without saying a word we become living and breathing signs – signs that scream “we have Jesus in our midst, and he’s the most captivating thing this world has ever seen.”

You see whether people realize it or not, they’re not looking for a product. They’re looking for a Person – for the Person that created them, that loves them and that has the power to give them life. Whether they realize it or not, people are looking for Jesus. And so if being captured by Jesus’ love becomes the goal of our lives, if we look to Him daily to be infused with fresh life, our lives will become bait that catch people for the kingdom. We’ll still be sinners. The difference is that we’ll know that we’ve been caught – that Jesus refuses to let us go – and the freedom and confidence that come with that will be captivating enough that we’ll wind catching more people than we ever imagined – a catch beyond our wildest dreams.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The showdown at Carmel (Elijah)

This semester we’re talking about the prophets, which means that this is a continuation of last semester’s Omega series – “Old Testament’s Greatest Hits.” Welcome to volume II. And you may recall that towards the end of last semester we talked about King David and King Solomon. Well, when Solomon died, things got bad. Real bad.

Israel was a family. Remember, to be an Israelite was to be a child of Abraham. It meant that you were a part of God’s covenant people, a part of God’s plan to bless and redeem the fallen world. The Israelites had a bond of blood and a bond of faith, but when Solomon died, these bonds were broken.

There was a civil war and the people of Israel split, never to be rejoined again. There was the southern Kingdom of Judah, also known as the house of David. And there was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And so the family of God goes through a divorce – there are two Kingdoms and there are two kings. Today we’re talking about the Northern Kingdom.

The first king of the north is Jeroboam and he is an evil, evil king. And like all evil people, he’s driven by fear – the fear of losing his power. You see, the southern Kingdom is in Jerusalem, which is where God told His people to worship him in the temple that Solomon built. And Jeroboam doesn’t want his people to travel to Jerusalem to worship God because if they do they may stay there. After all, there’s only one temple. And if they stay, they may give their allegiance to the Southern King, which means that Jeroboam is out of a job. And so what does Jeroboam do? Jeroboam has two golden calves made and he sets them up as formal idols for the people to worship. What Jeroboam essentially tells the people is this. “You don’t need to go down to Jerusalem to worship God. That’s way too much trouble and so here – here are two idols. Let these be your gods. Worship them.” And of course, the people do. And so a precedent is set. Idolatry begins in the North.

Well, Jeroboam dies and king after king take his place, each of whom is worse than the one that came before. The Northern Kingdom is spiraling deeper and deeper into sin and just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, King Ahab takes the throne. And here’s what the Bible has to say about Ahab:

Ahab did even more open evil before God than anyone yet—a new champion in evil! It wasn't enough for him to copy the sins of Jeroboam; no, he went all out, first by marrying Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and then by serving and worshiping the god Baal. He built a temple for Baal in Samaria, and then furnished it with an altar for Baal. Worse, he went on and built a shrine to the whore Asherah. He made the God of Israel angrier than all the previous kings of Israel put together. (1 Kings 16:30-33, The Message)

Here we have King Ahab, who marries a pagan woman named Jezebel. And Jezebel’s one claim to fame is how much she hates the God of Israel and His prophets, which sucks, because Ahab puts her in charge of all religion. And Jezebel has an agenda – to completely destroy the worship of Yahweh so that her God, whose name is Baal, can be worshipped. Out with Yahweh, in with Baal – that’s her platform. And what’s her strategy? Mass genocide. She starts systematically killing all of God’s prophets.

Thankfully, God is quick to act. He sends a prophet – Elijah – to confront Ahab and his horrible wife by telling them that God will judge Israel by sending a drought. In other words, God is going to make it stop raining. And this is an important detail because Baal is the god of the weather, or at least that’s what people believed. If you want rain, you have to go to Baal. And so by sending a drought, God is making a very clear statement, which is that Baal is a phony. That he doesn’t exist. That he’s powerless – that the people of Israel, when worshipping Baal, are worshipping a figment of their imagination.

You see the people of Israel don’t abandon God all together. But what they do do (no one chuckle) is try and worship other gods at the same time. The people of Israel apparently don’t quite grasp the whole “there’s only one god” thing – or monotheism as its known in the west. They really think that they can worship God with one hand and Baal with the other. That if they need rain they can talk to Baal, and that if they need something else they can talk to God. And what God’s trying to tell them – through Elijah – is that they can’t do that. Remember the first commandment. “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”

Well, a couple years pass and Elijah has been in hiding this whole time. Jezebel’s whole prophet killing hobby apparently makes him nervous. But God comes to Elijah and basically says, “times up. You need to go back to Ahab. I’m a jealous God and my people need to make a decision – it’s either me or Baal.” And so go to them and make them choose.

And so Elijah does. He goes to Ahab and, with all the authority of a prophet, basically says the following. “I want you to get every Israelite – every single one of them – and all of Jezebel’s prophets – and meet me at Mount Carmel. We’re going to have a showdown. My God verse yours. Yahweh verse Baal. What’s True verse what’s phony.”

And so imagine this scene on Mount Carmel. People from all over Israel have gathered. Jezebel’s 850 false prophets have gathered, and Elijah shows up. And so on one side of the mountain stand all of the false prophets, the king, all the government officials, and of course their fake religion. We talked about holiness semester – about God’s moral standard for his chosen people. For the record, Baal has no standard. Baal has no law about caring for orphans or about loving one’s neighbor. The religion of Baal promises one thing – material abundance for all who bow down to Baal. That’s it. And so that’s one side of the mountain.

But on the other side of the mountain stands a solitary prophet who emerges from years of hiding to confront a king and a country. But with that one man is the God of Israel. And so to the naked idea it seems that Elijah is outnumbered 850 to 1. But to the spiritual eye, Elijah is far from alone.

But then in the middle are the people of Israel – and if you and I are going to insert ourselves at any point in this story, this is where we are – in the middle, at a critical deciding point. The Israelites have tried holding on to Yahweh and Baal. They’ve been trying to practice two religions at once but now a line is being drawn. Elijah, the solitary prophet, challenges the people with these words. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

The people of Israel liked to use “walking” as a metaphor for a life well lived, which obviously had God at the center. We still use this phrase. We talk about our walk with Jesus, or perhaps people ask how our walk with God is going. We may or may not use this language but we all know what it means. Walking is a metaphor for faithfulness. And Elijah tells the people of Israel that in following Baal they’re limping – that they’re being torn between two gods and one of them is false. And limping he says is a miserable way to live.

Now, I think this image of limping is as relevant to you and to me as it was for the people of Israel. False gods fight for our attention all of the time. They seduce us. And we devote our time, talent and treasure to these false gods and in the end they slow us down and keep us from the abundant life we were meant to have. Limping through life didn’t end when people stopped bowing down to Baal. Baal is alive and well in twenty-first century America. Anything we let take the place of God in our lives is idolatry.

We’re going to go back to Mount Carmel in a bit, but first, I want us to consider this question – what is our Baal? One of my favorite reformers, John Calvin, once said that the human heart was a factory for producing idols. What Calvin meant was that all of us are trying to love something other than God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. And whatever that “something” is the bible calls an idol.

Idols are sneaky. For example, I’m a priest or pastor or minister or what have you. Surely, I don’t worship idols, do I? It hurts me to say this, but yes, I do. Sunday night I celebrate the Eucharist. Monday morning I worship a golden calf.

Let me explain (and this is one of many examples I can give). In college, I never made a B. I graduated with a 4.0 from UT’s business school and finished #1 in my class. I worked my ass off in college. But, does anyone know why I did it?

I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t for the joy of learning. Or because I love finance. I’m not lying when I tell you this – I wanted to beat everyone. Plain and simple. I wanted to be successful. Now, do think my desire to be successful died when I went to seminary?

I really want our college ministry to grow. I want you to bring your friends and share your faith, I want the pews to be packed, I want our average attendance to double each semester. But why? Well, in part, I genuinely desire for God’s kingdom to expand and for others to find life and a new birth in our midst. But I’ve also got a darker side. In a religious climate where most churches aren’t growing, I want to grow. In other words, I still want to beat everyone. That’s right, when it comes to being a priest, I still want to be successful. And that’s my Baal. And I have to repent of it every single day. God doesn’t call me to be successful. He calls me to be faithful. And those are two very different things. And so there – I told you mind. Success is my idol. What’s yours?

Hold that thought because we need to go back to Mount Carmel where Elijah and the prophets of Baal decide to have a showdown of the gods. And here’s what they decide to do. Each side builds an altar, sacrifices a bull, and then places that bull on the wood of the altar. And so we need to picture 2 altars, 2 bulls, 1 mountain, and 1 wager, and here’s what that wager is. The prophets of Baal will pray to their god and ask him to send down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice, and Elijah will do the same. If the prophet’s of Baal have their prayer answered, Baal is God. If Elijah has his prayer answered, Yahweh is God. It’s that easy. They flip a coin, Elijah wins and defers to the second half and so the prophets of Baal go first. And here’s the Bible’s account of what happens.

They prayed all morning long, "O Baal, answer us!" But nothing happened—not so much as a whisper of breeze. Desperate, they jumped and stomped on the altar they had made. By noon, Elijah had started making fun of them, taunting, "Call a little louder—he is a god, after all. Maybe he's off meditating somewhere or other, or maybe he's sitting on the toilet, or maybe he's on vacation. You don't suppose he's overslept, do you, and needs to be waked up?" They prayed louder and louder, cutting themselves with swords and knives—a ritual common to them—until they were covered with blood. This went on until well past noon. They used every religious trick and strategy they knew to make something happen on the altar, but nothing happened—not so much as a whisper, not a flicker of response. (I Kings 18: 26-29, The Message)

This is why I love Elijah. He invents talking trash. That’s right people – prophetic trash talk. Elijah invented it. He uses mockery and sarcasm and humor to show how utterly ridiculous it is to pray to a god that isn’t there – how utterly ridiculous it is to orient our lives around Baal, or being successful or around any other idol instead of around the one, true living God.

Well, the prophets of Baal eventually give up and it’s Elijah’s turn. And just to make sure he’s not tricking anyone, Elijah pours 12 jars of water over his sacrifice before praying a very simple prayer. “O Lord,” he said, “Answer me so that this people may know that you’re God and that your desire is to turn their hearts back.”

And God answers. Fire from heaven consumes Elijah’s sacrifice. And the people’s hearts, at least momentarily, are turned back to God. In fact, the people begin to chant. “The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God.” That’s what they say, over and over again. “The Lord, he is God.”

I told you about one of my idols – success. The question I leave you with is this – what’s yours?

Maybe it’s a relationship that you know isn’t right. Or a desire to accumulate more things and to pattern your life to that one end. Maybe it’s a habit or an addiction. Or perhaps a grudge. Or a desire to be in control of your own life. Or a desire to be in control of someone else’s.

And to take it a step further – who’s your Jezebel? Who makes it hard for you to be faithful? What person or people or institution is pressuring you to value being a great student or a “respectable member of society” more than they’d have you value God?

You see, there’s a reason I ask. God is the same today as he was yesterday. He’s jealous. He wants all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. And every day, if we listen, he’s going to ask us to choose him over Baal.

And so I want you to imagine yourself at the foot of Mount Carmel. To your left are the prophets of Baal. To your right is the solitary Elijah and he asks you this question. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

What side of the mountain will choose?

Monday, February 1, 2010

do not be afraid

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

“Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.”

I want to begin tonight’s sermon with a little trivia. I am going to ask a question that I’d like each of you to answer, preferably not out loud. What would you guess is the most common command in Scripture? From Genesis to Revelation, what is the most frequent non-optional statement made by God to God’s chosen people? I’ll give you a few seconds. Did you guess to be more loving? Even though loving is God’s goal for human life and existence, the command to love is not God’s most frequent instruction. Perhaps you guessed to be more humble? After all, theologians insist that pride is at the root of all sin, but oddly enough, the Bible’s most frequent imperative says nothing about gaining humility. Did your guess involve words like money or sex or honesty? If so your guess was wrong. The command in Scripture that occurs more frequently than any other command is summed up in four simple words. Do not be afraid.

Now, why does God command us not to fear? After all, fear doesn’t seem like the most harmful emotion or vice in the world, and last time I checked, fear wasn’t on the list of Seven Deadly sins. So why does God command those with whom He is in relationship to not be afraid so frequently? The answer is actually pretty simple. Fear is the number one reason that we fail to trust God. Behind every act of disobedience is fear. When we don’t trust God, it’s because we’re afraid.

Now, I want to be clear. Fear isn’t always bad. Fear is merely an internal warning cry that danger is nearby, which urges us to act. Fear can be quite good, like when a child fears touching a hot stove or when a person fears the consequences of driving drunk. But the problem is that for most of us, fear arrives as a thief. It breaks into our lives when we least expect it. And the fear we often experience is neither helpful nor wanted and we often fear things that pose no ultimate threat to us. And because of that fear can easily become paralyzing instead of motivating, habitual instead of sporadic. In fact, we have a name for people habitually paralyzed by fear. We call them worriers, and people that constantly worry have a difficult time trusting God. And it’s for this reason that God’s most frequent command is “do not be afraid.”

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we encounter a terrified young man named Jeremiah that lived around 600 BC, who according to our text is only a boy. And this boy is terrified. Here's why: First, Jeremiah and his fellow Israelites are going through a tough and painful time. The Babylonians have conquered their capital and the whole nation is in ruin. Cities are destroyed, hopes are dashed, and faith in the goodness of God is gone. The people are in exile and surrounded by enemies, and for these reasons, Jeremiah is terrified. But there’s more. The word that God gives Jeremiah to speak is an unpleasant one. As we heard in tonight’s reading, Jeremiah will “pluck up, pull down, destroy, and overthrow” before he says one thing of God’s intention to build up and plant once again. In other words, Jeremiah’s message to suffering, hurting, exiled Israel is that their present problems are the result of their own unfaithfulness. In other words, what God wants Jeremiah to tell Israel is this: “it’s your fault. You did this to yourselves.” Well, Jeremiah knows that God’s people aren’t going to react too well to his sermon. I mean, imagine coming to church when your life is in the crapper and hearing me tell you that you that it’s your own freaking fault. I’d be a worried to preach that sermon, but to say that Jeremiah is worried would be the understatement of the year. Jeremiah is terrified.

But is Jeremiah the only one? Perhaps we have never had our homes burned and our land conquered, but who among us is unaware that we still live in a world where such things happen? War, famine, pestilence, and genocide are the realities that characterize life for many in our world, not to mention the millions displaced each year by natural disasters. Of course we may be shielded from someone else tearing our homes and families apart, but many of us have experienced homes and families torn apart from the inside. We live in a world where the gentle art of being kind and thoughtful, sensitive and generous are going out of fashion. Homelessness has become a metaphor for many people in our generation. Many of us feel uprooted, uncertain about the future, fearful in the present, and guilty about the past. And so no – I’m not so sure that Jeremiah is the only one to feel this way. We too know what it means to be terrified. I don’t care who we are, we all have those moments – those moments when we’re terrified that God isn’t really big enough to take care of us; when we’re terrified that we are not really safe in God’s hands; when we’re terrified that God has left us, or was never with us, and that we have to fend for ourselves. We too know what it means to be terrified.

Well, in the midst of Jeremiah’s fear comes the command of the Living God. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.” In other words, God’s word to Jeremiah is “be strong. Be courageous. I actually know what I’m doing here. You can trust me Jeremiah, for I am with you.” So Jeremiah does. Jeremiah courageously carries out God’s call for his life and you know what, he never sees outward success. In fact, because he makes Israel come to terms with their own sins, Jeremiah is viewed as a traitor, and over the course of his life, Jeremiah experiences a whole lot of pain – he’s beaten, put in stocks, imprisoned, and is thrown into a pit from which he could not escape.

Does this mean that Jeremiah fails, or that God is wrong? Of course not. You see, Christians need look no farther than the cross to know the paradox of God’s power. Not only is God able but God delights in bringing about unimaginable good from unspeakable evil. At one point in the book of Jeremiah God says to Israel, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” In other words, the purposes of God, though mysterious, are beyond our wildest dreams. The purposes of God are far greater and magnificent than what we see, feel, perceive, and sense. The purposes of God bring good out of evil and life out of death. God is with Jeremiah when he is beaten, put in stocks, imprisoned, and thrown into a pit, and the promise of God’s presence is what enables Jeremiah to trust God until the day that he dies. Jeremiah experiences difficulty and hardship and perhaps more than his fair share of fear. But Jeremiah is not paralyzed by fear. When fear arrives as a thief, Jeremiah remembers God’s promise. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. God is with Jeremiah in the midst of his pain and Jeremiah knows, he trusts it, and he owns it.

But is Jeremiah the only one that God promises to be with? When God becomes human in the person of Jesus, do you remember the words of the angel? “And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” Or after Jesus rises from the dead, do you remember his final words spoken to his disciples? “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The same word God speaks to Jeremiah God speaks to each of us. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And before you were born, I consecrated you.” “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.”

C.S. Lewis once made the following statement. “People do not need to be instructed. They need to be reminded.” Tonight we can all be reminded that God really is big enough to take care of us. Tonight we can all be reminded that we really are safe in God’s hands. Tonight we can all be reminded that God has acted through the person of Jesus to restore all things to Himself, and that because of God’s initiative we do not need to fend for ourselves. Finally, in light of these truths, we can all be reminded of our God’s most frequent command to His frightened children. Do not be afraid.