Tuesday, February 28, 2012



Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This morning I’d like to talk about repentance. First of all, it’s Lent, and liturgically speaking Lent’s a “season of repentance.” But more than that, in today’s reading from Mark, we have Jesus’ first public words. “Repent,” he said, “the Kingdom of God has come near.” Repent! This is the word Jesus wanted to frame his entire ministry, which means we won’t understand what it means to grow in Christ unless we get repentance.

But what exactly is it? I’ll never forget watching a movie called The Mission in a 9th grade religion class. And in this one scene, Robert De Niro’s character, who’s lived a pretty evil life, decides to change his ways. And so the priest gives him a penance, which is to drag this bundle of stones up and down a mountain. Now, this bundle is unbearably heavy. In fact, it nearly crushes him. And I’ll never forget when my teacher paused that movie as De Niro was about to die trying to atone for his sins and saying, “Look! Now that is repentance.” But was she right? Is repentance what we do to atone for our sins? Should repentance make us feel guilty and unworthy? Because – in today’s Gospel Jesus did not say, “repent, and feel terrible!” He said, “Repent and believe the good news.”

Henry Nouwen once said that repentance is about “reclaiming our true identity.” Again, it’s reclaiming our true identity. And using this reading from Mark as our template, I want to define repentance as a continual process that involves three things: (1) a trip to the wilderness, (2) confirmation of an identity and (3) wholeheartedly embracing the good news. Again, repentance is about a trip to the wilderness, it’s about our identity, and it’s about embracing the good news.


And so first, repentance starts with a trip to the wilderness. Now notice, I said a trip; not our trip. Because in the Bible – whenever we go into the wilderness things always go badly. The people of Israel spent forty years there and if you want an accurate view of human nature just read about their experience. The Israelites were not faithful to God in the wilderness, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. You see, there’s something inside our hearts that inhibits us from being faithful, and that inhibitor we call sin. And if we think our willpower’s what going to help us overcome our sin, we’ll find ourselves frustrated, time and time again, and our growth will level out. And so we rush off into the wilderness alone and just “try harder” to be better Christians.

Now, today you’re kicking off Monvee, a tool designed to help us grow spiritually by opening our eyes to what it is that gets in our way. I’ve done Monvee. I’m a Joseph. My primary inhibitor is anger. And I won’t lie. When I read that I got really ticked off. But here’s what’s fascinating. It’s actually Monvee’s nine inhibitors – anger, self-centeredness, dishonesty, envy, pride of knowledge, anxiety, greed, misplaced desires, and inaction – these are what kept Israel from being faithful in the wilderness. And they keep us from being faithful as well.

And so repentance is not about trying harder to be like Jesus. Because – you and I don’t need a model, or the perfect example to teach us how to live. What we need is a Representative. We need someone to do something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. And that’s why today’s Gospel isn’t about us going into the wilderness. It’s about Jesus going into the wilderness for us. Because – you can tell me to try harder to dunk a basketball on a ten foot goal, but I’ve an inhibitor – it’s called being five foot six. And trying harder’s not going to work. The same is true when it comes to our spiritual growth. And so repentance doesn’t begin when we go into the wilderness. It begins with our Lord Jesus Christ going there on our behalf.


But second, Jesus goes there for a purpose – and that’s to secure for us a new identity. You see there’s just something we’re all desperate for – and that’s a need to know we have worth. Our problems in life don’t come from not having faith; they come from putting our faith in the wrong things. We think a relationship will give us worth – but we break up, or the spark dies, and we’re back to feeling worthless. We think power will give us worth, so we climb the ladder and make it to the top, but then we’re empty because nothing’s there.

We are driven by our need for worth, and that drive is so strong we’ll put our faith in whatever we think will give it to us – success, money, approval, our kids, our job, or the great danger, our ability to keep all the religious rules. I mean, that’s what made the Pharisees feel “worthy,” and Jesus’ harshest criticism was reserved for them. But we’re all chasing something because we think that – whatever that is – will make us special, important, a somebody – because we think it’ll give us worth.

I would like to read you a quote, which comes from a leading thinker in today’s world.

I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being, and then I get to another stage and think I'm mediocre and uninteresting, again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that's always pushing me. Because even though I've become somebody, I still have to prove I'm somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.

Anyone know who said that? It’s Madonna. You guys really need to read more Vogue magazine.

Or do you remember what Rocky said when he was trying to convince Adrienne that he needed to fight Apollo Creed? “I’m a nobody. I really don’t care if this guy splits open my head because all I want to do is go the distance. If I can go that distance, I’ll know for the first time in my life I’m not just another bum.”

It’s a question we’re all concerned with, and it’s a question the Gospel’s concerned with, how do we know that we’re not just another bum? Who or what gives us an identity? How do we know we have worth?

Well, when Jesus Christ was baptized he heard a voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here’s my question. Have you heard God say that to you? Are you in the habit of hearing God say that to you? And if our gut reaction is “I’m not good enough,” we don’t yet get the Gospel. Because repentance is not about something we do, but about something our Lord has done for us – and that’s give us His very own identity, His status as a beloved, righteous, accepted, perfect child of God.

Perhaps the best definition of sin I’ve ever heard comes from Tim Keller, who says “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship with God.” And that’s why repentance isn’t about trying harder. It’s about reclaiming our true identity; because the good news of the Christian Gospel is that when we put our faith in Christ God says to us the exact same thing God said to Jesus. “You are my Son, my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And so what this means is that we are not our reputation. We are not what we feel. We are not our achievements. We are not our mistakes. We are not our portfolio. We are not our IQ. Our name, our worth, has nothing to do with that; because in Christ, God gives His name, his worth, his righteousness to us freely as a gift.

Good news

And that’s why repentance is about embracing the good news. You know that’s what the word Gospel means, right? It doesn’t mean good advice, the word Gospel means good news. And the good news that Jesus Christ when into the wilderness for us. He lived the life we should have lived, and he died the death we should have died; because the cross, that was the ultimate wilderness. I want you to think back to Robert De Niro, whose penance was to carry that bundle of stones up and down the mountain. Those stones are a metaphor for our sin. And the weight of those stones is unbearably heavy. I mean, it nearly killed him. Let us not think repentance is about shouldering that burden ourselves. It’s about turning to the One who shouldered that burden for us a name, a worth and an identity that we’ll never find anywhere else.

Monvee growth challenge

Now what does this have to do with Monvee? Well, spiritual growth isn’t the byproduct of something we do, but the fruit of rooting ourselves deeper in something that’s been done for us – and more specifically I’m thinking of Jesus’ atoning death on a cross.

For example, think of garden. If we frantically try digging up a newly planted seed to check its progress, it won’t grow. But it’s when we till the soil, and add some water and light and above all else pull the weeds, that’s when a plant will grow – from what I’ve heard. We need to know the weeds that threaten to choke our spiritual life. Mine’s anger. Maybe yours is anxiety, or pride, or if haven’t yet taken the assessment, it’s probably inaction. But behind each and every one of these things always is a refusal to find our deepest identity in God. For Madonna it’s “proving she’s a somebody,” for Rocky it was “going the distance.” How do you know that you’re not a bum? What are you chasing?

Because, the good news of the Christian Gospel is that God is chasing us, and that through faith God has planted us in His Son Jesus, who went into the wilderness for us and resisted Satan where we always give in; and he did that, not as a model, but to represent us before His Father, to give us his identity as a beloved Son of God; not because we’re lovely, but to make us lovely; not because we’re good, but because he is; not because of anything we do, but because of what He did, in his life and on the cross, on our behalf.

“The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, believe, and grow – grow in the good news.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

do not be afraid


Why do you say O Jacob, and speak O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?”

I’d like to talk about today’s reading from Isaiah, but first, a little trivia. What is the most frequent command in scripture? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about it. Did you guess to be more loving? Even though love 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 interestingly the Bible’s most frequent imperative says nothing about gaining humility. Did you guess something to do with money or sex or honesty? If so your guess was wrong. The most common command in the Bible is formulated in four simple words: Do not be afraid.

Now, why does God command us not to fear? Last time I checked, fear was not on the list of Seven Deadly sins, and so why does God command us not to fear? The answer is actually quite simple. The words do not be afraid are so common in Scripture because fear is the number one reason that we fail to trust God. Behind every act of disobedience and every failure to trust God fear is always lurking.

Now, I don’t mean to say that fear is always bad. Fear can be quite good, like when a child fears touching a hot stove or when a teenager fears driving drunk. But the problem is that for most of us, fear arrives as an unwelcome guest. Fear can easily become paralyzing instead of motivating, habitual instead of sporadic. In fact, we have a name for people that constantly live in fear. We call them worriers, and people that constantly worry have a hard time trusting God. And for this reason, God’s most frequent command is, do not be afraid.

Today’s reading from Isaiah was originally written to people wrestling with fear, that is Israelite exiles being held captive in Babylon. The Babylonians have overthrown them and the whole nation is in ruin. The people are in exile and surrounded by enemies. And for this reason the people of Israel are terrified. But not only that, they feel forgotten. “My way is hidden from the Lord,” they say, “and my right is disregarded by my God.” And so that’s the background. The people of Israel feel alone, they feel abandoned, and they are terrified.

Now, perhaps we have never had our homes burned and our land conquered, but we all know that we still live in a world where these things happen. And yes, we may be shielded from someone else tearing our homes and families apart, but many of us have experienced homes and families that have been torn apart from the inside. Many of us feel uprooted, uncertain about the future, fearful in the present, and guilty about the past. And so I think today’s reading is incredibly relevant for us all, because not one of us is immune to fear. We all have our moments – our moments when we’re terrified that God is not really big enough to take care of us, or when we don’t really feel safe in God’s hands. We all have our moments when we feel God has left us, or was never with us, and that we have to fend for ourselves. We all know what it’s like to feel fear, and some of us know what it’s like to feel abandoned.

Maybe you feel that way right now here at Holy Spirit. In the last two months you lost two beloved priests and leaders. And yes – you do have a wonderful interim that’s competent and faithful – but Bill’s here for a season, not to do the work of ministry for you, but to challenge you and lead you and comfort you and uphold you as you, the people of Holy Spirit, take responsibility for this Church and proactively step into the future that God invites you into. But that might feel scary. “My way is hidden from the Lord,” you might groan, “and my right is disregarded by my God.” To say you’re terrified might be dramatic, but I imagine there’s a little anxiety, a little fear, and that it has crept up into your life as an unwelcome guest.

Well, in the midst of Israel’s fear, and in the midst of ours, comes the command of the Living God. You see in Isaiah 41:10, when God’s speech actually ends – our lectionary cuts it off prematurely – this is what God says: “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.”

In other words, God’s word to Israel is “be strong. Be courageous. I actually know what I’m doing here. You can trust me, O my people, for I am with you.” You see it’s not that God takes away all of their problems, and frankly if we keep reading things get worse before they get better; but the message of Isaiah is that God is working in midst of their exile.

And as Christians, we 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 what we experience to be exile. The people of Israel experience difficulty and hardship and a whole lot of fear, but Isaiah’s point is that they’re not to be paralyzed by fear. When fear arrives as an unwelcome guest, they are to remember the promise of God. Do not be afraid, God says, for I am with you.

And of course, the promise of God hasn’t changed. When God becomes human in the person of Jesus, you might recall the words of the angel: “and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” And after Jesus rises from the dead, you might recall Jesus’ final words spoken to his disciples: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The same word God speaks to Israel God speaks to each one of us, and to this parish, at this time, in particular.

Because – frankly, you have work to do. Bill’s work is to support you and equip you in your work. But this is an important time for Holy Spirit. As I said last time I was here, and this is a quote from my last sermon from this pulpit, it’s not a time “to be gloomy or sad or scared. It’s a time to be intentionally hopeful. It’s a time to expect. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in our midst. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in this community.”

And so really quickly, here’s what I’d like to leave you with; 2 challenges, and a word of comfort.

First, resolve to be a leader at this parish, at this time. Get involved. Identify your spiritual gifts, and put them to use! And hold other people accountable for using theirs. As v.31 puts it, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” but the waiting Isaiah speaks of is an active waiting, a proactive waiting. And so resolve to be a leader in whatever way you know how.

Second, from v.26, “life up your eyes from on high and see.” In other words, pray. Make prayer a part of your life. A lot of unnecessary fear results from where our eyes are focused. Are our eyes focused down below, on our circumstances, on how hard we imagine the road will be, are our eyes focused on “Babylon,” or, are our eyes lifted on high? Think of Peter walking on water. When Peter’s eyes were focused on Jesus, he could do it, but when he looked down and saw the waves, that’s the moment he began to sink.

And so let me just end by giving you a quote from C.S. Lewis. “People do not need to be instructed,” Lewis said, “They need to be reminded.” Today we can all be reminded that God really is big enough to take care of us. Today we can all be reminded that we really are safe in God’s hands. Today 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.