Believe and Obey!

“Believe and Obey!”

Gen 8 Noah's Ark 5

Genesis 7:5, 23, 8:1 – June 23, 2019

Who remembers Sunday school? If not your own experience in Sunday school, perhaps your children’s time there? Or even your experiences teaching Sunday school? Children’s bible stories play a big part in Sunday school. We are going to look at ten children’s Sunday school stories for our summer sermon series, starting with Noah and the ark from Genesis.

I have memories of Sunday school and Vacation Bible School where the children sang songs about Noah and his ark, including “Rise and Shine!” complete with hand motions and hand claps. I suspect many of us have memories about Noah, Mrs. Noah, the ark, the animals coming two by two, the rain falling for forty days and forty nights, and finally the rainbow at the end of the story. We can learn some things as adults from this narrative in Genesis, too.

First, imagine yourself—ourselves—back in Noah’s time, in Genesis. According to the Bible, the world was different, in a lot of ways. People had a huge tendency to do things and say things that were contrary to God’s will and God’s ways. (Some things have not changed.) People were so downright disobedient to the Lord’s manner of living and the ways God had instructed people to act that God got extremely angry with all the people. Except, for Noah and his family.

This is not the version of Noah and the ark that is found in Sunday school stories for children. That warm, fuzzy, sanitized version tells children about Noah and his sons building the ark, the animals coming two by two (carnivorous beasts, too!), and everyone living in harmony on the ark while it rained. Which is one version of the events.

Are you familiar with what some other groups say about the God of the Old Testament? About how God is a mean, angry, vengeful God, ready to smite anyone who steps even a toe out of line? These groups emphasize narratives like this one from Genesis, “a story that is most definitely not for children. In this interpretation, God is so angered by human rebellion that God floods the whole earth, wiping out nearly everything in a fit of divine rage. This is a story about a God whom you’d be crazy to want to have anything to do with, a God of wrath who is ready and willing to strike down sinners.” [1]

This second interpretation does not quite hit the mark either. We have two ends of a pendulum swing—the first version warm and fuzzy and happily-ever-after, and the second version mean and vengeful and smiting and wiping out everything on the face of the earth.

What does the book of Genesis say? As Eileen read from Genesis earlier in the service, “The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.” And, “Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”

This is in contrast with the whole rest of humanity that God had created. In Genesis chapter 6, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

Or as Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” says so poignantly, “People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.” And, “As far as God was concerned, the Earth had become a sewer; there was violence everywhere. God took one look and saw how bad it was, everyone corrupt and corrupting—life itself corrupt to the core.”

It is difficult for me even to contemplate such extreme evil and wickedness as Genesis describes—until I think of murder, slaughter, concentration camps, internment camps, gas chambers, razor-wire fences, genocide, people “disappearing” and abducted in plain sight, carpet bombing of civilians, and napalm raids. There have been so many people approving of these horrible activities throughout history, in hatred and fear of other people-groups, or in the name of their country’s security. Even today.

God’s heart, in striking contrast to the evil inclination of the human heart, is grieved by their betrayal. God is pained by the brokenness of creation. God sends the flood, then, not as an act of revenge, but out of grief over the rending of right human relationship with God.” [2] Perhaps I can see why the Lord was sorry God had made the human race in the first place. Perhaps all of this horror and human-made devastation can break our hearts, too.

But—Noah alone believed God. Noah was a righteous man, and was obedient to the words and ways of the Lord. As The Message says in Genesis 6, “Noah was a good man, a man of integrity in his community. Noah walked with God.”

How many of us can say that about ourselves? How many of us are good people, and people of integrity? For that matter, can we point to anyone, any single person we know and say, “That person walks with God!” Yet, the Bible says that about Noah.

So, Noah and his sons (and perhaps their wives, too) built the ark, believed God and were obedient. The Lord sent the rain upon the earth to wipe away every living creature, for forty days and forty nights. Only Noah and those with him on the ark were saved. And finally, “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”

After Noah and his family finally left the ark, the Lord made a covenant with Noah. Perhaps we remember this covenant of the rainbow. “At the heart of that covenant with Noah and his descendants is God’s promise that “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (11b).  In other words, God seems to promise that God will never again use a natural catastrophe to destroy all earthly life. Yet while God says “never again,” God doesn’t add, as we might expect, “but in order for me to spare creation, you must do this and that.”  God’s post-Flood covenant is unconditional.” [3] In other words, no strings attached.

As commentator Doug Bratt reminds us, perhaps the Lord knows if we try to keep up our end of the bargain by acting in a manner pleasing to God, we will just fail completely. Again. “People after the Flood, after all, aren’t much different than they were before it.” [4]

Just as the rainbow covenant (or promise) was unconditional—no strings attached, so is the promise of Resurrection we have in the risen Lord Jesus. God promises through Christ Jesus and His death on the cross to forgive us our sins; just as the Lord promises through the rainbow to never flood the earth again.

Can we believe God, today? Can we obey God, instead of going our own way?

We have the opportunity to believe and be obedient to God, just like Noah. We can strive to be people of integrity, walking before the Lord in righteous living, and treating each other as God would have us do. We can thank the Lord for the Resurrection promise we grasp hold of, the blessed truth that the risen Lord Jesus has provided salvation for us, just as the ark provided salvation for Noah and his family.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222

Commentary, Genesis 9:8-17, Elizabeth Webb, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-1b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Sermon Starter of the Week, illustrations, text commentary, etc, Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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The Jailer’s Story

“The Jailer’s Story”

Acts 16-31 Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ stained glass

Acts 16:30-34 – June 2, 2019

A number of years ago, a pastor friend of mine needed to buy some new tires for his car. He had an acquaintance who was an auto mechanic, and went to his auto shop to purchase the tires. My friend Pastor Jamie was fascinated by the machine used for balancing, and watched the tires go round and round. The mechanic watched, too. Pastor Jamie suddenly asked the mechanic, “Did you ever feel your life was just spinning round and round, just like that tire? So fast, that you weren’t sure if it was going to spin out of control?”

As we follow the apostle Paul through the book of Acts, we might get the same idea. Paul’s life seemed to spin out of control time and time again. Trouble certainly seemed to follow Paul; take this week’s Scripture reading, for example. Paul and his friend Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. What is that all about?

We need to back up and see exactly why the people of the city of Philippi were so upset. Last week, we met Lydia, a well-to-do Gentile business owner who became a believer in the Gospel. She invited Paul and his friends to stay at her large house and use that as their base of operations. This week, we continue in Philippi with a slave girl who had an evil spirit, who did fortune-telling to earn money for her owners. She followed Paul and his friends around town for days, calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, telling you the way to be saved!”

On the face of it, Paul and his friends might have looked on this slave girl’s hollering to be free advertising. But, no! It got annoying, very quickly! The slave girl was a kind of heckler, constantly trailing after the missionaries. Finally, Paul got fed up, and cast the evil spirit out of the slave girl. The spirit was gone! However, so was the way the girl had earned money, telling people’s futures and fortunes. The girl’s owners were really upset at this turn of events! They got mad at the apostle Paul, too.

Now we start to see why Paul and Silas got thrown into prison—this time.

I am not sure whether life has ever spun out of control so much that you and I have gotten thrown into prison, but things can take unexpected twists and turns, and sometimes drag us into some awful predicaments.

It did not matter whether the owners of the slave girl were lying or not when they accused Paul and Silas in front of the Philippian judge. (They were, though.) The false accusation—that Paul and Silas were trying to lead the citizens of Philippi astray by encouraging them to leave behind good, solid Roman practices—fired up the crowd and got them to shout out against Paul and Silas. What is more, the judge was convinced to have Paul and Silas beaten and put in prison.

To give us a closer look at what their punishment involved, I am afraid Dr. Luke will offer a candid description. I am letting people know, just in case anyone needs a trigger warning.

First, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods—around the size of a broom handle. We cannot be sure in Paul’s and Silas’s case, but the beating with rods was oftentimes so severe that it broke bones and lacerated the skin. Following the painful beating, Paul and Silas had their legs pulled far apart and wooden stocks were clamped around their ankles. [1]

After this acute pain and suffering, the two missionaries actually were singing hymns of praise at midnight. Can you imagine how much Paul and Silas had just experienced? After all that, Dr. Luke reports that they were singing hymns of praise to God, and the other prisoners were listening. What a change from the usual prison noise of shouts, groans and curses.

Perhaps we have not experienced anything as severely agonizing as being beaten and thrown into jail unjustly, but life can spin out of control in any one of a number of ways.

We can see how Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight is a key part of this narrative, because the Lord sends an earthquake to the Philippian jail as a result of that praise. “Just as the Gerasene demoniac was loosed from his chains by Jesus (Luke 8:35), all the prisoners, including Paul and Silas, are loosed. The work of the Spirit brings freedom to all who are captive.” [2]

Enter the jailer upon the scene. At this climactic point, the Philippian jailer was filled with fear and despair. Dr. Luke says, “When the jailer saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.”  His prisoners—his duly-appointed charges—had been sprung. The jail had been destroyed, and the jailer thought he would be tortured and killed by the Roman authorities for failing in his duty.

It is at this critical point of despair for the jailer that Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

Remember my friend, Pastor Jamie, and his acquaintance the auto mechanic? Remember how they both watched the tire spinning round and round, almost out of control? Jamie made that comment, and the auto mechanic immediately agreed. The auto mechanic then asked the question of the day: “what’s the use? What can I do about it?”

This is so similar to the question asked by the Philippian jailer: “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

What can we do to get right with God, get our lives on track, and come into a loving relationship with our Lord and Savior? Paul and Silas’s answer is in the next verse: “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.”

Pastor Jamie shared the good news of Lord and Savior with his acquaintance the car mechanic. Similarly, Paul and Silas shared the good news with the jailer, another working-class guy. Both gratefully received the Gospel. And, the jailer and his prisoners were ultimately freed—both in this world, and the next.

To take that sudden out-of-control moment and transform it into something God-sent is truly a gift of God. We can all pray with Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of John, our Gospel reading for today, “26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

The narrator Dr. Luke so skillfully expanded the apostle Paul’s groundbreaking adventures in the city of Philippi into an elegant story or drama in Acts 16. Using the backdrop of Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the slave girl] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer] or female [Lydia, slave girl], for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [3]

God’s power acts to bring together the most unlikely group of people for God’s glory. We can celebrate, because God has arms wide open for all who believe. Even me, even you.

Praise God! Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.christianlibrary.org/authors/John_L_Kachelman_Jr/phil28.htm

[2] Landers, Richard M., Homiletical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

[3] Walaskay, Paul W., exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

You Had to Be There!

“You Had to Be There!”

Acts 16-14 Lydia, words

Acts 16:14-15 – May 26, 2019

Sometimes, you had to be there. Consider my daughter Rachel. As part of her music studies, she is taking an intensive summer course in Broadway musicals. Right now, she, her small class of graduate students, and her professor are all in New York City—studying Broadway musicals, in depth. She has told me a little about two of the performances she has seen, and they sound wonderful. So wonderful, she could not even do them justice in describing them. I can imagine her saying “You had to be there!”

The power of narrative, of story. That is what a Broadway play or musical is all about. That is what personal testimonies are all about. As we hear personal stories, we can become immersed in the happenings, the events, the trials and tribulations of the person we are listening to—sometimes to the point of having a personal stake in the events we hear and see.

Consider the apostle Paul. He and his friends Silas, Dr. Luke and several others were traveling around Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—on Paul’s second missionary journey. When, all of a sudden, Paul receives a vision from God. A man from Macedonia—northern Greece—appears to Paul. He begs for Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the Gospel to the people there. This dream or vision was God-sent, and Paul and his friends got on a ship immediately and set sail for Greece.

Ever been in that situation, where you had a dream or vision or message from God that was so strong, you just had to obey? Apparently, this sort of thing happened more frequently in Bible times. And, the followers of Jesus hearkened to Paul and his words about the vision. It wasn’t a second-hand or even a third-hand recounting of some vision some guy had, no. Paul’s first-person account of his amazing vision was so much more compelling!

The narrow stretch of water Paul and his friends crossed to get into Macedonia was the same strip of water that many, many refugees from the Middle East recently crossed to get away from life-threatening danger. Imagine their relief to finally cross the water and be physically separated from war, starvation, political persecution, and loss of life and property. That was the first-person story of the refugees in recent times, their personal testimony.

Let us return to Paul and his friends, and their personal story. Dr. Luke is with them at this time, and he makes note of the place where they are staying: Philippi, a leading city in that area of Macedonia. Not anywhere else in Macedonia, “it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says ‘no’ to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.” [1] We have the opportunity to hear a different kind of first-person account, a different sort of personal testimony from people from the imperial city of Philippi, in Europe—not in Asia.

Paul and his friends stay there for some days before any serious preaching or teaching goes on. Then, as is Paul’s habit when in a new town, today’s reading tells us “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”

Hold it right there! I see a couple of things right off the bat that make this a different kind of situation. There is no synagogue, no ordered gathering of Jews in this large town. Plus, Paul and his friends meet with a bunch of women. Not even a mixed gathering of men and women, but a group of Gentile women. How open-minded of Paul!

Something further: the Bible hardly ever mentions a gathering of only women. Now, this was not in Israel, where things were culturally sensitive. How fascinating “that this well-known Pharisee and teacher from Jerusalem would carry on a serious discussion with a group of women.” [2] Yes, aspects of this whole situation were completely new, almost alien for Paul and his friends. All the same, Paul still preached and taught the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. He still preached Christ crucified. He still told his own personal story.

As Paul discusses spiritual and theological things with the group of women, Dr. Luke tells us about one in particular: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

God does the totally unexpected. “When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east.” [3] We saw several weeks ago when we considered the Easter morning testimony that God chose women to be the first ones to hear and believe the Good News of the Resurrection. Now, here in Europe, the first one to hear and believe the message of the Good News of the Resurrection is also a woman, and a prominent one for this time, too.

Lydia is a business-woman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a luxury item, which only the upper class was allowed to wear. In today’s terms, she could be seen as a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer. She owns a large house, and has a number of servants and/or employees. Plus, she is held in high enough esteem that when she believes the Good News of the Gospel, her whole household is led to believe in the Good News, too. A pretty persuasive woman! And, a leading citizen of Philippi.

What a turn of events! The first convert in Europe is not a sober Jewish man of stature, a leader of a local synagogue, but a savvy Gentile business-woman, wealthy and significant in the community. Any expectations Paul and his friends had of their missionary trip to Greece were certainly turned on their heads. This reminds me not to make meticulous plans set in concrete for any operation, because God will often surprise us with unexpected outcomes.

But, that is not all. Dr. Luke tells us, “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” Imagine, Paul and his friends invited into a large, spacious, wealthy home. Not only that, Lydia probably invited them to make her house a base of operations for their mission to the whole region. A good friend and follower of Christ, indeed.

Remember what I said about having plans set in concrete? “It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this [Scripture passage] stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.” [4]

Can we show hospitality like Lydia? Like Paul, can we persuade others to consider the claims of Christ? We are still in the Easter season, a wonderful opportunity to tell others our personal story. God can use any personal testimony, to God’s glory. Praise the Lord, we can invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances into a relationship with God. Let us not miss this wonderful, God-given opportunity. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[2] Walaskay, Paul W., Exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:9-15, 6th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 479.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus is Back! Just Ask Thomas.

“Jesus is Back! Just Ask Thomas.”

John 20-28 st-thomas

John 20:19-29 – April 28, 2019

Who remembers reading storybooks to their children or grandchildren? I do! I love to read stories, and I read books to the preschoolers here every Tuesday morning. One of my favorite stories is about Curious George. Curious George is a monkey who is very curious and mischievous, and always gets into big trouble because of his curiosity. But, by the end of the books, everything always comes out all right. Except—George remains curious.

Traditionally, many people have thought of “doubting Thomas” as really negative, a person we might point our fingers at, and perhaps view as “the Disciple least likely to believe in Jesus.” But what if we viewed Thomas as curious, as the kind of person who needed evidence? Sincere questioning is positive. Being curious is positive. Some people need first-hand evidence. Curious Thomas was just such a person.

What would the monkey Curious George have thought of not being there for something exciting, a super exciting event he missed out on? That was what happened to Curious Thomas. For some reason—we are not told why—Thomas was not with the other Disciples when the risen Lord Jesus came to be with them on that first day of the week. Afterwards, I suspect when the others told Thomas about it, Curious Thomas was beside himself with curiosity! He had to see for himself what had happened!

Do you know someone who is like that, who really needs evidence to fully believe? How many of us need evidence before we stop being skeptical? “Well, I’m not sure. It seems like a real long shot. I wonder—but we will have to see.” Curious, yes! And skeptical, yes!

We know God welcomes questions! How many times was Jesus asked honest questions during the Gospels? And how many times was Thomas one of those asking the questions? I suspect Thomas was one of the Disciples who just had to know “why,” who was both skeptical and curious. Curious Thomas.

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, put it this way: “But that’s not the way it works with Thomas. He doubts. He questions. He disbelieves. He’s not satisfied with second-hand reports and wants to see for himself. And again I would say, who can blame him? He was, after all, one of those who saw his Lord and friend mistreated, beaten, and then crucified and has probably spent the last few days pulling the broken pieces of his life back together and trying to figure out what to do next.” [1]

Listen again to our Gospel reading from John: “24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

In this modern day and age, scientific evidence is held up as the gold standard for many things: for medical testing, for chemistry experiments, for biological research. Commentator Dr. Martin Marty says, “The counsel is clear: do not accept something just because people traditionally have done so. Science is creatively disrespectful of such traditions. Scientists reason that if they are to heal, they must probe, criticize, evaluate, and seek to discover.” [2]

Sometimes, our honest questions show we are particularly curious, and extremely interested in what we are questioning. Sometimes, we need evidence, just like Thomas.

Except—Jesus does something remarkable the next time He returns to the Upper Room. He obviously knows that Thomas has honest questions, and He will certainly respond to them! However, listen to what Jesus does first: “26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Did you hear? Before Jesus does anything else, He wishes His disciples peace. “Peace be with you.” That is what we did after the reading of Scripture today. Many churches make the Passing of the Peace a weekly part of their worship service, and I wanted to highlight it. Peace, or shalom, is a traditional Jewish greeting, it is true, but for Jesus to wish His friends peace? For the risen Lord Jesus to bless His disciples with peace, and commend peace to them? This is so significant, and so moving.

It is only then that our Lord Jesus turns to curious, skeptical Thomas: “Then Jesus focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”

The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio created a famous painting called “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” In this painting, the risen Jesus shows the wound in His side, and Thomas is actually sticking his finger into the wound. We know from John’s Gospel account that Jesus was quite willing to go to any length to give Thomas the evidence he needed to satisfy his questions, to allay his curiosity and skepticism.

How far are we willing to go with Jesus? Do we have honest questions? Do we have questions regarding some miracle, or are we curious about a parable Jesus told? Or, perhaps are we just plain skeptical about the Resurrection story itself? Do we wonder how on earth the story of Jesus rising from the dead 2000 years ago will make any difference in our lives today?

What is it to be a Christian? Do we need faith? Do we need evidence? Do we need to see God at work in people’s lives?

How serious are we about this thing we call Christianity? Is it a religion, a creed, a set of beliefs we believe in, and if other people don’t believe exactly the way we do, are they wrong? Do we banish them to outer darkness, and not allow those people to come into our churches or our lives? Or, do we have a living, vital relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Is He our Best Friend? Does He come alongside of each one of us, in the happy times as well as the sad times, and walk by our sides all the way? No matter what?

Thomas made the first-person testimony after he was convinced that Jesus was alive. He said, “My Lord and my God!” Can you and I say that, and mean it?

Jesus is waiting. He has His arms open wide. Come with your honest questions: God can handle them. Come with your skepticism and fear, your anger, or hesitancy and doubt. Jesus does understand. He really does.

Come to Jesus, today. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2-c-blessed-doubt/

“Blessed Doubt,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2016.

[2] Marty, Martin E., Theological Perspective on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 396.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Gideon: Fearful and Uncertain

“Gideon: Fearful and Uncertain”

Judges 6:1, 7-24 (6:22-23) – June 24, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Judg 6_19-24-Gideon-Sees-the-Angel-of-the-Lord

Occupied territory. An oppressive military force. Just the very words conjure frightening images in a person’s mind. Thinking of different wars and conflicts, throughout the centuries. It doesn’t have to be a conflict we actually remember. There are—sadly—plenty to draw from, from many centuries in the past.

The tribes of Israel had settled in the land of Canaan after wandering for forty years in the wilderness. But, what happened to the new country of Israel in just a few decades? How did they lose control of their country so quickly? How did Israel become a conquered region so easily?  

For a quick explanation, we need to look at the beginning of Judges chapter 6. “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years God gave them into the hands of the Midianites.” Throughout the Old Testament book of Judges, that is the way it was. The people of Israel stopped doing the things God told them to do, and stopped worshiping the Lord. Then, God would allow a foreign nation to take over and oppress Israel for a time. When the people couldn’t stand it any longer, they would cry out to the Lord. Then, the Lord would raise up a mighty warrior and judge. The judge would throw out the invading armies and then rule over the people of Israel for a time, and all would be prosperous and happy again.

You would think the people of Israel would learn, but, no. They would keep doing the same flawed thing; they would stop worshiping God, and get conquered by a foreign nation.

At the beginning of Judges chapter 6, we are in one of the parts of the cycle where a foreign nation is occupying the country of Israel. The Midianites are a particularly savage nation. Their armies steal all the flocks and crops from all the farmers, wherever the occupying forces go. This is a particularly fearful and uncertain time for the tribes of Israel, to be sure!

Back to the land of Israel. Occupied territory! As the scene in Judges 6 opens, the narrator lets us know that the Midian army is so greedy and grasping that they will confiscate any animals or produce from any Israelite farmer. How do we know that? Because, Gideon is threshing wheat inside of a winepress, in secret. He’s in hiding from the Midianites, so the occupying army won’t find out and take the wheat by force.

I also get the idea that Gideon is timid. Uncertain. Perhaps even fearful. Do you blame him? With the marauding Midian army prowling around, confiscating any crops from any farmer, wouldn’t you be afraid, too?

Thank God we do not have to deal with occupying armies or marauding bands of thieves today in the United States, unlike Gideon, unlike countless farmers in areas of conflict even now. But, are there big, challenging things in our lives today that cause us to be timid? Uncertain? Perhaps even fearful? Chronic sickness, unemployment, a serious accident, or a fire? Have any of these happened to you, or to your loved ones?

The next thing he knew, Gideon was shocked down to his shoes. (Or, sandals.) Wonder of wonders, an angel appeared to him. The angel spoke, saying, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”

“Wait a minute! What? The Lord God said that to me? Is there some mistake? Has the angel got the wrong person? Or, made the wrong connection?  Believe me when I say I am not mighty. And, I am certainly not a warrior.”

If we paid attention in Sunday school class and read the Bible carefully, we would be familiar with several people telling God that they were not cut out to do the things God told them to. But, Gideon really means it. His clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and he thinks he is the weakest (which probably meant he was the youngest) in his family.

But, the Lord has not made a mistake. God surely wants Gideon, believe it or not. For sure.

Imagine today, with God telling us that we are exactly what God wants, exactly what God expects from others. I wonder what else God is saying that we forget to notice. Or, maybe even outright refuse to hear?

Back to Gideon. Uncertain, fearful Gideon. I suspect he might have been a bit of a cynic and a pessimist, too. What’s the next thing out of Gideon’s mouth, in his conversation with the angel of the Lord? 13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all God’s wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

Whoa, Gideon! Did you really mean to say that? It sounds a little like you are scolding the Lord for not helping out Israel, and leaving the nation in this awful situation. Or—did you really mean to say exactly that?

I’ve got to say, I have felt like telling the Lord something like this, when I’ve been in several seemingly hopeless situations. When my former husband and I both pounded the pavement, we fruitlessly looked for work for several years. We both went to several job placement agencies over those years, and we were not able to find anything other than short-term, low-paying, temporary jobs. Between us we had thirteen years of college and graduate school education, and—no solid, permanent job offers. None. For years.

It was infuriating, and unbelievable, and incredibly frustrating. For years, I spent countless hours in prayer, raging at God, begging, pleading. Plus, we had two preschoolers, and neither of us had health insurance coverage. A frightening time, for years. I suspect Gideon might have felt the same way, except his situation was even worse. But, back to Gideon.

The angel of the Lord was patient and understanding with Gideon “when Gideon needed proof that it was an angel of God. The Lord then led Gideon on a series of events that helped Gideon gain courage to do as God had told him.” [1] We see the Lord encouraging Gideon with several statements, such as this:  14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

Gideon wants to make sure that this is God talking to him. 22 When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!” 23 But the Lord said to him, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.” 24 So Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord Is Peace.”

This is not the end of Gideon’s uncertainty and questioning. Not by a long shot! Gideon continues to check and double check with God, just to make sure God is really and truly going to use him to deliver Israel.

Doesn’t the example of Gideon show us how patient and understanding God is, even when we have fears and uncertainty? God patiently answers so many of Gideon’s questions. God was right there with Gideon, just as God was with me and my former husband, through all those years of unemployment and under-employment. Just as God was with Joshua, and Moses, and Abraham before him.

Moreover, Gideon shows us how God looks at our potential, and not just the person we are right now. Instead, God helps us to believe in what we can be, and what God knows we can be, for God’s sake.

Gideon finally got God’s lesson into his head. I’m afraid it takes a great deal to get things into my thick head, too. But, praise God! The Lord had great patience with Gideon. I know God has great patience with so many of us, today, even when we are fearful and uncertain. Let us see what God sees, looking at one another.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://childrensermons.com/gideon/ August 4, 2013 Jim Kerlin People in Old Testament Hiding from the Enemy (Gideon)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Believe the Message!

“Believe the Message!”

Mark 1-17 fishers of people

Mark 1:14-20 (1:15) – January 21, 2018

What is news? There are lots of different kinds of news. National news, local news. Partisan news, news that is slanted one way or another. What’s more, we hear so much about “fake news” today. News fit to scare the pants off of some people, and news meant to get some people really upset. News brings about all kinds of reactions. What kind of news can we possibly trust? How do we know which kind of news to believe?   

If we take a closer look at our Gospel reading for today, the Gospel writer Mark talks about news, too. Good News. God’s news—God’s wonderful message of Good News, brought by the greatest newsman, the greatest news announcer of all time, our Lord Jesus Himself.

Mark doesn’t waste any time with genealogies (like Matthew) or with long backstories of how Jesus came into the world (like Luke and John). No, Mark starts right off with a bang, with the baptism of Jesus. Then, shortly after He is baptized, Jesus starts to travel about saying, “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

I love the relevance, the immediacy of Eugene Peterson’s modern translation. How appropriate that this translation of the Bible is called “The Message.” The whole Bible is God’s Good News to humanity, and most especially right here, in the Gospel of Mark.

Here we are, right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. John the Baptist (the cousin of Jesus) was already on the scene. A sort of a warm-up act for the main event, for some time John had already been proclaiming “Repent! And, believe God’s Good News!” First Jesus came to John to be baptized, and now was the time for Him to begin His own ministry, His own preaching of God’s Good News.

What do we hear first thing in our Gospel reading today? John the Baptist has been arrested. Next thing, Jesus begins to gather a group of disciples around Himself. Mark tells us that the way Jesus does this is by proclaiming God’s Good News. The Kingdom of God has come to us. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, “Believe God’s Message!”

One sure way to know when the writers of the Bible really want readers to pay attention is when a word or phrase is repeated. “The emphasis of Mark’s gospel is that Jesus’ coming is the gospel, the “good news,” a term that in the first fifteen verses of the gospel occurs three times.” [1]  Today’s text continues the story from last Sunday, that is, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as He tells God’s Good News to His first disciples. In today’s reading Jesus calls four fishermen at the Sea of Galilee — Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

Our Gospel reading last week was from John chapter 1, and there are some differences between John’s account and Mark’s account from today’s scripture reading. In that sermon, I also mentioned how Jesus called several of His first disciples—this time it was John and James first, and then Simon Peter and Andrew. Some people have said, “I don’t understand. Which story is true, the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Mark?” Great question.

When a car accident happens in the middle of a busy intersection, that is a real tragedy. I understand when the accident is serious enough, the police sometimes get involved to find out exactly what happened. Imagine the surprise and even consternation when eyewitnesses on different street corners have different perspectives and impressions of the same event!

In the case of the car accident, the different people all saw the same vehicles collide, but from opposite angles and varying positions. Different things may have made a strong impression on one witness, more than another.

It’s no wonder that their eyewitness accounts are somewhat different from each other. And, in the case of the four different Gospel accounts, that adds to the richness and depth of the separate narratives. Each Gospel writer had a separate emphasis and perspective, and different things he wanted to highlight and point out.

However, we need to drill down to what is common between these readings. Jesus calls His first disciples, and Jesus tells them all, “God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.” What is the definition of God’s Good News, anyway? In Greek, the word is euaggelion, or Gospel. God’s Message of Good News to all humanity.

As we trace this Good News through the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we get some more information. God’s Good News is truth. With the coming of the man Jesus here on the earth, humanity has the opportunity to see and touch and experience what God is like. A key feature of this Good News is hope. The fallen world is pretty hopeless and dark, but Jesus brings hope to the hopeless heart. And, last, God’s Good News means salvation. Salvation is not just being saved from the negative aspects of escape from sin and death. No! Salvation is eternal life, and the power to live life victoriously. [2]

God’s Good News is something new to many; something different, even radical. Why on earth should anyone want to adopt this strange, new life from Jesus? Maybe, this way of being and living is even a bit frightening? Many people may well be afraid of taking such a big step.

As Dallas Willard writes, “when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside.  But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrub boards, ice chests, and rug beaters.  A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines.  “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!”  But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house.  “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.” [3]

You see the difficulty? How some people are afraid of change? Or, prefer not to change their lives? How some don’t want to accept this Good News from God because it’s different, or new, or out of their experience? Can you hear Jesus saying, “My friends, God’s Kingdom is at hand! God’s Good News of eternal life is right here, waiting for you!”

Jesus still offers this gift of God in our world today, proclaiming His Message of God’s Good News, His Message of God’s truth, hope and salvation.

God’s Good News actually makes our job simple. We need to widely and clearly communicate the Message of God. “What mustn’t be lost on us is the urgency of its communication, for the day of judgement is at hand. We point to the hope of eternal life in Christ and call on everyone everywhere to turn and put their trust in Jesus.” [4]

Have you responded as the disciples did, by dropping everything and embracing the Good News? Jesus is calling, waiting for you and for me. Jesus says, “Believe the Message! Come, follow Me.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2315

Commentary, Mark 1:14-20, Michael Rogness, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[2] Barkley, William, The Gospel of Mark (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975), 25-26.

[3] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-3b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

Commentary and illustration idea, Mark 1:14-20, Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[4] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/sunday3bg.html   “Repent and Believe in the Good News,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

They Recognized Jesus!

Luke 24:19-35 (24:31) – April 30, 2017

Luke 24 Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt

“They Recognized Jesus!”

In centuries past, people did not have many options when it came to traveling places over land. Sometimes, when they had a little more money, they would ride horses, or donkeys—or, use wagons or carriages. However, most people did not have that luxury. So, people would walk.

We are going to consider our Gospel lesson this morning. It is a lengthy reading, most of Luke 24. Luke talks about two disciples who are walking to a nearby village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. Does anyone here know how far seven miles is? I wanted to give you all a real-life example. If you left St. Luke’s Church here in Morton Grove and walked seven miles east down Dempster, you would end up in Evanston. Right about at Dempster and Ridge, at the Jewish synagogue Beth Emet. It would take me between two and a half to three hours to walk that far, at a moderate pace. (Just so we all know how far the two disciples walked.)

From Luke 24, this is a reading about two people on the road. (start walking from the front of the church)  “13-16 That same day two of them were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. They were deep in conversation, going over all these things that had happened. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who He was.

17-18 He asked, “What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?’ (full stop)

Ah. We can see that they were busy talking, pouring over the information, and trying to understand what had happened.  These disciples were people who both knew the need for and had hope for the coming of a Messiah who could redeem God’s people. [1]

“They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend.”

How often have we been hoping against hope for something wonderful? Something dynamic, that will knock everyone back on their backsides? And then—and then—hope fizzles. Hope is gone. The Messiah, their leader is put to death on Good Friday (what a misnomer!), and nothing more is possible.

“Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, ‘Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?’

Cleopas is not mentioned in any other biblical reference. He and his unnamed companion had been followers of Jesus. There must have been a number of these lesser-known people, disciples who knew Jesus as a prophet mighty in deed and word. A Miracle Worker whom they had hoped would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. [2]

(Then, Jesus asked a leading question.) ”19-24 Jesus said, “What has happened?”

(Continue walking and reading.) “They said, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed Him, got Him sentenced to death, and crucified Him. We had our hopes up that He was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn’t find His body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn’t see Jesus.”

(Be at the back of the church by now.) Did everyone hear? Jesus chose to appear to some women, first thing. And now, Jesus appears to two unimportant, minor followers. Not even the big three disciples, Peter, James, and John. How Jesus cares for and is concerned for those who are unimportant, and sometimes shunted aside. The risen Jesus comes to them, especially! (Continue walking.) The seeming unimportant, the ones behind the scenes, the forgotten ones.

25-27 Then He said to them, “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into His glory?” Then Jesus started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to Him.”

Wouldn’t you like to be on that trip, with Jesus and the two lesser-known disciples? Imagine, Jesus Himself, explaining how the scarlet thread of salvation is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. What insights! What glory! (Walk up to the front.)

Now, we arrive at the village of Emmaus: “28-31 They came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if He were going on but they pressed Him: “Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.”

These two caring disciples were people who were concerned for others—or at least for this traveling companion of theirs who thought He’d continue on in the evening.  “Cleopas and his friend knew how unsafe the roads were.  Surely the man who had spent so much time with them talking about Scripture would be better served by a simple meal and safe accommodations for the night.” [3]

“So Jesus went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, He blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized Him. And then—He disappeared.”

What was that all about? Were these two men dreaming? All the talking, all the pondering of what-ifs, suppositions, different theological opinions, pro and con. There is a kind of resignation in all this, both in Luke’s story and often in our own lives.  Can’t you hear the cynical, long-suffering comments? “Get real.”  “Grow up.”  “Back to work.”  We can only imagine how the families and friends of Cleopas would offer snippy, unsolicited advice and opinions when the two got home to long untended work and family obligations. [4]

And then—and then—Jesus makes Himself known to them. Something nebulous, some intellectual and theoretical story changes in the twinkling of an eye to something real, wonderful, and concrete. Something these two men are eyewitnesses of, and can testify to.

32 Back and forth they talked. “Didn’t we feel on fire as He conversed with us on the road, as He opened up the Scriptures for us?” 33-34 They didn’t waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: “It’s really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon Peter saw him!” 35 Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized Him when He broke the bread.”

As we look back on the movement of this narrative from Luke: 1) the two travelers are met on the road, 2) have the Scriptures opened, 3) and share in a meal that reveals the identity and presence of Christ. Then, 4) the travelers are sent out to share and live the Good News. [5] Isn’t that what happens as the two lesser-known disciples waste no time in going back to Jerusalem to share their story?

Remember, these two disciples had been on the road. Aren’t we all traveling? All on the road through life? Doesn’t Jesus come alongside of each of us, as He opens the Scriptures and explains how He has come into the world to reconcile us to God? And then, Jesus enters the house (or, church) with us, and we recognize Him when He breaks the bread of life, for us, too?

The last, and most important part, is sharing the Good News. We can tell others how Jesus has risen from the dead. We can tell others how He has changed our lives through His Word, the Bible. We can tell others how He comes to be with us each time we break bread, too. Just like Cleopas and his friend, just like Peter and the other disciples, we can turn the world upside down, too.

I close with the words of a special prayer—the Collect for today, the third Sunday of Easter, from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to His disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Him in all His redeeming work; who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

 

(The Gospel reading is from the modern translation The Message, by Eugene Peterson. With gratitude, I appreciate Rev. Peterson’s translation and use his words in my sermon today.)

(I thank Carolyn Brown for her wonderful idea of traveling, of walking around the congregation in my sermon today. From Worshiping with Children, Easter 3, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-third-sunday-of-easter-may-4.html )

[1]  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933  Commentary, Luke 24:13-35, (Easter3A), Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] Ibid, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] Ibid, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[4] Ibid, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[5] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3188 David Lose President, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia