Don’t Be Frightened!

“Don’t Be Frightened!”

1 Pet 3-14 don't be afraid

1 Peter 3:13-17 (3:14) – September 9, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Do you know anyone who talks straight? Comes right to the point? Doesn’t pull any punches? Sometimes, a person who speaks this way can be refreshing. So unlike other speakers or politicians who sugar-coat problems or sometimes sweep difficult matters under the rug.

Except – I am not sure whether we might say the same about our New Testament scripture reading for today. Suffering and pain are not exactly the favorite topics of most Christians in the 21st century. Yet, the apostle Peter is just such a man as I just described. A man who talks straight, comes right to the point, and does not pull any punches. We ought to listen to him, a man who was loved deeply by our Lord Jesus Christ, and a man whom God appointed as leader, the person in charge of the band of disciples after our Lord Jesus ascended.

No one enjoys talking about suffering, pain and harm. But, what do we find here? Peter tells his fellow believers in Christ that suffering, pain and harm will surely come. We do not want to hear that. None of us do! Yet, let us listen again to the words from 1 Peter 3, once more: “13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”

Peter does not mess around. He comes straight to the point. Christianity is not a safe religion. Of course, the first century was not a safe time to live, either. One of the commentaries mentions “the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under [the emperor] Domitian (81-91 CE).” [1]

Christianity at the time of the apostle Peter was one of many religions, and a brand-new one, at that. It was closely related to Judaism, but the Jews were not high in the regard of the Roman Empire, either. As far as the Roman government was concerned, this new sect or religion called Christianity was nothing but a headache. Imagine, people running around, saying that there was only one God, instead of many gods and goddesses. How demeaning! How insulting to their families and the towns where they live, which all have patron gods and goddesses!

And, not wanting to, even demanding not to bow down to any other god, or call anyone else their Lord except this one particular God? Why, that was treason, pure and simple. On top of everything else, there were rumors that in the Christian worship services, there was cannibalism. They actually ate and drank the body and blood of their God. Imagine that!

If you and I step back from our current understandings of Christianity and try to see this brand-new religion in the same way that the Roman government of the first century did, we might get a little insight on the way that many others—both Jews and Gentiles—viewed this strange band of religious converts. Ridicule and open jeering at least, and harsh persecution, even death, by officials of the Empire. That means soldiers busting down doors in the middle of the night, dragging people into the streets, throwing them in prison. Maybe there was a trial, and maybe there wasn’t. Uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering.

Do you understand what Peter was talking about now? “Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.” [2]

Not only from the New Testament, but from other historical writings, we can see how persecuted the early Christians were. Peter had guts, I’ll say that for him. He did not have an easy life. Peter kept on the move, spreading the message of the Gospel, the Good News. He introduced people to his Lord and Savior, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ.

And yet—and yet, he told his fellow believers in Christ to “Be Not Afraid!” He knew very well what could (and quite possibly did) happen to some of them. Yet, he had the faith and assurance to write these very words. Don’t be frightened!

What is the next thing he says? Listen to Peter’s next verse: “15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” We need to stand up for what we believe, and who we believe in. Gently and respectfully.  

Peter knew that even if his friends gave a respectful defense for the Lord they believed in, persecution would come. “Peter wants his readers to understand that, although they may act in a good and right way toward others, they may still suffer. Suffering for doing right is something we may all have to experience.[3]

I am reminded of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, the man called “the Flying Scotsman.”. The movie Chariots of Fire was made about him and his story at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell was a devout Christian. He refused to run in a race he very much wanted to run—the 100 meters—because it was scheduled on Sunday. Liddell believed that playing sports on Sunday was disrespectful to God. So, he calmly announced that he would not run in that particular race.

Eric Liddell’s decision was not popular, at all. “He had to be brave because lots of people got really angry with him.  He was however gentle.  He didn’t scream and shout about how wrong the officials were to schedule the race on Sunday.  He simply said that he would not run because much as he loved racing, he respected God more.” [4]

I would like us to imagine that we are overseas, today. In parts of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand; in Algeria, Iran, Sudan, or in Saudi Arabia. Christians are less than 7 percent of the population of these countries, especially in Saudi Arabia. Let’s close the blinds and put out the lights. Shh! We can’t be too careful! The police are looking for people who go against the government, and the small minority of Christians are often arbitrarily persecuted. Several pastors and church leaders have recently been thrown in prison, so we need to be really careful and keep a low profile. No public church services! Keep quiet about meeting for bible study. And, make sure to hide your bibles!

In 1924, Eric Liddell still faced a great deal of opposition for his decision not to run. Imagine how much more difficult the apostle Peter and his fellow Christians had it, in the first century, with widespread persecution and suffering?

In the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus tells us “blessed are the ones who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  What is another way of saying this Beatitude? To be righteous, to practice righteousness, is to be like our Lord Jesus. What would Jesus do? We need to do that. Show others the Gospel through our lives and words. Be like Jesus. Love others, with kindness, gentleness, and respect. Always. And, do not be frightened, because Jesus will always be right by our sides. No matter what. Peter would certainly agree.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/easter5ae.html

“Raised to Life,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/04/year-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-25.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 6A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@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!)

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His Followers—Including Us, Too

“His Followers—Including Us, Too”

John 17-9 Jesus prays for us

John 17:6-19 (17:9) – May 13, 2018

Throughout the centuries since Jesus’s death and resurrection, believers have followed their Lord Jesus and prayed for others. I suspect we all can picture Jesus and His friends during that last week before His crucifixion. And, Jesus was a person of deep prayer. This profound image is quite precious to me, and I suspect for you, too.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus prays for His followers. Not just any old prayer, but a significant prayer, at a profound time of Jesus’s life. The night before His crucifixion, when He must have had a thousand and one things on His mind, Jesus takes the time to think of and to pray for His followers; His friends and disciples.

Today is Mother’s Day. Today is a day to take the time to think of beloved mothers (and, those who have acted as mothers). Some more devout people even pray for their mothers. And grandmothers, and daughters and sisters. All those who act as mothers, too.

In many, many cases throughout this country—and beyond, around the world—many caring, loving and nurturing women have mothered those under their care. In cases of religious nurture, caring mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters—and others who have stood in the place of these maternal figures—have prayed for their friends, relatives and loved ones, too.

Whether nearby or far away, prayer makes that intimate connection, that bond between friends, relatives, and loved ones. It does not matter whether the pray-er and the ones prayed for are next door, in the next town, or separated by miles, mountains or oceans.

Jesus was making that connection, too, through His prayer.

As we have noted before in weeks past, the disciples were anxious, worried, even scared to death. And, Jesus knew that very well. Remember His words of comfort from just a short while before this? In John 14:27, where Jesus says “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Of course, Jesus knew how serious this all was! He knew He was going to be beaten, jeered at, crucified, and die. He knew it was all going to happen in less than twenty-four hours. Yet, Jesus still had the amazing love, nurture and caring for His friends and disciples that He would say such things as these. Jesus did not allow the horror and anguish of what was to come take away from the love, caring and connection He had with His friends.

In today’s passage from John 17, Jesus expresses His deepest yearning for His closest followers. But, there is much more. Commentator Janet Hunt says “[Jesus] speaks to them all together at length ‘one last time’ as he sits with his disciples at table that Thursday night. … For instance, we get a sense of Jesus’ profound connection to the one to Whom he prays. And we are told that those who followed Jesus had learned of the truth of this as well.” [1]

How often do we hear of a faithful, devout mother or grandmother or auntie or dear friend praying for her loved one, asking God to take care of this dear one, whether nearby or far away? And, even when things become depressingly sad, or that diagnosis turns into a hospice admit, or the divorce finally happens, God is still able to be there and be present with the one prayed for. And their family.

As we can see from today’s scripture reading, Jesus prayed for His closest followers and friends. I love the way Dr. David Lose puts it: Jesus “senses their anxiety, confusion, and fear, and so he prays for them. He knows they can bear no more, and so he prays for them. He knows he will soon leave them, and so he prays for them. And as he does, and whether or not they understand everything he says, he tells them that they do not have to do everything or even understand everything.” [2]

Jesus was a master at making connections, just as relatives do in a close family, just as dear friends make intimate connections with each other. Sure, this climactic point in the Passion Week, this night in which Jesus was betrayed, had all the disciples’ emotions and feelings at a breaking point. Sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, horror. And, we know Jesus was there with His friends in the middle of all of those tumultuous feelings.

What about those in countless congregations today, and those who did not go to a house of worship this weekend, who had (or are still having) difficulty with the relationship with their mom? What about those whose mothers are somehow unwilling or unable to care for their children? What about those who have given children up for adoption? Mother’s Day is certainly difficult for these hurting people.

What about the mothers who have had miscarriages, or stillbirths, or abortions? What about those mothers who have lost a young—or not-so-young child? What about those who have never been mothers—for a whole host of different reasons? Yet, these women often care for and nurture others, whether theirs by natural means, or through choice. And even more important, Jesus is certainly able to love, nurture and care for all of these loved caregivers, all of these called children of God.

As we look at John 17, we can be sure that Jesus used His masterful way of connecting to show love, care and nurture. Pastor Tim Yee had the following illustration: “Jedd Medefind and Erik Lokkesmoe’s book, The Revolutionary Communicator, stresses seeking connection as an important communication tool that Jesus modeled, as he engaged people… This story [the authors] share of a little boy visiting a grieving elderly widower illustrates the power of seeking connection: The mother noticed the little boy crossing into the neighbor’s yard and climbing up into the old man’s lap. He remained there for some time, sitting quietly. When the boy returned home, his mother met him with her hands on her hips. “I told you not to bother him!” she scolded. “What were you doing?” “I wasn’t doing anything,” the little fellow answered. “I was just helping him cry.” (p. 23) [3]

Yes, Jesus prayed for the disciples, and “not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” That includes us! Just as a devout mother or grandma prays for her loved ones, just as Jesus seeks a intimate and loving connection with His friends and followers, so we can seek to have that deep connection with one another.

Dr. David Lose invites all of us to hear these words of Jesus addressed to each of us today. To imagine – really, to know – that Jesus was praying for us all those years ago and continues to care for us, support us, and love and connect with us today. Please take a moment to think about where we need to be more whole, to have more peace in our lives. And then, imagine that Jesus is actively, intimately praying for each of you. And, indeed, for all of us. [4]

Jesus is caring for us, you know. Jesus loves each of us that much.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/last-words/  “Last Words,” Janet H Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2018.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2566  David Lose The Power of Being Prayed For

[3] Revolutionary Communicator: Seeking Connection

https://lifeforleaders.depree.org/revolutionary-communicator-seeking-connection/?utm_source=Life%20for%20Leaders&utm_campaign=6da0a06843-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_05_12&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_daeb77a376-6da0a06843-85700765&mc_cid=6da0a06843&mc_eid=6effffadbb

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2566  David Lose The Power of Being Prayed For

@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!)

Jesus Wept, Too

John 11:1-44 (11:35) – April 2, 2017

John 11-35 Jesus wept, bible

“Jesus Wept, Too”

In hospitals and care centers throughout the country, chaplains are called to the bedsides of dying patients. The families of patients are grief-stricken, and need comfort, and spiritual and emotional care. Imagine the loved ones of the patient, recently deceased, rushing to the hospital from some distance to be with their loved one, one last time. Alas, the deceased patient has, sadly, already been moved from the room.

When I worked as a chaplain, from time to time this would happen. Can you imagine such a sad visit to the hospital? I would walk with the few relatives down to the morgue in the basement of the hospital with the nursing supervisor and we would bring them to see their loved one. Always—always the loved ones would be deeply moved. Sometimes with tears, sometimes with emotion. Their relative had died. I witnessed such raw feelings of deep grief, heartbreak, sometimes anger, and even despair—just as in our reading today from the Gospel of John.

Our Gospel reading today comes from John, chapter 11. I will read most of the chapter. This is about our Lord Jesus in the town of Bethany. I’ll let John fill us in on the details.

11 1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

From what John says here, we can see how much Jesus cares for Lazarus and Mary and Martha. We may wonder at the cryptic response Jesus gives in response to the urgent message from the sisters, almost an SOS for help. Jesus healed others, Certainly He will heal our brother!

“After two days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?”

9-10 Jesus replied, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap. 14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

This is a complication, to be sure! Bethany is just down the road from Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders were already threatening to kill Rabbi Jesus, and He proposes to walk right into their backyard? Moreover, Jesus knows that His friend Lazarus is dead. But, He goes anyway. And, His disciples go with Him.

17-20 When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of their friends were visiting Martha and Mary. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

21-22 Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.” 23 Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.” 24 Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”

25-26 “You don’t have to wait for the End. Right now, I am Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

We see more of this family, and more of their grief. Many of the sisters’ friends and acquaintances are mourning with them at their home. Mary remains in the house while Martha goes out to see her friend Jesus. Martha makes the heartfelt statement that Lazarus will be raised at the end of time. And, Jesus follows that with one of the most striking “I am” statements from the Gospel of John here! I am Resurrection and Life! Jesus not only has power over the present time, but He has power over the future, as well. Martha’s response? It is in the formal language of a confession of faith. In the midst of her grief, she affirms—she confesses—that Jesus is, indeed, Messiah, the Son of God.

28  She went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.” 29-32 The moment Mary heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33-34 When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, he was troubled and a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you all put him?” 34-35 “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept.

Some people think Jesus is God. Only God. Not human at all. Yet, we can clearly see here that Jesus had emotions. He was troubled and deeply angry. He was sorrowful and He wept. These are deep feelings, and almost everyone has experienced them sometime in life. Jesus experienced them, too. Yes, He was fully God, and yes, He was fully human, like each of us, all of us. Jesus wept, too. He felt the loss of His friend’s death deeply, and mourned.

36 The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.” 37 Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” 38-39 Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.” They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”

Everyone dies. Yes, it is incredibly sad. As soon as a baby is born into the world, we all know for certain that that baby will die. Yes, sometimes we say “She died too soon.” Or, “Died in his prime. What a shame!” Yet, death happens to everyone, with no exceptions. As a Rabbi acquaintance of mine said several years ago, “We all have an expiration date.” It just depends on whether it is sooner or later in our lives. Each of us must come to terms with our mortality. [1]

43-44 Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.” 45-48 That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him.

            God can come alongside of all of us, whether we are grieving the death of a loved one, the shock of a sudden medical diagnosis, or the loss of a needed job. Jesus weeps with us as we go through all of these experiences. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow.

But, that is not all—oh, no! We see from today’s bible reading that Jesus is much more than just a companion in time of need. John tells us that Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. How can that be? How can it be that Jesus brought back to life a man who was dead?” [2] We can affirm that Jesus is not only Lord of creation, but also Life-giver of the living. Not only in the first century, but also today.

 

How this resurrection can possibly happen is not to be understood with our minds. But we can understand it by faith, with our hearts. Because it is by faith that you and I, like Martha, confess that Jesus is uniquely connected to God. It is by faith that we, like Martha, confess that Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, God incarnate. [3]

This is another blessed aspect of our Gospel message. As I say each Sunday after our confession of sins, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel!” Jesus tells us all today, “Believe My Good News!” Just as Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus, so He will raise us all. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. By faith we believe, praise God. 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.)

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fifth-sunday-in-lent7#preaching

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Confess Sins, Accept Forgiveness

“Confess Sins, Accept Forgiveness”

1 John 1-9 if we confess our sins

1 John 1:8-9 – June 19, 2016

Have you ever seen a small child when he or she knows or realizes they have done something wrong? Sometimes, they gasp. Their lower lip may tremble. Sometimes they might start crying. The realization that they have made a big mistake sometimes overwhelms them.

Does this picture sound at all familiar? I do not care whether it’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews. When a small child realizes they have done something wrong—well, that can be the saddest time in the world for that young person.

Sound familiar? I suspect it ought to. This awful feeling affects not only small children, but it can trouble grown-ups. It can happen to you or to me, too. The realization that nothing is the way it ought to be? Affecting, heart-rending, deeply sad. Sometimes feeling like the bottom dropped out of the world!  And, get this: it’s all my fault.

If we look at our Scripture lesson for today, we will find exactly that. The older Apostle John tried to get his readers to see this, in the first verse of our reading today. I will read both of these stirring verses from 1 John, chapter 1. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

And, we are on the next line of the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission. “Empowered by the Holy Spirit . . . To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God’s forgiveness.”

I am going to depart a little from my usual sermon format, and ask: what do we do every week in our worship service, right after the opening hymn? After our prayer of invocation, where we ask God to be with us in our worship service, we move into the prayer of confession.

Why on earth do we need to confess our sins before God?

Ah! That is where John’s reminder of our sinfulness is helpful. Remember, the Bible came first. Scripture was written to be helpful to believers, and to offer praise, and to admonish and correct our behavior—when we needed that. Afterwards, people started to set down a formal worship service. Especially in our Protestant tradition several hundred years ago, they always had a formal confession of sins—just like the Apostle John mentions here.

Each of us—every worshiper here today—sins. Every day. It doesn’t matter who we are, or how good we are trying to be. Each of us makes mistakes. It is like someone using a pencil. That is what erasers are for. To erase wrong or messy writing, and to correct mistakes, like in arithmetic at school.  We all have sins, or mistakes, or errors in our lives. And what’s more, we admit them to God. We tell God all about them.

Let’s look at the first sentence in our prayer of confession today. “Merciful God, who has compassion on Your sinful children.” Right here, this has several deep theological ideas! We are saying that God is merciful! God is not unforgiving, or uncaring. Instead, merciful. Full of mercy toward each of us. The Lord has compassion on each of us, too! God feels with each of us.

The next part of the prayer: “You sent Your son Jesus Christ to be the Savior of the world.” Ah! Here is the Gospel, the Good News. This is why God sent Jesus! God knew the terrible mess humanity was in, and God had a solution: to send God the Son—in the flesh, made as a human—to become one of us. To be our Savior, and save us from our sins.

Some years ago, I knew a practically perfect person. He was a stickler for perfection, for writing precisely, for trying to act appropriately at all times. He used to joke that he thought he made a mistake once—but he was mistaken. (He understood his tendency as a perfectionist, and gently laughed at himself.)

This is where our Scripture reading is helpful. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Except—the New Testament says that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (In the letter to the Romans 3:23.)

We continue with the prayer of confession: “Grant us grace to lament our sins; help us by prayer and meditation to repent and turn to You.”

If you recall, I often repeat this verse from 1 John as the weekly assurance of pardon: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”

Sometimes in our confession of sins, we have a time of silence for personal confession. In addition to the prayers written in the bulletin each week, from time to time I provide space in our service for each of us to come to God silently in prayer, a quiet time to come with personal things that are particularly burdensome. And, did you hear what John said in this verse? “God IS faithful and just, and WILL forgive us our sins.”

The next sentence in our prayer of confession today: “Give us a true longing to be free from sin. Thank You for Your abundant love and forgiveness.”

Praise the Lord! Did you hear? “God will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!” Those are the words of John, written in the first century. Moreover, they are still true today!

Just like dirty clothes are cleaned in the washing machine, especially when we add some laundry detergent, so we are cleansed from our sin. My mother had a wringer washer in the basement. I used to go downstairs and wash the clothes for the family. I put water in the washer, added the detergent, and turned on the agitator. Scrubbed the clothes, and then wrung them out into each of the double sinks, rinsing, and then rinsing again. I saw firsthand how this business of washing clothes worked. How the soapy water got so dirty. How the clothes got rinsed clean.

That’s us! When we come to God to confess our sins, correct the mistakes we have done and said, it’s like God has cleaned us in a washing machine. Sure, sometimes I feel like I have been in a washer from time to time. Been agitated by the machine, and then put through the wringer. I bet you can relate, too. Some people go through the wringer more often than others—and how!

 However, we come out the other side as clean people. We receive God’s abundant love and forgiveness!

The final words of the prayer of confession: “We pray these words for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Redeemer, amen.” Jesus is the only Redeemer. Not ourselves. Not saints, or good works, or some television minister, or prayer book, or other holy practice. Our Lord Jesus is our blessed Redeemer. We are indeed redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, as our closing hymn tells us.

The assurance of pardon is what follows this confession of sins. This is not a half-hearted assurance. This is not “maybe,” or “I hope so,” or “fingers crossed!” This assurance is complete. As Jesus said as He died on the cross, “It is finished.” The work of redemption is completed. Praise God! Just as what John said in this verse: “God IS faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.”

Shortly, we will sing a hymn all about forgiveness and redemption. I close this sermon with a verse of this wonderful old hymn, written by Fanny Crosby:

“Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child and forever I am.” —Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Without Hesitation

“Without Hesitation”

Heb 10-23 He who promised is faithful words

Hebrews 10:19 – November 15, 2015

Who here knows the words of the Apostles Creed? Who studied the Apostles Creed before they were confirmed? I know I did. I studied Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and went over every part of the Lord’s Prayer as well as the Apostles Creed.

Today, we are going to take a closer look at the whys and wherefores of two phrases from the Apostles Creed: “He—Jesus—ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” You—I—all of us have been saying these words for years and years. It’s a part of our church culture. But, what do these words really mean? “Where is Jesus now?

We are departing from the Gospel of Mark. I’ve been preaching from Mark for the last two months. We have been following Jesus through His discussions with the Jewish leaders about all kinds of aspects of the proper religious life. Today, we make a big jump forward, to the New Testament passage from the letter to the Hebrews. This is after the Resurrection, after the book of Acts, and the Apostles have now been sent out into the world to tell all people about the risen Jesus, and about God’s love and forgiveness of their sins.

This letter to the Hebrews is a circulating letter. That means it and other circulating letters were sent from place to place in Asia Minor, so the small, struggling churches could receive encouragement and teaching in writing from the Apostles and other new church leaders. This particular letter was sent to Jews who lived a long way from Jerusalem. In essence, ex-pat Jews.

To give us some further background into this week’s reading, “This week’s text [from Hebrews] draws together the argument the author of this letter began six chapters ago, namely that Jesus is God’s final and ultimate High Priest. The author can point to the model of Israel’s priests to explain what Jesus does, but His priesthood differs in several fundamental respects. Beginning in verse 11 the author reiterates those differences once again.” [1]

What about those Old Testament priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, anyhow? They needed to keep on sacrificing animals over and over and over again. Why? The people of Israel had a Sin Problem. The priests had to keep sacrificing to cover the Sin Problem, to make it better. To atone for the sins of the whole people. And no matter how hard they worked, or how many animals they sacrificed, or how much they prayed to God, it was never enough. There was always more sin. The nation of Israel and all the individuals in Israel had a Sin Problem.

I know when my mother had a houseful of guests (usually several of her grown children all at once), she would try and try to keep the kitchen clean, the kitchen sink empty of dishes, and the bathroom ready and clean for anyone who needed to use it. Except—there were always so many people in the house. There was always more dirt. More mess. More dirty dishes. It seemed like it would never end! (Except, it periodically did when everyone went to their own homes, in the case of my mom’s house.)

How many people can relate to this example? Dirt, mess, dirty dishes and black marks in a crowded house never end. Just so, in the case of the priests and the sacrifices for sins that everyone commits, the Sin Problem never ends. For real! Never, ever! People are sinful. They keep doing and saying and thinking things that go against God’s laws, and sin never goes away. All the sacrifices ever brought before God could never make one dent in the Sin Problem.

When we look at our passage from Hebrews again, what do we read? Quoting from our scripture today, “As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it!

What was that again?

Jesus Christ was the perfect High Priest. He was a better High Priest than any other of the priests throughout history who ever offered animal sacrifices to God at the Temple. What Jesus did for us on the cross (and I’m quoting again) “… was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, He did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process.”

The whole repetitive process of endless animal sacrifice? Jesus came and broke that process. He ended it. He made that process obsolete, not necessary any more. Instead, Jesus and His death for us on the cross reaches way beyond animal sacrifice.

What’s more, Jesus our High Priest makes the perfect sacrifice once for all time. And then, He sits down. What about those other priests, the ones who continually stand and keep offering the imperfect animal sacrifices for all those centuries? From the Message, again: “As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then [Jesus] sat down right beside God and waited for His enemies to cave in.”

At first glance, some people might think that Jesus did not finish His work as High Priest. But, that is just the point! He did finish the work. The other priests had to continue to stand, because they had to continue to offer sacrifice after sacrifice on a daily basis. Because of the Sin Problem that just wouldn’t go away. Jesus did complete the perfect sacrifice. His sacrifice brought perfect, complete forgiveness of sins. Jesus was all done, and He sat down. The Sin Problem went away, once and for all.

But, wait! There’s more! Jesus doesn’t just sit down any old place. On any old bench, or in somebody’s creaky rocking chair. No. He takes a seat at the right hand of God. A place of great power and great authority. Jesus—the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, incarnated by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary—Jesus takes the number one seat in all of the universe, next to God the Father. The resurrected Lord Jesus is God the Father’s right hand man. It says so, right in our scripture text from Hebrews today.

To finish our passage from verses 19 and 20, “So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of His sacrifice, acting as our priest before God.”

I want everyone to notice that all the pronouns here are plural. That means we—all of us together—can have confidence. We—all of us—can walk right up to God. We can come into God’s presence and boldly bring our requests to God. As I say in our weekly pastoral prayers, we—all of us have free access to God. Not like the Jewish people before the time of Jesus, who were still dealing with the Sin Problem and still needed an intermediary between them and God. But because Jesus, our perfect High Priest, has cleared the way. Jesus has invited us to come. We are very welcome to enter into God’s presence!

Do you have a better understanding now of those two phrases from the Apostles Creed? “He—Jesus—ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

This section from the letter to the Hebrews answers our questions about “where is Jesus now?”  The risen Jesus is with God and is Lord!

Do you have the confidence that your Sin Problem is taken care of? Do you dare accept the invitation that Jesus extends to us? Can we grasp that assurance that God welcomes us? This scripture passage clearly lets us know about that boldness. That “free confidence,” grounded on the consciousness that our sins have been forgiven.

As I say every week after the Confession of Sins and the Assurance of Pardon, believe the Good News of the Gospel. In Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=142 Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-25 by Amy L. B. Peeler.

(Thanks to Amy for several ideas I wove into this sermon!)

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

 

Check and Double-Check!

“Check and Double-Check!”

Acts 17 bereans

Acts 17:1-5a, 10-14 – September 13, 2015

When I attended seminary I had a handful of classes that were absolutely superb in every way. Interesting course material, fascinating professors, and assignments I could totally sink my teeth into. One of these courses was Reformed Tradition, taught at the Presbyterian seminary on the south side of Chicago. This course highlighted the Reformed Protestant church practices and theology since the 1500’s. And, I absolutely loved it.

One of the strong memories I have of this course is studying the practices of the Reformed missionaries of past centuries who were called to cross barriers (and in some cases, also cross continents and oceans). They took the message of the Gospel to those who had not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That’s just what Paul and his friends are doing here in Acts 17. This week is the last of our Summer Sermon Series, Postcards from the Early Church. When last we met our intrepid heroes, (in Acts 16) they had crossed from Asia into Greece, into Europe. Here, in both towns of Thessalonica and Berea, they start preaching and speaking with the groups of Jews living in both areas, and they also preach to their Greek neighbors and friends.

To go back to the course I loved in seminary, Reformed Tradition, I discovered that many Protestant missionaries and mission agencies had a master plan. The missionaries would not just go and preach the Gospel. No! They almost always had an excellent method behind their outreach. They not only would start a small church or chapel, but would also often develop a health clinic, sometimes even a hospital. And—the missionaries almost always began a school. They wanted to teach people; not only how to read, but also teach math and other subjects; sometimes even beginning institutions of higher learning in far flung areas.

So, reading and literacy were of extremely high regard to the missionaries! This went along with the importance of each person being able to read the Scriptures for themselves. We can see that translating the Bible became a high priority, too.

What does this have to do with our Scripture passage for today, you might ask? After Paul and his friends were thrown out of the town of Thessalonica, they went down the road to the next town of Berea, fifty miles away. We don’t know very much about Berea, except—the Bereans eagerly searched the Hebrew Scriptures after they heard Paul’s message. Paul wasn’t just delivering a line, or trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, no! The Bereans not only read, but diligently searched and sifted through the Scriptures to make sure that what Paul and his friends were telling them was true!

The literacy rate in Jewish communities has always been extremely high. For millennia it’s been this way. It’s marvelous to learn how to read, as well as do math and learn other subjects, too. Literacy has been a strong priority among large groups of Protestant missionaries, too. Reading the Scriptures is and has remained a primary goal, but just think about it. As we teach people how to read, we are also teaching them how to think, and how to reason. And, as more people in these far away mission areas learn more and more, the quality and standard of living rises in the whole community, as well! All very good things.

Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us too much about the Bereans. Except, the people in the town of Berea, in the foothills of the Olympian mountains, certainly seem like “people of more noble character” than the troublemakers in Thessalonica.

Using an excellent sermon illustration I discovered, “I want you to pretend for a moment that you are a first-century Berean Jew. Now suppose one Saturday a stranger comes into your synagogue and addresses the congregation. He says that his name is Paul, and he brings you the exciting news that the long-awaited Messiah has finally come! No, he didn’t actually restore the [physical] kingdom to Israel, as expected. In fact He was murdered a few years ago by the Romans. But, Paul says, that this is exactly what was supposed to happen to the Messiah, and he seems to prove it from Scripture. So now what do you do? If you are of noble character [as Dr. Luke says], you begin to search the Scriptures yourself to see if what Paul said is true.” [1]

Luke’s word used here in this passage is a legal term. Luke states that “Paul’s appeal to Israel’s Scriptures [was] a legal ‘witness’ to warrant his gospel’s claims about Jesus.”[2] Paul was not just making up imaginary tales, or fabricating fairy stories to put little children to sleep. No! Paul was using the Hebrew Scriptures as competent testimony to back up what he was telling them. And thus, many of the people who heard Paul out, believed what he said. Because they searched the Scriptures and made sure that what Paul was telling them matched with what they knew and already believed.

It’s like fact checking, today. How many people here have “heard something” about someone famous, or about some political candidate? How many people here are not sure where they first “heard it,” but “everyone is talking about it!” Like, for example, some Internet meme or email sob story passed around from person to person that is patently untrue.

My husband is an editor and journalist, working at a trade publication downtown. He takes special delight in exposing these sorts of gossip and misinformation that keep getting passed from one person to another via email, Facebook, and other kinds of social media. One of his favorite online tools is snopes dot com. “Snopes.com is the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.”[3]

I can just see some of these people in Berea, going to the library or to the synagogue where the scrolls and books were kept, checking out the sermons that Paul had just preached, as well as the discussion they had afterwards. Making sure—fact checking!—that Paul was the real deal. Dr. Luke tells us, “As a result, many of [the Berean Jews] believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”
But, wait! This was not the end. Paul and his missionary friends did not have an easy time of it after starting the church in Berea. The people who stirred up things in the previous town heard about Paul and company and how they were having such an effect on the people in Berea. Some of those troublemakers from Thessalonica came over to Berea and made trouble in that town, too. Talk about nasty people! So, Paul’s new friends, the new believers in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, shipped Paul out of town in a big hurry.

But the church Paul founded in Berea remained. Paul’s work here was done. We know they had a firm basis, since the Berean believers already had a solid foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures.

What about us? Do we have a similar solid foundation? Thank God, we have the Bible translated into English. It was translated for us centuries ago! We can look back to the great job that William Tyndale did in the 1500’s, paving the way for the King James Version, translated just after 1600. And now, today, we have many translations!

We can celebrate those translations, just as we celebrate our freedom to read the Bible, and our ability to study and learn about Scripture. There are still some places in the world today where it is a crime to read and study the Scriptures. I encourage all of you to pick up the Bible. Read a little every day. Become familiar with it. I know some of you do already. There are wonderful helps. Just ask me and I will hook you up with one!

God’s Word is truly a lamp to all of our feet, just as I told the Sunday school children before the sermon. The Bible sheds light on all of our paths. Just as it was with the Berean believers, just as it was with the Apostle Paul and his friends, so it is today. Praise God for God’s Word, freely available to all of us, today.

[1] “The Bereans,” Acts 17:10-14. Sermon delivered 10/25/2009 – Pastor David B. Curtis

[2] Wall, Robert W., Acts, from the New Interpreter’s Commentary series. (Nashville, Abingdon Press: 1994-2004) 239.

[3] http://snopes.com/

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!