“Jesus Is Lord” Means Caesar Isn’t

 

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10

 

Once…

Once upon a time……

There’s a wealth of storied history and legend that follows those words, is there not?

Once upon a time, a man named Odysseus set out on a journey……

Once upon a time, Hansel & Gretel wandered into the woods……

Once upon a time, a mermaid named Ariel caught a glimpse of a human……

Once upon a time, a young Arthur discovers a sword in a stone in a churchyard……

 

Once upon a time, a small group of persecuted British Christians started a church that called itself “Baptist”……

Once upon a time, the American colonists grew weary of being treated as second-class citizens and said “Enough!”……

Once upon a time, a teenager named Claudette Colvin refused to get up from her seat on the bus, inspiring a woman named Rosa Parks to do the same, who in turn inspired a Baptist minister named Martin King……

 

Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth……

Once upon a time, a baby was born in Bethlehem……

Once upon a time, a cross was erected in Jerusalem……

Once upon a time……

Paul’s “Once up a Time……”

In today’s scripture lesson, Paul is telling a “once upon a time” story.

Once upon a time (he shows us), we were citizens of this world. Our allegiance was to this world—its ways, its laws; its behaviors, its promises; its hopes, its dreams. But in this once upon a time, our allegiance was also to the ruler of this world, though we did not even know we were forming this allegiance.

We didn’t realize it because this ruler taught us to live for ourselves, that nothing is wrong unless it hurts someone, that if it feels good it must be good, that external struggles are worse than internal struggles, and that my rights are more important than yours.

Even though this world and its ruler taught us that these things lead to a full and complete life, God has revealed it to be a lie. These things damage our health, our relationships, our communities, and our planet.

But they also damage the connection we have with God. They are modern manifestations of the same temptation that felled our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden. Then—as now—the temptation is to decide for yourself what is right and pleasing and good, instead of trusting the God who brought all things into being.

Paul says that “once upon a time” this was everyone’s story. Because once upon a time we didn’t know God. Once upon a time we did live for ourselves. Once upon a time we pledged allegiance to nation and flag and culture, and we believed that was the highest allegiance that was due to anyone beyond our own person. That is the way “in which you used to live,” as Paul says in the first verse.

But God…

But there’s a but. Or at least there’s supposed to be. “But God”……

Hereafter we discover an abbreviated telling of an incredible story—one fit for the ages, for sure! It has a hero and villains, comedy and tragedy, suspense and romance, and a plot twist more unexpected than that of The Sixth Sense. Paul says:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7 NRSV)

As one of our old hymns tells it:

One day when Heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt among men, my example is He!

One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed Him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!

One day they left Him alone in the garden,
One day He rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!

One day the grave could conceal Him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then He arose, over death He had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!

This amazing thing has happened—and not just in the past, but in our lives today. God has made us alive through Christ, saving us by God’s grace and on account of God’s great love for us.

After such a dramatic change of circumstances, Paul expects our priorities are going to shift. We will respond to God’s liberating love with the recognition that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” as we read in v.10 (NIV). And as a result, we will spend our new, redeemed, transformed, liberated lives allowing Christ to live through us, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20.

Instead of pledging allegiance to this world, its powers, and its empty promises, we now pledge allegiance to God’s Kingdom. When we confess that Jesus is Lord, we confess that Caesar is not. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom overrides our citizenship in any worldly nation. If we have “by grace been saved” as Paul insists twice—twice!!—in these verses, then that “once upon a time” is not going to describe the way our present life is lived.

But…

But……

But my “once upon a time” (the description of my life before my commitment to follow Jesus) too often describes the current events of my life.

Too often my transgressions and sin bring death to my life—the death of relationships, the death of possibilities, the death of hopes, and even very real physical death.

Too often I still follow the ways of this world.

Too often my cravings for donuts and coffee and Thai food and books and buying and learning and indulging and consuming and possessing take precedence in my life over everything that is really important.

Too often, my allegiance is fractured at best, all while Jesus himself reminds us that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Matthew 12:25 NRSV).

This isn’t a guilt-trip sermon. You all know I don’t approve of those. Instead, this is a sermon about our honest confession that where we are doesn’t line up with where we are called to be. There are things that have become entangled with our faith that have more to do with politics than the bible. There are confessions we make religiously that are nothing more than our regional cultural identity.

And (of course) there’s nothing inherently wrong with these other parts of our identity. In fact, to deny that they shape us is both dishonest and it hinders the Cause of Christ (or so I believe). But they are not to be where our primary allegiance lies. And they should not be allowed to contradict the priorities, values, and purposes of our primary identity as the Beloved of God, citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Paul’s Conversion & Commitment

Sometimes I get frustrated with Paul. He has this amazing “Road to Damascus” conversion experience, filled with shining light, voices from the sky, and being changed inside and out forever. But Paul doesn’t seem to always understand that not everyone has encountered God in that kind of way. Maybe Paul can turn 180 degrees in a couple days, but most of us can’t go half that far in a lifetime.

But then again, I don’t think Paul’s transformation was quite as instant or complete as we often imagine. He left for Damascus that day with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. When he began laboring for Christ instead of against Christians, he did it with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. Maybe there was a subtler shift than we—or he—realized.

But regardless, no one can doubt that Paul knew what it meant to confess that Jesus is Lord.

It landed him in prison.

It got him beaten.

It led him to advocate against slavery and for women’s rights in ways that were radical then, but (admittedly) seem backwards today.

He went toe-to-toe with Jesus’s disciples and expanded their conception of Jesus’s liberating work.

He went toe-to-toe with pagan leaders, judges, soldiers, and even (according to John Chrysostom) with Caesar Nero himself before Paul was killed—beheaded, according to tradition—because his allegiance rested unequivocally with Jesus and God’s Kingdom.

Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t.

It’s a hard truth for us to live into. It’s a harder truth for this world and its powers to accept.

May God help us put to death our allegiance to this world, so our allegiance to the Kingdom of God might be completely undivided.

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God Cares about Justice

 

Scripture: John 2:13-22

 

 

Intro to Series & Week

As we move from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, we continue to move “From Ashes to Fire” in our worship and reflection.

During this Lenten season, we wrestle with the question of “What needs to die?” in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. After Easter, we will begin to ask “What needs kindled?” in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.

This morning, as we read scripture and reflect on the question “What needs to die?” another answer emerges: Our tolerance for injustice needs to die.

“Was That Kind?”

The biggest theological questions of my life have not come from pastors at church. They have not come from professors in college or seminary. They have not even come from my own experiences in the world. The biggest theological questions of my life have been posed by my children.

One of these questions came at me quite unexpectedly earlier this year. I was sitting at our dining room table one day with my daughter—I think it was after school or something—and she started talking about the story described in our scripture lesson today. I think it had been part of a lesson in Sunday School, or God’s Kids, or perhaps the WEBS program at the First Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember exactly how she brought it all together, but it went something like this:

You know in the bible? When Jesus finds all those people selling things in that place that’s like church? And Jesus gets mad? And he turns over the tables and everyone runs away? You remember that?

Yeah, I remember that.

And then she gets to the point…… the real question: “Was that kind?”

Kindness

Now it’s helpful for you to know that in our house kindness is rule #1. We have three family rules, and kindness tops the list.

If you’re not kind, I don’t care if you’re following the rules.

If you’re not kind, nobody’s going to have fun.

If you’re not kind, nothing else is going to work.

I don’t care about “nice.” I’m not trying to raise nice kids. Nice doesn’t mean anything. I want to raise kids who are ferociously kind.

But alongside this, we also look to Jesus as the supreme example of how we are to live.

All of our experiences and encounters in life get filtered through the life Jesus lived.

All of our choices and actions get weighted against those of Jesus.

Even all of scripture gets read and interpreted through the lens of Jesus.

So I suspect you can see the conundrum, too. In our scripture text, Jesus is not acting in a way that most of our parents would describe as “kind.” Even my 10-year-old daughter can recognize that, and we do to when we’re honest. But what does that mean?

Does that mean something different about Jesus?

Or does that mean something different about kindness?

Or does it mean something else entirely?

Sacrificial System & Capitalism

If we’re going to get to the bottom of my daughter’s question, I think we’ve got to look a bit closer at what is happening here, as well as what the scriptures teach as it relates to Jesus’ actions and motivations.

We start by looking at the Jewish religious system—set forward (as they believed) by God in the first few books of the bible. Now, the Jewish religious system was inherently economic in nature.

In order to be set in right relationship with God, it cost you—in a literal sense.

In order to participate fully in the life of the community of faith, you were charged part of your livestock, your harvest, or your money. You had to produce or purchase the elements of worship that would be used to achieve the forgiveness of sins and do the other things that marked you as part of the community.

And while capitalism as an economic system had not yet been described by Louis Blanc or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, we human beings (since our beginning) have had an uncanny ability to sniff out those situations we might manipulate for personal gain.

The state of the Jerusalem Temple in Jesus’s day is a clear example of this. As the world at that time had already begun it’s transition toward “urban” and away from “rural,” more and more people found themselves in need of purchasing their elements of worship; as city-dwellers, they simply did not have the land or resources to raise their own.

So folks (that many today would describe as “resourceful”) found a way to fill the gap. They acquired and sold (at a profit, of course) those elements that were needed. Demand and supply. And remembering that much of business is about “location, location, location,” what more successful business model can you imagine than right there at the Temple? Certainly there was an additional expense to be paid to the priests for the privilege of this prime real estate, but that would be passed on to the customer anyway—because consumers have always been willing to pay for convenience.

As demand goes up, so do prices. Supply and demand, right? Except we’re not talking about buying ink pens here—we’re talking about the cost of forgiveness of sins; we’re talking about how much you have to pay to be a participating part of a community of faith. Supply and demand—and all of capitalism for that matter—shouldn’t come into play at all. We Protestants took great offense to the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church back in the 1500’s—a practice that amounted to a “get into heaven free card”—and a practice that the Roman Catholic Church has since denounced as well.

On top of this were a second group of economic and religious predators. Also in conspiracy with the Temple priests and the aforementioned merchants, these moneychangers converted the various currencies in use at the time into the only currency the Temple merchants would accept. Despite all the Old Testament condemnations of interest and those who profit by charging it, the moneychangers had become a fixture in the Temple that could not be avoided—especially if you were an out of towner with limited means who was trying to live a faithful life.

The dark side of all this was that people were profiting off of God—and that in doing so, they were waging an unintended economic war against the poor among the Jewish people. That’s strong language, I know. But how else do you describe preventing someone from connecting with God because they don’t have enough money to do it (quote) properly?

If we look anything like God, the very thought of it should get our blood boiling too.

God & Injustice

Now quite often, we Christians draw too firm a line between New Testament and Old, almost as though the Old doesn’t matter, or that it cannot inform life and faith. But what we now call the Old Testament is what the biblical authors simply called “scripture.” It provided the grounding for Jesus’s life and faith, as well as that of the early Church. I’d dare say that should make it good enough for our consideration today, reading it (as did the early Church) through the lens of Jesus life and teaching.

Justice vs. Love

I have often heard folks say that it’s almost like there are two different gods in the bible: the God of the NT is a God of love, revealed in Jesus; the God of the OT is a God of judgement, who often seems to be rampaging through the world and condoning wanton destruction and death.

But I think this dichotomy stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the words translated justice, judgement, and the like actually mean in the OT. In fact, I believe that justice and judgment are natural extensions of God’s heart of love.

Justice in the OT means to set things right—to rightly discern and correct the proper way of things. As expressed in the heart of God, justice looks out for the marginalized, the invisible, or the taken-advantage-of in society. In the OT world, these folks are usually represented as widows, orphans, and aliens.

And there are literally thousands of verses that speak to God’s concern for these marginalized folks, and that when God sides with them it is “justice.” But perhaps the most striking example is the destruction of Sodom. This apparently “unkind” thing was the result of God’s justice and judgment—of God “setting right” something that was not right about the world. But this justice and judgment stems not out of hate or vilence, but rather love and concern for those who were victimized by that society. Ezekiel 16:49 says:

“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV)

This (according to the bible) is why Sodom was destroyed: because they did not practice God’s justice toward the poor and needy.

Justice and judgment are extensions of God’s love as God sets right injustice. Understood thusly, justice and judgment are two sides of the same coin: justice lifts up those victimized and judgment brings down those who are victimizing others.

Rightly understood then, perhaps kindness is only truly kind if it is aligned with God’s justice. Applied to today’s text, we’re forced to wrestle with whether it truly would have been kind for Jesus to permit a predatory and unjust system to continue unopposed.

If kindness is an extension of justice for God, and justice/judgment is an extension of God’s love, then what Jesus does here looks a lot more “kind” than it might at face value. It’s simply that Jesus is showing kindness to victims instead of showing kindness to those profiting off of religion and poverty.

Isaiah 58

This wouldn’t be the first time in human history that God has worked to correct our faulty conceptions of compassion, justice, and love. Here in the season of Lent, my mind continually echoes with the words of the Isaiah reading from Ash Wednesday:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6–7 NRSV)

As Isaiah tells us, loving God isn’t rooted in religious piety or believing the right things, but demonstrating justice for the downtrodden.

Good Samaritan

Jesus, of course, aims for a similar correction in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. “Who is my neighbor?” he is asked. And in a very “Mr. Rogers” kind of way, Jesus realizes that the reason for the question is because the one asking does not know what it means to be neighborly……to be kind, as we’re talking about it today. You remember the story?

Someone is down and out—taken advantage of, treated as less than human, abused, and completely uncared for—left for dead, as Jesus says. Discarded by the side of the road like an apple core or banana peel.

A pastor comes walking by—someone who is regarded as spiritually astute, who has responsibilities in the Church, and who many consider “closer” to God than any ordinary person ever achieves. This pastor sees the story’s victim—that’s important (I think) and not included by accident. The pastor recognizes that there is a person here who has been chewed up and spit out by life. This person may even be dead, and dead people take up a lot of a pastor’s time when they come our way. So whether for this or another reason, the pastor denies what he sees, and she passes by without a word or interference.

Some time later, a deacon comes walking by—someone who knows the bible inside and out, who has important and visible responsibilities in worship, a person who (like the pastor) is an important spiritual role model for the community. But also like the pastor, the deacon sees the man in his destroyed and vulnerable state—perhaps even dead—and he slips along as though the man were a discarded McDonalds bag, caught in the grass.

Finally, a third person comes by. This person doesn’t go to church. He has a different religion than you and than the victim of Jesus’s story. He’s the kind of person you’ve been warned about by your culture. So while it might make us uncomfortable, considering this man a Muslim is a pretty close parallel in our modern version. (This is, after all, a parable Jesus tells with the purpose of making people uncomfortable). The Muslim man is moved with compassion for the perhaps-dead body on the side of the road. Whereas the good, “Christian” folks were too busy, or too pious, or too judgmental, or too whatever to be bothered, the Muslim man goes out of his way and allows this encounter to cost him in time, money, and energy. Not content to pat himself on the back for a singular act of compassion, the Muslim man commits to the victim’s ongoing welfare and well being.

That is, of course, what happens when we genuinely feel compassion for someone else; our lives become entangled in ways that are not easily undone.

Who is my neighbor?
What does it mean to be neighborly?
What does it mean to be kind?

It means that compassion moves through us as we participate in God’s justice.

It means our religion or faith is an expression of the love of God.

It means that the love of God finds action in our lives through our participation in the pursuit of justice and the fight against injustice.

It means that sometimes we (like Jesus in the Temple) have got to stand up against the unjust systems of this world, even though people will point at us and use our stand to manipulate and discount the message we seek to live out.

Trust?

But if we trust God enough to follow Jesus, then we already know that they will not succeed.

God can and will manage our reputation, if we are actually risking it for the kingdom.

God can and will advance the Kingdom, even if the forces of darkness in this world seem to undermine and manipulate it.

God can and will bring about justice, because God’s heart is love.

What needs to die in order for us to live into who God has called us to be? Our tolerance for injustice needs to die, or else we will find ourselves working against—rather than with—our God and savior.

Amen. May it be so.

God’s Way Is Love Not Power

Scripture: Mark 8:31-38

 

Intro to Series & Week

As we move from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, we will be moving “From Ashes to Fire” in our worship and reflection.

During this Lenten season, we wrestle with the question of “What needs to die?” in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. After Easter, we will begin to ask “What needs kindled?” in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.

This morning, as we read scripture and reflect on the question “What needs to die?” another answer emerges: Our insistence on doing everything our way, through our power, needs to die.

Louise & the Hotel

It was one of the most powerless experiences of my life; and over the next two years or so, I would live it over and over at least a dozen times.

I’m standing in the office of a live-in hotel in Brookfield, Illinois. There are only three of us in the small, sparse room, and the other two people are yelling at each other. One is threatening to call the police; the other shoots her own threats back, venom flying from her mouth like flecks of spittle.

It is the man who has called me, though I never met him before this moment. He and his family own and live at this hotel, and while it may not be the Hilton, it provides shelter to those on the margins of this community: day laborers, immigrants, homeless folks who scrap together some dollars  here and there during the winter to escape the elements, itinerant workers, and of course Louise.

Louise (not her real name) was my friend. She is the one spitting venom at the owner. She is also a paranoid-schizophrenic, and quite extreme on that scale. This time (if I remember correctly), she decided the hotel owner was in collusion with the bank that manages her trust in order to embezzle all her money, just like the government of the city of Chicago did with the FBI to steal her parents house from her over ten years ago.

Louise doesn’t have a trust. No one stole her parent’s house from her. When she failed to pay property taxes for years, the house was seized. That was also when Louise was discovered to be a hoarder. By then, she’d already had a sizable file from her neighbors’ complaints. And by the time everyone sized up the situation, it was decided that Louise couldn’t manage her own affairs, and she became a ward of the state, despite being over 50. It was actually the state that was issuing checks directly to this hotel so Louise would have shelter. She didn’t actually have any money at all.

But Louise didn’t trust the government. She loathed anyone she thought was trying to control her, no matter how remotely. There was Louise’s side of the story, and there were the forces of evil, with no gray in between.

This made it difficult (of course) to figure out what was going on in these present circumstances, as hotel owner and tenant dueled and dealt vicious blows to one another.

If I questioned Louise’s version of the story, she would shut me down and cut me off, and I would not be able to help her at all.

If I wholly accept her version, I would prove myself to be just as irrational before this stranger who already has absolutely no reason to listen to anything I say.

He has every right to throw her out, but throwing her out would put Louise on the streets, where I would lose track of her and God only knows what would happen.

That was the situation in a nutshell. Never before in my life have I so desperately wanted to help someone, yet realized I had no power to help whatsoever.

 

In hindsight, this came to be one of the most important moments of my life as a Christian. Because this was the place—in history and geography—where I began to learn that God’s way is not power but love.

It was not in my power to make anything happen.

But I could demonstrate love…… and that’s what I chose to attempt.

And on that day, in these impossible circumstances, love accomplished what power could not: Louise got to stay in her apartment.

 

Over the next two years or so, this episode repeated itself a dozen or more times. And there were other episodes as well. Sometimes, my attempts to get Louise medical care when she was sick or some such thing were interpreted through the dark phantasms of her imagination, and she’d cut me off for weeks on end. I’d been caught colluding with the enemy, as she believed it, and was justly excluded.

Since Louise became a part of the church I served, she formed relationships with others there too. And many of them were likewise drawn by compassion into the impossible circumstances of Louise’s life. At times, that involved subjecting yourself to verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse—there’s no nice way of putting it. Those who became closest to Louise required regular counseling in order to process their own experiences. And quite regularly, one of the questions on the table went like this:

I want to help her. But every time we walk a step or two forward with Louise, she has an episode, and ends up further behind than when we started. Can she actually be helped? Are we doing any good?

It was certainly a situation with no easy answers. And this isn’t really a happy-ending story. Through her relationship with the church, we kept Louise housed for several years. But eventually it failed, like we all knew it one day would. Friends in this enterprise kept me in the loop for a few years, more committed to Louise’s wellbeing than she seemed to be herself, but it has now been a few years since anyone has seen her.

I still pray for Louise.

 

There are lots of lessons I learned in my attempts to “be Christ” to Louise. But the biggest is this: God’s love is revealed most completely in situations where there is absolutely no hope of success.

No hope of success means there is no chance for ulterior motives. Either you do something because you care about someone, or else you don’t. It’s a kind of “pure” ministry that we don’t usually trust enough to try. And while my soul remains scarred from my relationship with Louise, I would not avoid a single second if I had the chance.

God’s way is love and not power.

Wild at Heart

Author John Eldredge, famous for his books on men’s spirituality, writes a lot about how our God is a God of impossible circumstances. God, Eldredge says, is a God who “loves to come through…[who] loves to show us that he has what it takes” (Wild at Heart, p.31).

Look at the stories… There’s the one where the children of Israel are pinned against the Red Sea, no way out, with Pharaoh and his army barreling down on them in murderous fury. Then God shows up.

There’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who get rescued only after they’re thrown into the fiery furnace. Then God shows up.

[God] let’s the mob kill Jesus, bury him…then he shows up.

Then Eldredge asks:

Do you know why God loves writing such incredible stories? Because [God] loves to come through. [God] loves to show us that [God] has what it takes.

It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases. Far from it. Most of the time, [God] actually lets the odds stack up against him. Against Goliath, a seasoned soldier and a trained killer, [God] sends…a freckle-faced little shepherd kid with a slingshot.

Most commanders going into battle want as many infantry as they can get. God cuts Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three-hundred. Then he equips the ragtag little band that’s left with torches and watering pots.

[Elderedge continues…] It’s not just a battle or two that God takes his chances with, either. Have you thought about [God’s] handling of the gospel? God needs to get a message out to the human race, without which they will perish…forever. What’s the plan? First, [God] starts with the most unlikely group ever: a couple of prostitutes, a few fishermen with no better than a second-grade education, a tax collector. Then [God] passes the ball to us. Un-be-lievable. (pp 30-32).

God’s way is love not power.

Mark 8: Power Struggles

Today’s scripture illustrates this as well.

Jesus speaks “plainly” about the things to come: it will not go well for him.

Suffering.
Rejection.
Murder……

But also resurrection.

But this is not what Peter and the other disciples signed up for.

A chapter from now Jesus is going to catch his disciples arguing which of them is the greatest. This isn’t a dispute about who has the best taste in donuts; this is about who is going to be Jesus’ right hand man, so to speak. Who do they think is going to be top dog. But Jesus tells them “If anyone would be first, [they] must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV).

Another chapter forward from that, and James and John are trying to get special favors from Jesus—the ability to sit on Jesus’ left and right when Jesus is enthroned as king. They want to be Jesus #1 and #2 people, with all the power and authority that comes therewith. This time Jesus tries to spell it out even more clearly:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45 NRSV).

Peter Rebukes Jesus

That won’t be the end of it either. But back in Mark chapter 8, this intoxication and lust for power and authority drives Peter to do something remarkable.

After hearing Jesus’ plan for the rest of his life, Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter rebukes Jesus.

Can you imagine—just for a second—what that would have been like?

Hey, uh, Jesus? Yeah, could you come over here a second?

Yeah, I…uh… just wanted to touch base with you about this suffering and dying thing.

You see, the guys and I have been talking, and that’s just not……that’s not what we’re all about. We kind of thought there’d be more, uh, universal recognition for us casting off the yoke of Rome and all.

And, uh, we know you’re the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and all that, but……uh……we don’t think that would be good for the Jesus “brand” if you know what I mean.

So you shouldn’t……you shouldn’t do that.

Thaaat’d be great.

Peter! rebukes! Jesus!

There was this one time I talked back to my mom when I was 7 that I’m still recovering from, and Peter has the gall to tell God that God is doing it wrong.

The Reason

What’s important, of course, is not really “what happens” here but “why.” The reason Peter confronts Jesus is because Peter is thinking about this messiah thing from the perspective of power and authority. He expects that this Jesus thing is going to snowball from a local grassroots initiative, to one that shapes the nation, to one that shapes the world. It can only grow, and with Peter getting in on the ground floor, he’s got a lot to lose if something goes wrong.

Now I know this sounds harsh for poor Peter, but it’s true for all of us—especially in our American context. We have a lot to lose in life, even those of us with only a little in terms of resources. And our American ideology tells us that we have the right—the right!—to wield our power (whatever it is) to protect what we have.

If you dare threaten what I have—physically, economically, socially, politically, or whatever—I will take you down.

That’s what happens behind the scenes in our minds. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying there’s been an awful lot of folk getting “taken down” lately because someone felt threatened.

Peter’s whole world—including his future and his hopes—are threatened by what Jesus tells him. So he insists that Jesus do it his way instead—the way of power.

Rejection & Redemption

But Jesus rejects the way of power as emphatically as anyone possibly could: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). This is not the way of God but the way of humanity. This is the way of this broken world Jesus has come to redeem.

You see, we in this world had ourselves become an impossible situation. However you want to imagine the redemptive work of Jesus, the bible is emphatic that we were without hope. The ways God had tried to lead us in faith and life and community had failed. There was no chance that we were going to somehow “figure it out.” There was no way that we were going to save ourselves. If anything, we—like my friend Louise—had become skilled at only one thing: sabotaging ourselves.

Into our hopelessness, God plunged into flesh, taking on God’s self our full humanity and living as us and with us. And it ended about as you’d expect: we killed him. We had one chance and we ruined it too.

But neither we nor the forces of darkness were strong enough to kill God’s love. God’s love is a power that overcomes even death itself. Though Jesus indeed “bled peace into the world by His death on the cross as God’s means of reconciling to Himself the whole creation” as we read in Colossians 1:20 (VOICE), the cross is not the end of this story.

Death itself is defeated by God’s love. The greatest weapon the Enemy had to wield against us has been destroyed by God’s love. Our fear of death is the whole reason we hold so tightly to things like power and authority and right and might—yet it has been conquered by the love of God.

God’s love managed to do what no power could do……what no authority could influence……what no might could force……

God’s love has flipped the script.
Jumped the shark.
Subverted the plot.

God’s love made a way where there was no way.

And it’s been my experience, that God’s love is the only way that makes any sense or difference in the impossibilities of life.

Close

Our community is reeling from the recent deaths of two high schoolers.

Our nation is reeling from school tragedies of another sort that is also far too common.

Our world is reeling from as much fear and violence as we have probably ever in history committed against each other.

The way forward—in any of these situations—looks impossible.

There are too many variables to comprehend.

There is too much political polarization for “the common good” to be achieved.

There are far too many thinking only about “me” and never about “we” for our global society to move towards any progress.

But across the millennia of human existence, there is a path that is clearly marked—a path that leads through impossibility. It is a path that meanders through even the greatest obstacle of all: death.

That path is love.

So while I don’t pretend to know what the future holds in the short term, I know for certain that God’s way is love and not power. And I know that if we find ourselves in an impossible situation, that is the only way out for us, too.

Amen.

God Loves You

Scripture: Mark 1:9-15

Series Overview

This year, as we pass through the Lenten season, I hope to guide us in some serious reflection about the way we live out our lives as the Body of Christ in the world.

As a general theme, we are moving “from ashes to fire”—that is, from the ashes of Ash Wednesday (when we are reminded of our mortality and the ways Christ is to live through us) to the fire of Pentecost (where the Spirit moves and works in and through us in powerful ways that change the world).

More specifically, our Lenten worship will be reflecting on the question of what needs to die in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. What unhealthy obstacles block the path of progress in our Christian lives and in our efforts to advance the kingdom of God?

After Easter and moving toward Pentecost, we will consider what needs kindled in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us. What do we need to breathe life into if we are really going to embody Jesus the Christ and advance God’s mission of love?

Today—as we focus for the first time on the question “What needs to die?”—we realize one thing that needs to die is our denial that we are the Beloved of God.

For many of us, this story of Jesus’ baptism is really the first place in scripture that we encounter the concept of the Beloved of God, so it is here where we begin.

It is a remarkable story that most of us have heard so many times that it seems quite mundane. But consider the extraordinary elements of this story:

Jesus the Messiah—the Christ—seeks out baptism by John, even though we know John’s baptism was a sign of repentance.

There’s this heavenly vision of the sky opening, the Spirit descending like a dove, and the booming voice of God.

And about that booming voice: In a clear reference to Isaiah 42:1, God expresses love and satisfaction for Jesus, —but Jesus hasn’t even begun to claim his identity yet; he hasn’t done anything.

The affirmation that Jesus is loved by God is immediately—immediately!—followed by one of the most intense periods of wrestling and temptation of Jesus’ life.

And then when Jesus does begin a ministry of sorts, it isn’t a bombastic, charismatic, miracle-working juggernaut of evangelism; rather, all Jesus seems to do at this point is take up where John the Baptist left off upon his arrest.

Every one of these remarkable elements is worthy of consideration and reflection, but it is those words of God to Jesus that capture our imaginations today.

Jesus is not called Beloved because of anything he has done—he hasn’t really accomplished anything yet.

Jesus is not called Beloved on account of the miracles he has worked, or through the healings he has wrought, or on account of all the people who believe in him, or any of that—because none of it has happened.

Jesus is called Beloved by God
simply because that is who he is.

In the same way,
we
are called the Beloved of God
because that is who we are.

We are the Beloved

More than 40 times in the New Testament alone, followers of Jesus are referred to as “Beloved.” Like:

here: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:” (Romans 1:7 NRSV)

or here: “To those who are called, who are beloved by God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ:” (Jude 1:1 NRSV+)

or here: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” (Ephesians 5:1 NRSV)

or here: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12 NRSV)

In Romans 9:25, Paul says that we are living into the fulfillment of Hosea 2:23, stating:

As indeed [God] says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” (Romans 9:25 NRSV)

That’s us. We are the Beloved of God, and that love has been demonstrated for us through Christ in such a selfless, self-sacrificing way that we still struggle to come to terms with it all these years later.

God doesn’t love us because……[fill in the blank]

God doesn’t love us in spite of……[fill in the blank]

God loves us. Period. End of sentence.

We cannot do anything to make God love us less. Nor can we do anything to earn the love that God so extravagantly lavishes upon us.

Nouwen & Our Resistance to This Reality

But for all sorts of reasons, we humans—and even those of us who profess to follow Jesus—we struggle to claim to the love that God offers us. We resist living into our identity as the Beloved of God.

Spiritual author Henri Nouwen has written a small book on the subject, called (appropriately) The Life of the Beloved. Early in the book he says:

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” (Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p.31)

Expanding on this, Nouwen continues:

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” (Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p.33)

Speaking of his own life, Nouwen says that he lived a long time without claiming this as his core truth. He says:

I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’ That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices saying: ‘Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.’ Meanwhile, the soft, gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or, at least, unconvincing. (Life of the Beloved, p.33-34)

I don’t know about you, but Nouwen’s words speak to a delicate place in my own heart and life. There is always this voice inside of me:

pointing out my failures,
comparing me unfavorably to others,
reminding me of how I undermine myself;

telling me I’m not good enough,
or smart enough,
or talented enough,
or gifted enough,
or spiritual enough,
or connected enough,
or responsible enough,
or disciplined enough,
or fit enough,
or consistent enough,
or committed enough,
or visionary enough…… [BREATHE]

Trust me: there’s more; I’m just running out of breath.

That voice is usually so loud that I can’t even hear myself think.

But I’m reminded of 1John 4:1, where we read: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” ( NRSV).

And I just know that the “spirits” John is talking about aren’t necessarily the things outside in the world that are interfering with God’s mission of love and life. I believe that the instruction to “not believe every spirit” speaks in a powerful way to the voices inside ourselves as well—voices that deny that we are in fact the Beloved of God.

Unity as a Sign of the Spirit

This is something that needs to die in my life. And with the death of this denial comes room to live into our core identity as persons loved—truly loved!—by God.

But it is not (of course) enough to point out a problem. We need to know some concrete steps in moving forward in this new way of living as God’s Beloved. In his book, Nouwen will use the communion imagery of being taken, blessed, broken, and given as metaphors for how we do this. But as he concludes, he offers a piece of wisdom that seems to be just the kind bite-sized, baby-Christian-manageable food that I seem to need to be successful in letting God change me. He says:

Living the spiritual life means living life as one unified reality. The forces of darkness are the forces that split, divide, and set in opposition. The forces of light unite. Literally, the word “diabolic” means dividing. The demon divides; the Spirit unites…

There is no clearer way to discern the presence of God’s Spirit than to identify the moments of unification, healing, restoration, and reconciliation. Wherever the Spirit works, divisions vanish and inner as well as outer unity manifests itself. (Life of the Beloved, pp.134-35)

As I look around our community, the world, and cyberspace, there seem to be innumerable opportunities for this Spirit-work that flows out of knowing that God loves us.

But will we accept God’s invitation to participate in this mission-work of building God’s kingdom?

Will we reject the divisive, false-prophet voices that arise within us and tell us we are not good enough?

Will we stand up to the divisive rhetoric and ideology of our world and practice unity and wholeness in our community and beyond?

Will we discover the unity and freedom of resting in the loving arms of the God who loves us so?

The decision is left to us, church. May we discover the wisdom, courage, and love that empowers us to choose the path of Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday Challenge

For Ash Wednesday this year, the faith community I serve partnered with another local faith community to mark this observance jointly. The other pastor preached, and I offered this brief challenge near the close of the service.

 

Sisters and brothers, Beloved of God, we are marked for death.

This mark here (touches forehead) will (of course) come right off with a little bit of oil, which will be available after the service.

But the mark that Jesus the Christ leaves on our life is not so easily dismissed. Nor is our calling as disciples who follow after him.

It is Jesus who calls us to take up our cross and follow him. (Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23; usw.)

It is Jesus who reminds us of our blessing when others revile us and persecute us and slander us–for such they did to the prophets, and such they will do to Jesus. (Mt 5:11-12)

It is Jesus who teaches that the one who seeks to save her life will lose it, but the one who loses their life for his sake will find it. (Lk 9:24)

Though it is a hard truth to accept, it seems we follow Jesus most closely when we, like Thomas Didymus in John 11:16, resign ourselves to this fate and proclaim: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (ESV).

Sisters and brothers, Beloved of God, we are marked for death.

And yet……through Jesus’ own death on the cross (which we remember through these marks on our foreheads) and through the resurrection that follows, God has indeed conquered death. It no longer has any sway over us. We have nothing to fear in death, for in Christ, God has rendered death impotent–overcoming it for all time. This liberates us to live the life of Christ fully and without fear of consequences, because (after all):

“The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalms 27:1 NIV11)

The Not-So-Subtle Work of God

 

Scripture: Psalm 50:1-6

 

 

 

Transfiguration: Mark 8-9

It happened before they even knew what was going on.

Things with Jesus had been strange for a few days–ever since Jesus got weird with Peter. There’d been some amazing things happening: thousands fed miraculously, a blind man healed. And then, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus circled the wagons (as he was wont to do when he wanted to ask hard questions or offer some mysterious teaching).

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27–30 NRSV)

But this time it seemed neither. “Who do people say I am?” he asked. It was a strange question, coming from Jesus. For someone who cared so much about people, Jesus never seemed to care much what they thought of him.

Not knowing where he was going with this, they tried to answer his question: “Some think John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus made it personal: “Who do you say I am?”

Of course, before anyone else had the chance to say anything, Simon Peter’s enthusiasm burst out: “You are the Christ.” Given the way Jesus responded, it seemed to be the right answer, so to speak. Because that’s when Jesus started getting all hush hush about him being the Messiah (–that’s what “christ” means, after all).

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31–33 NRSV)

But that’s also when Jesus started getting pretty explicit about what was to come, saying he was going to suffer, face persecution from the religious establishment, and ultimately be killed and rise again.

But then Peter’s enthusiasm got the better of him……again. I think he stopped listening at “be killed,” assuming he got any further than “suffering.” Peter pulled Jesus aside and told him that Jesus has it all wrong–that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The intensity of Jesus’ rebuke hit all twelve disciples. He addressed Peter as though Peter were Satan himself, and said that Peter had lost sight of God’s values.

Peter wilted, of course. You couldn’t look at him and not think he must have gotten whiplash being jerked from such a height to such depth.

After that, the disciples were all a bit wary of Jesus. And not much happened until several days later when everything changed forever.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus…Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4, 7-8 NRSV)

Jesus was going out, and with him he took only Peter, James, and John. That part wasn’t all that strange, really. They made up the inner circle, so to speak.

Jesus had lots of disciples–hundreds of men and women mentioned in the scriptures.

But there was a smaller circle of 70 that got commissioned to go out two by two and perform miracles and preach the Kingdom of God.

Of that 70, there was a smaller group known as the Twelve. These were what we think of as the disciples, proper.

But then there was still an inner circle within the Twelve, made up of these three. They were Jesus’ most trusted confidants. They were closest in the most pivotal or sensitive moments of Jesus life.

And this thing that happened…… well, I’d say it fits that bill.

Like many times before, Jesus seemed to be going to pray. And when he went out to pray, Jesus often went into the country, and he climbed up to a high place. For virtually the whole of human existence–despite culture or geography or religion–humans have felt that high places were holy places.

But instead of just praying like the disciples expected, something otherworldly happened.

Jesus’ appearance changed dramatically. It was so extraordinary that it’s hard to describe. His clothes looked so white it was difficult to look at them. There was a sparkly radiance, like the sunlight being reflected by a shard of glass. And before the disciples came to terms with this sudden transformation, they realized they were not alone. Two other human figures appeared–as if out of the ether. Somehow the disciples knew them to be Moses and Elijah–but how can this be? they’ve been dead for ages! The three of them talked–Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—-and for how long? no one could tell. It seemed over before anyone came to terms with it starting.

It took some time, but the disciples slowly understood what had happened. This not-so-subtle transformation of their Rabbi Jesus was a kind of revealing or unveiling (that’s what “apocalypse” means, by the way). In this moment, the curtain of eternity temporarily pulled back and they saw Jesus for who he is: the Beloved Son of God.

We today, of course, know that the Beloved Son of God will return. Immanuel–God with us–will one day return and bring about the full transformation of all things according to God’s loving desires.

Like the transfiguration of Jesus before his disciples, the transformation of all of creation is not a subtle thing that God is doing. As another translation of Psalm 50 puts v.3: “Our God will come, and He will not enter on a whisper” (VOICE).

In order to help us imagine it, Isaiah 42:14 tells us that God is like a woman giving birth, “crying out” and “gasping and panting” “like a woman in labor” (NRSV). As someone who’s been in the room three times while a woman gave birth, I’d say “crying out, gasping, and panting” is an understatement–and that’s with modern medicine smoothing the way as best as it can.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago, when child-bearing was incredibly dangerous for both mother and child. It is estimated that at that time almost 1 in every 50 childbirths resulted in the death of the mother. Around a third of newborns did not live a month, with more than 50% dying before they reached ten years of age.

I simply cannot imagine the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma these mothers endured. And Isaiah says to us that God is like this.

God is like this because God is working to birth a future into existence……a future that Jesus and the bible call the Kingdom of God. Today’s psalm talks about this not-so-subtle transformation of all things as being characterized by God’s justice, people of all sorts being drawn to God, and the recognition that Yahweh is the only and true God.

Later in the New Testament, Jesus says this Kingdom is incubating in us (Luke 17:21 MLS). We, as his followers and disciples, are the womb where this transformation is gestating. This isn’t going to be easy for us either–this birthing of God’s kingdom into the world. And if we’re going to do it, it is going to require some not-so-subtle transformation of our own lives as well.

Someone once said that a church is a community where we practice living in the Kingdom of God. There’s something to that, I think. If we cannot learn to do it alongside other people who are supposedly learning to do it too, how are we going to do it alongside people with a different set of priorities and convictions?

Subtle Goals?

But sometimes I wonder if we undermine all of this by convincing ourselves that the change–the transformation–God intends is a subtle paradigm shift. Our emphasis on “achievable goals” means that each generation reaches only slightly forward of where we are. If we believe any progress is possible among the church or in the world, we think in terms of being a little bit bigger, a little more wealthy, a little more knowledgable, a little better production, a few more people “served,” and so on.

But today’s psalm reminds me that God doesn’t really do subtle. If you doubt me, look at virtually any interaction Jesus had with anyone: there are no subtle actions; there are no subtle insinuations; there is only direct engagement about the radically transforming work of God.

If we’re going to be honest, we know that we don’t look much like the Jesus we’re supposed to be embodying. That goes for us as individuals, but also as the church.

And while I am fully aware that we are a bunch of sinners who have no hope aside from the hope we find in Jesus, I wonder if we’re just not thinking big enough.

If God is about not-so-subtle transformation, maybe we should be too.

If God is bringing about dramatic changes, maybe we should be dreaming in more dramatic terms.

As much as we’re using our imaginations this morning, I don’t think I’m imagining anything. I think God has big hopes and dreams for each one of you–and for our church–and achieving them is as simple as opening ourselves up for God to do the work in us.

But in order for that to happen:

We’ve got to realize that a band-aid won’t do when major surgery is needed.

We can’t expect that afterward our life will remain essentially the same.

We’ve got to realize that with great power comes great responsibility, and if you’ve been liberated by Christ, it’s for a purpose that’s bigger than you.

If we’re going to be part of birthing God’s Kingdom into this world, it’s going to change us in some not-so-subtle ways. But that transformation will bring about a greater fulfillment and love than anything we can ever know.

And it takes a not-so-subtle commitment to our not-so-subtle God. What do you think? Are we up to it?

 

The Work of God

 

Scripture: Psalm 111

 

The Work of God

What’s up?

Depending on your generation, this phrase may invoke an image of Bugs Bunny or a series of beer commercials that celebrated friendship.

But for a lot of folks–especially those of roughly my generation–this has just become how we greet one another.

[pantomime with phone]

RING RING! “Hello?……Oh, hey! What’s up?”

It’s how we move the conversation from the initial greeting (“hello?”) to its purpose (what are we going to talk about).

But it’s a very multifaceted question, really. We use it to inquire about someone’s health, about how work’s going, about what they’re doing at that precise moment, about what they need from us–to name just a few. It can express concern, compassion, camaraderie, and a whole bunch of things that don’t start with the letter C but I’m a preacher and can’t help myself sometimes.

In an average day, who knows how many times we ask one another “What’s up?” But I wonder how many of us–at any point in the day–ask God the same question.

Psalm 111

It’s actually the question that is at the heart of Psalm 111–our scripture reading for this morning. In it the psalmist lays out some descriptions of the kinds of things God is up to–he paints a picture of what the work of God looks like, and it’s a picture that includes both descriptions and examples.

“Great are the works of the Lord;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.
Glorious and majestic are his deeds,
and his righteousness endures forever.”
(Psalm 111:2-3 NIV)

The work of God is described as “great,” “glorious,” “majestic,” and “righteous.” But it’s also not immediately or easily comprehended. The work of God is something we must contemplate in order to comprehend it more fully. We should–we must!–use our full creative capacities as we ponder and wrestle with the question of what God is up to in our lives and the world.

“He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and compassionate.”
(Psalm 111:4 NIV)

The work of God is memorable. It is defined by grace and compassion–two of the characteristics that are at the heart of who God is. Jesus will state that it is “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34; Lk 6:35 NRSV), and “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16, 20), so we can indeed know the heart of God by paying attention to what God does. The “fruits” of God’s work demonstrate that “the Lord is gracious and compassionate.”

“He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.”
(Psalm 111:5 NIV)

As an illustration of the compassionate and gracious nature of our God, the psalmist offers this example: God is a god who feeds the faithful. And while you could certainly take this completely literally to mean that God provides food for us, I’m pretty sure the psalmist actually intended “food” here in the “daily bread” sense of the Lord’s Prayer. God is involved in providing the ordinary things that are required for life in this world: food, yes, but also covering/sheltering/protecting/healing our bodies, assisting us in getting to and from the places we need to go, and all the other mundane things that make up the ordinary business of life.

“He has shown his people the power of his works,
giving them the lands of other nations.”
(Psalm 111:6 NIV)

The work of God gives space and place. It’s easy to narrow our focus down to Old Testament times and talk about how having a land of their own was important to ancient Israel. Without a land of their own, they didn’t believe they could be a proper “people,” and thus they couldn’t be who God called them to be: a light to the nations.

But the fact is that space and place is just as important today. It is terrible to feel out of place. It is soul-wrenching to experience that there is no space for you to be yourself–that unique creation God has crafted you to be. Communities of Christ such as this one should have such hospitality at their heart and identity that everyone can find their place here, and everyone can have the space to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul says in Philippians 2:12.

“The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.”
(Psalm 111:7-8 NIV)

At this point, the psalmist again moves back to adjectives instead of actions in talking about the work of God. The work of God is faithful, just, trustworthy, and enduring. What is God up to? What is God crafting? Well, we can be sure God is acting in a way that is faithful. God is pursuing justice–a concept in the Old Testament that involves righting wrongs and lifting up and protecting those who are most easily taken advantage of. We can indeed trust God to act this way, and we can have the confidence that the work of God is not aimed at temporary gains, but rather eternal permanence. What God has in mind is nothing short of the redemption of all of creation, a facet of which the psalmist mentions in the next  verse.

“He provided redemption for his people;
he ordained his covenant forever.”
(Psalm 111:9 NIV)

The work of God (moreover) is redeeming and relational. Now redemption is a complex term in Hebrew. It is used to talk about being liberated from slavery, about being saved from marauding enemies, about being “bought” out of jail, and about escaping the consequences of bad decisions, to name a few different shades of meaning. But however we imagine redemption, it invariably involves being freed from things that hold us back so we might live into who God desires us to become.

And this liberating work of God happens because God created us as friends. We were made to be in relationship–with God and with each other. And this relationship God desires with us is something that undergirds the work of God as well as secures it for all of eternity.

Luke 4

Of course, this talk of friendship and redemption can’t help but lead me to Jesus. He famously insisted to his followers in John 15 that they are not his servants but his friends (John 15:14-15)–a fact that they should have already realized because “friend” is the way Jesus greeted almost everyone. That Jesus invites us into friendship continues to be one of the most challenging and rewarding mysteries of the Christian life.

But I’m also reminded of another teaching of Jesus–a teaching that talks about the work Jesus himself is going to be doing. And Jesus’ work sounds an awful lot like the work of God as described in Psalm 111 (which we ought to expect). In Luke 4, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry–in fact, this is the very first “teaching” that Jesus does, according to Luke’s gospel–Jesus goes to synagogue (that’s like Jewish church). He was invited to read and preach, and he chose a text from Isaiah 61–verses that I believe are Jesus’ theme verses for life and ministry. We’ll read from Luke’s account:

‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”‘ (Luke 4:16–21 NRSV)

Here–at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry–Jesus tells the world what kind of work he’s going to be doing. It is good news to the poor. It involves liberty for captives. It involves the restoration of those who are not whole. It involves fighting against oppression. And it involves initiating a kind of “jubilee year,” when everything goes back to the way it should be, and the playing field is leveled in a way it has not been in ages–if ever.

This is the work of Jesus–and as the most complete revelation of God the world has ever known, it is not surprising that the work of Jesus and the work of God are one and the same.

Fear of God

Which brings us back to the psalm–and back to us. Our psalm today ends with a verse that is rather familiar–an adage of sort that we sometimes parrot around. In v.10, we read:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.”

Now, some of you know of my background in biblical languages. And if I had the ability to change just one thing about every single translation in existence, I would change this word “fear.” It’s not that I don’t like what the Bible is saying–it’s that the bible isn’t saying what we’re translating it to say.

In the English language today, fear means “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.” Some version of this is the #1 definition in any dictionary you look to. But distress is the polar opposite of what the psalmist intends. The psalmist intends us to recognize with awe and reference and respect the reality of who God is. It’s not that being afraid of eternal condemnation is the beginning of wisdom, but rather that truly recognizing the place God should occupy in our lives and world–that is the beginning of wisdom.

The reason so many translations still use “the fear of the Lord” in places like this is because of tradition: it was that way in the King James Version 400 years ago and people liked it, so we’re going to keep it that way. Unfortunately, language changes and evolves, and the term “fear” here is just one such example of how we can misunderstand scripture if we do not change and evolve along with.

Here, the psalmist insists that recognizing the reality of who God is prompts in us a discovery that is called “the beginning of wisdom.” This recognition and discovery is the foundation of everything God intends for us and creation. And it drives us toward following the way of living that God has marked for us throughout the Old Testament, and which Jesus demonstrated most fully for us in the New Testament.

If we recognize God rightly, it will have consequences for how we live–we will “follow God’s precepts,” as the psalmist says. Or jumping to the New Testament: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him [that is, Jesus], if we obey his commandments.” (1John 2:3 NRSV).

You see, if we are following in the way of Jesus–if we really recognize the one true God–then we’re going to be involved in the same kinds of things that Jesus and God have done and continue to do in the world. We too will:

bring good news to the poor.
proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
let the oppressed go free,
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (cf. Luke 4:18-19)

If we mean what we say when we confess Jesus as Lord, then (alongside our God and savior), we too will:

act with grace and compassion

feed those starving for survival, and support each other in the mundane requirements of the day

create the spaces and places for people to discover God, to pursue their walk of faith, and to experience welcome.

pursue justice for those on the margins and invest in the things that endure

will be involved in the redemption of all of creation, working alongside God in the re-creation of all things new.

May God help us to be about the work of God that has already been initiated around us. May our work reflect that of our Savior and Maker.