The Basics

Scripture: James 2:1-17

Intro

I’m not sure if it’s James or the lectionary that schedules these readings and sets the limits, but lately it seems there’s something to the number four. 

Last week, we read and reflected on four proverbs that James groups in his presentation of how to make a difference in the world you live in. 

This week, he discusses four convictions—or perhaps commitments—that sum up a back-to-basics approach to how the Christian life is to be lived out.

Favoritism

This chapter begins with a blast that strikes deep, even 2000 years later:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1 NRSV)

“Why, James!” (we respond, like some southern belle in an old movie) “What-ever do you mean?”

Fear not: James clarifies things. And even though James says “if” to frame his evidence, I can’t help but wonder if he really means: “remember that time……”

Remember that time the community leader showed up in their neatly pressed suit, and how welcoming you were of them?

Now (James asks) remember that time that young lady showed up in that halter top and slashed jeans?

Remember that time that guy arrived late in those filthy clothes and smelled of booze?

Remember that time those kids came with that new family and they kept running around and making noise during the sermon?

Remember that time there was that older person who fell asleep and kept snoring?

Remember when that known drug user was here?

Remember that homeless woman?

Remember? James asks. Do you remember how they were treated? Because they were not treated like that wealthy, important guy. There were whispers—some not as quiet as others. There was gossip the following week. Some people avoided them; others just failed to welcome them. But it was (James tells them—and us) a cataclysmic failure to embody our faith.

 

Listen.

A part of our human nature stereotypes and responds to internal prejudices. Evolutionarily, it has helped us survive as a species. But we are not called to “survive as a species.” We are called to embody Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That calling supersedes all others, no matter what. Or it should……

When we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, our stereotypes and prejudices will be challenged. As we learn to love as Christ loves the world, we will learn to look on those society discounts with compassion instead of skepticism. Through our practice of being the body of Christ, we will discover ourselves treating those on the margins as though they were themselves Jesus.

James is clear: Favoritism is incompatible with Christ.

Honor the Poor

This conviction dovetails closely with the second: God honors and values the poor and so must we. In verses 5-6, James accuses the church of dishonoring the poor and reminds them of God’s special interest in the poor of the world.

“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…” (James 2:5–6 NRSV)

Though James doesn’t use as many direct quotations as Paul typically does in his writings, James is no less knowledgable about their shared faith tradition. It is pretty clear that James is referencing a teaching of Jesus that will eventually be recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, verse 20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NRSV).

Jesus himself is of course building on a wealth of tradition wherein God commands the faithful to care for the poor. Whether we look to the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 15), the Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 19:17), or the Prophets (cf. Ezekiel 16:49), we see God repeatedly telling the faithful to care for the poor, to treat them with dignity and respect, and to work generously for their benefit. God is even pretty insistent that if a person isn’t respecting the poor in these ways, their supposed faith is worthless in God’s eyes. 

As we think of James’s back-to-basics instruction for Christians, the heart of Proverbs 19:17 comes to mind. That proverb proclaims “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full” (NRSV). The way we treat the poor should be the way we treat God; or—to put it in more Christian terms—the way we would treat Jesus himself is the way we should treat the poor: to do to them is to do to him.

Fulfill the Royal Law

In case all this isn’t clear enough for us, James then directs us back to what the early church considered the most central teaching of Jesus—what he terms the “Royal Law” of Christ: 

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV).

This teaching—particularly considering the way Jesus defines “neighbor” to include even one’s enemies in the parable of the Good Samaritan—this teaching is the core of how one lives a truly Christ-like life. In a section of scripture focused the basics of living a Christian life, this teaching is certainly its heart.

James is careful to connect it to the previous instructions as well.

Showing partiality is a violation of this Royal Law. 

Dishonoring the poor is a violation of this Royal Law. 

While they are busy judging others for not measuring up to their own sense of religiosity, they have themselves fallen into sin against God. Instead of prejudicing certain sins against others to inflate their sense of self-righteousness, James instructs the church to embody Jesus’s Royal Law by showing abundant mercy.

Lived Out Faith

Thus we come to the fourth commitment. Instead of your life being distinctive because of who you associate with, or what you look like, or how much “righteousness” you appear to possess, James insists that what should be distinctive about the Christian life is that our faith is known through our actions.

After insisting that “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (a paraphrase of Matthew 7:1-2), James verbalizes the too-often disjointed relationship between faith and life. Having faith, he says in v.14, is of no value at all if it is not lived out in your life. He even suggests that faith alone isn’t enough to enact salvation, a statement that has proven challenging for interpreters ever since.

Our challenge as more modern readers—at least in part—is reconciling this teaching of James with those of Paul. In one of my study bibles, I found a note that I think may be helpful for us. It says:

“Paul describes the root of salvation: a person is saved by God’s grace through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation: saving faith is a faith that works.” (The Voice, p.1499)

I think they’re right here. Perhaps James has in mind here the parable of the soils, recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. In that teaching of Jesus, the seed of the Gospel is received by a variety of soils—these people “have faith,” at least in a rudimentary sense. But for a variety of reasons, those seeds never produce a harvest at all. The soil that Jesus calls “good” is the soil that produces a harvest. So for James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV).

 

This command by James to let your faith be known through your actions is both the final instruction of this section, as well as an illustration of the previous three principles that were discussed. 

If you are fulfilling the Royal Law of Christ, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are honoring the poor, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are not showing bias and prejudice, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

Politics

Now just to stir the pot one final time today (because I do seem to like pushing my luck), I’m going to make a confession: I do believe most Christians think they are living out their faith through their actions and convictions. But I’m not sure this faith is always rooted in Jesus the Christ.

Especially in our nation, and especially over the last thirty years or so, there has emerged a class of leaders that claim to speak for Christians and seek to wield that power for political gain. They have dictated to millions of Christians which issues are most “Christian” and most worthy of fighting for. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to the issues that are the most politically volatile, and therefore malleable for other purposes.

I do not see in them much overlap with what we are reading here in James—in a text that is specifically aimed to reveal to Christians how their faith should be made known in the world.

I do not see in them much overlap with the life of Jesus, whose “excellent name…[is] invoked over [them]” (James 2:7).

I do not see in them much overlap with the God of the Old Testament, who destroyed Sodom because she “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV).

You see: standing out from the world is not that difficult–there are a thousand ways we could stand out. But standing out as a Christian must be rooted in living out God’s mercy–not by voting a certain way, or dressing a certain way, or even holding certain doctrines. 

If we want to follow Jesus, the bible is pretty clear about how we are to live. But we’re going to have to start listening to the bible—and the Holy Spirit—more than we’re listening to the people who are telling us how to vote.

Our Public Image Problem

Ten or fifteen years ago, we Baptists had a major public-image problem. When an average person thought of a Baptist church they thought of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. Our public image problem was so bad, I knew of a couple churches who dropped “baptist” from their name specifically to differentiate themselves from this toxic cult. Today, most still don’t have a great image of baptists, but at least they tend to know that the Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of baptists specifically or Christians in general.

But today, I do believe american Christianity is facing a similar public-image problem. Political segments have successfully seized control of various facets of Christendom, and are controlling churches and Christians with toxic theology, and wielding them as weapons in political warfare. And many of us keep going along with it, even though these so-called Christian leaders keep changing the rules and talking out of both sides of their mouth in order to keep us supporting their people. 

The way we baptists proved we weren’t like the Westboro Baptist Church was to speak and act out in ways that proved it to the world. I think american Christianity is at a similar crossroads. If we do not begin setting our own agenda—or rather, get back to the basics of what Jesus’s agenda was about—then our reputation, our witness, and our effectiveness will wither as we “blaspheme [Jesus’s] excellent name,” as James puts it in 2:7.

Remember: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV). 

When it comes to the basics of living a Christ-like life, that’s as basic as it comes.

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The Practice of Righteousness

Scripture: 1John 3:1-7

Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s a phrase I heard a lot growing up–and one I now hear come out of my own mouth more and more as I parent children of my own.

“Practice makes perfect” speaks to that universal reality that you’ve got to work at something if you want to be good at it. You can’t just swing a leg over a bicycle and expect to ride it without training wheels. You can’t just one day pick up a guitar and immediately play like Eric Clapton or Slash. Nearly everything in life takes dedicated, consistent practice if you expect to become proficient.

Jesus, Paul, and……well……many writers in both the Old and New Testaments stress something like this for those of us committed to following God. Faith is something that requires practice. It is a muscle that needs trained in order to get stronger. Growing faith is (it turns out) a lot like all other kinds of growing. It takes consistent, disciplined action over time.

And so we all have a responsibility as individuals–and as a community–to practice together our faith as we grow in likeness to our savior Jesus the Christ: as we “become like him,” as our scripture reading anticipates in v.2.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice makes perfect” became a kind of foundation stone for much of my life–for my academics, for my faith, for my hobbies–for everything, really.

That’s why it was so surprising back in college when I heard my music teacher claim that the idea that “practice makes perfect” is wrong.

“What?” I asked.

He answered: “Improvement is based on the quality of the practice, not the quantity. You can practice all day, but if you aren’t practicing well, you will never improve–and you may even get worse. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

In truth, this is probably most graphically illustrated in the music world. If you’re learning a piece of music, but you keep playing or singing that one line wrong, then what you’re practicing is doing it wrong; you’re practicing being incorrect. You’ve got to slow down–maybe even ridiculously slow–slow enough that you can play it without error. Then do that again and again and again. And only when you can play it perfectly, repeatedly, do you then gradually increase the tempo.

If you practice doing it wrong, you’ll play it wrong.

If you practice doing it right, you’ll play it correctly.

Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

Practicing Incorrectly

So how does that apply to our lives of faith and today’s scripture lesson?

Well, first of all, we may be practicing our faith incorrectly.

Now, I’m wary of being misunderstood here. There are many practices of faith that do not have a strict “right” way. Prayer is a great illustration: there is no wrong way to pray. If you are doing something that opens you up to God, you’re doing it right.

But sometimes we’re trying to do the right thing, but our focus is off, so we end up practicing the wrong thing. Like how in the last months it seems some are more ready to forgive abusers than believe victims. Forgiveness is a vital and important practice of our faith (Matthew 6:14; John 20:23; Colossians 3:13; etc.). As the embodiment of Christ in the world, we are to extend forgiveness as readily as we have received it.

But in these cases we seem to overlook the fact that God always sides with victims–and the greatest judgments pronounced on our ancestors came about because they were not doing enough to protect those vulnerable from becoming victims.

Sometimes it seems we’ve misplaced our priorities, or we don’t really know how to put first things first. Whatever the reason, there are times that we’ve been practicing incorrectly.

Practicing the Wrong Thing

There are other times, however, when we may be practicing the wrong things altogether.

Our scripture reading mentions those who make a practice of sinning (vv.4, 6). And for centuries this has certainly been a struggle entangling Christians. We get deceived into believing that someone else’s sin is worse than our own, so we overlook the log in our own eye to pluck the speck out of another’s (Luke 6:41-42). Or it may be that certain sins simply become normal in our lives, most often on account of the culture in which we find ourselves.

As an example, there are a lot of harsh words from public “Christians” these days against immigrants. That’s hard to reconcile with God’s instruction to “welcome the stranger” and alien, because that is who we once were.

There’s a lot of “Christian” support for policies that make healthcare more expensive and difficult to obtain. When so many are sick and hurting and dying from treatable conditions, it’s hard to maintain that the followers of Jesus in fact value life.

There are a lot of negative comments from “Christians” about those utilizing government services, but those same voices argue against a fair and equitable wage because they don’t want their Big Mac’s to cost more money. In doing so, they forget that “Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves [their] wages”” (1Timothy 5:18 ESV).

Too often, the public voices I hear claiming to speak for Christianity articulate the ideology of a political party rather than anything approximating “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” freedom for “the oppressed,” or “the year of the Lord’s favor”–which is precisely what Jesus says is his business in Luke chapter 4 (vv.18–21 NRSV).

As indicated in our scripture lesson in v.7, those of us who are followers of Jesus need to make sure we are in fact practicing the right things–what the writer calls “righteousness.”

Practicing Righteousness

But you know, this word “righteousness” can get us twisted up sometimes. I think most of the time I have heard it defined as “right actions or beliefs,” which isn’t really a terrible translation, but it does have some flaws.

First up among the flaws is that “or”–“actions or beliefs.” You see, in the bible, belief and action are not either/or propositions. They are intrinsically bound together, and they flow into each other. Right belief produces right action; right actions grow right belief. It is always both:

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NRSV).

And: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26 NRSV)

Either one–without the other–reveals a lack of faith. It reveals that we never really knew God at all.

A second flaw in defining “righteousness” as “right actions or beliefs” has to do with what we mean by “right.” If “right” means correct, then our faith statements–our beliefs–become a kind of litmus test of faith. Faith means believing the right things. And in the last decades, this kind of right-ness has often been defined among Christians by what one believes about things like:

abortion

homosexuality

the inerrancy of the bible

creation and science

the end times, and so on.

But none of that is what the biblical authors meant  by “right.” The concept of righteousness in the bible is intrinsically linked to the concept of justice; you cannot talk about one without the other.

Justice and judgment in the bible have to do with all things becoming aligned with God’s way. And for the bulk of the bible, that has a lot to do with Matthew 25 kinds of things: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the exposed, visiting the sick, and liberating the captive (cf. vv.31-46). The righteous person–the person who is practicing “right-ness” is the one who does these kinds of things.

In fact, throughout scripture, practicing this kind of righteousness is the single clearest indicator of whether or not you are aligned with God.

In Isaiah 58:1-8, God rejects the religious practices of his people, reminding them that it is all worthless unless they care for the outsiders and the vulnerable.

In Ezekiel 16:49, God reveals that the destruction of Sodom came about not because of sexual sin, but because they failed to extend hospitality and share what they had with those in need.

In Zechariah 7:9-10, God pleads with his people to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (NRSV). If they can do this, they will avert disaster. But like so many of God’s followers before and sense, this seems too much to ask.

In Micah 6:8, we are told what is “good” and what God “requires of us”: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (NRSV).

And in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV).

To use language elsewhere in 1John, “by this we know that we are in God,” if we practice this kind of righteousness in the world.

Outro

This season, as we move from the ashes of Lent towards the fire of Pentecost, we are looking at what needs kindled in our lives in order to live out our calling as the Body of Christ.

Today we see that the practice of righteousness is something that needs kindled in each of us if we are going to embody Jesus in the world.

But let us be sure we are practicing correctly, practicing the things of God, and practicing a righteousness rooted in God’s liberating love.

Unshakable Faith

Scripture: Psalm 62:5-12

 

Unshakable Faith

“[God] is my rock and my salvation; …my fortress, I will not be shaken.”

I want to have faith like that.

Unshakable faith.

No matter what obstacles come my way……

No matter what tragedy befalls our world……

No matter what hell breaks lose in life……

 “[God] is my rock… I will not be shaken.”

 

In truth, most of us do not feel rock-solid deep down inside. And far too many of us–no matter how long we may have travelled this Jesus path–still exhibit the kind of immature faith described by Paul in Ephesians 4:14. There he calls such spiritually immature folks “children” who are “tossed around here and there upon ocean waves, picked up by every gust of religious teaching spoken by liars or swindlers or deceivers” (Ephesians 4:14 VOICE).

Sometimes, the gulf between here and there–between immature and unshakable faith–seems insurmountable. But I think today’s psalm suggests three hallmarks of unshakable faith–three smaller pieces and practices that we can work on to make bite-sized advances in our spiritual life.

(1) It takes the long view.

First, unshakable faith takes the long view; it is able to put the experiences and realities of this life into the appropriate context of what God is doing eternally.

In the psalm, a component of this is found every time the psalmist expresses hope and trust in God (such as in v.5), but it is most fully expressed in verse 9:

“Surely the lowborn are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie. If weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath.” (Psalms 62:9 NIV11)

In this life, economics and power and prestige can seem like the be-all, end-all. Those at the top take pride in their position, often deceiving themselves into thinking their success is entirely due to their own abilities (and thus forgetting everyone who helped them along the way). In contrast, those at the bottom can feel like they are unfairly disadvantaged from the start–which they have been.

But a life that demonstrates unshakable faith is one that recognizes that such advantages don’t add up to much in the long run, if by the long run you mean eternity.

 

Jesus offered us some teaching along these lines too, of course. Perhaps the most obvious is found in Matthew 6:19-20:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (ESV)

The point here is of course that this life is short, and things like wealth (but also power and prestige) are things that corrode and erode. If you have the decision between investing in something that lasts  a short time and something that lasts forever, is it really that difficult a choice?

 

Paul builds on this in 1Timothy to demonstrate why greed just doesn’t make any sense for Christians. The false teachers Timothy needs to correct have come to believe that the life of faith should produce wealth (1Tim 6:5) and that belief has led them towards greed (as it always does). Just like Jesus, Paul frames the issue eschatologically–in terms of the big picture of what God is doing. He reminds Timothy that wealth is limited to this life (“We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” [1Timothy 6:7 ESV]) and so it makes absolutely no sense for someone to imperil their eternal soul to make a few bucks or live in a nicer house.

 

Of course, taking the long view applies to more than just money and power. The book of Revelation, for example, repeats promises over and over to “the one who overcomes.” Endurance is a key virtue of that book, written at a time when Christians faced very real persecution for their faith. The whole point of the book is to encourage followers of Jesus to remain steadfast in the faith, trusting that God was in fact going to sort it all out in the end.

Good will win; evil will lose.

The oppressed will be lifted up; the oppressors will be punished.

The weak will be strengthened; the strong will falter.

Wrongs will be righted; rights will be rewarded.

What Revelation envisions is nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophetic words of Mary in what we have come to call the Magnificat (found in Luke 1):

“[God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51–53 NRSV)

Taking the long view involves remembering that the end to this story has already been written. But it also requires that we persist in choosing to work for the wining side.

(2) It depends on God alone.

The second characteristic of unshakable faith that I want to suggest today is that unshakable faith depends on God alone.

This is seen most clearly in verses 6-7 of our psalm today;

“Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge.” (Psalm 62:6–7 NIV11)

Now, maybe you think we should have started here, and you’re probably right. But there is a method to my madness, and it involves the transition to the third point. But more on that later.

Trusting in God alone is a big deal in the bible. Almost all the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs (you know, folks like: Abraham & Sarah & Hagar, Isaac & Rebekah, and Jacob & Leah & Rachel)–anyway, all these stories have at their core the issue of trust: they communicate that God is a God who can be trusted……who can be depended on.

When the Israelites began demanding a king in 1Samuel, it’s a problem because God is supposed to be their king.

When they form political alliances with their neighbors for protection, it’s a problem because they are supposed to trust God for protection.

And the psalms, of course, are jam-packed with reminders that we are to trust in God alone.

If we put politicians or other leaders in the place of God, depending on them for our well-being and life, we will be disappointed, because as Psalm 146:3–4 read:

“Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.” (NRSV)

If we believe we can trust ourselves for these things, “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps” as the American myth claims, then we will likewise fail. Our trust must be in God, and even trusting in ourselves for life and wellbeing and security is destined to fail. As the psalmist confesses in Psalm 44:6:

“For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.” (NRSV)

When we place our trust in someone or something, we expect that we will be taken care of……that there is nothing more to fear because we have security. But as the Psalmist again reminds us (this time in 56:11), if our trust is truly in God, what do we really have to fear?

“In God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me?” (NRSV)

We could spend days–weeks and months even!–just exploring the psalms. But as a Christian, I’ve just got to jump to the New Testament too.

The prayer Jesus gave as an example to his followers–“The Lord’s Prayer” (cf. Matthew 6:9-13)–is at it’s heart a prayer of submission to and trust in God. Its intention is to teach us to depend on God alone for everything we need.

We depend on God to advance God’s kingdom and make God’s desires known on earth.

We depend on God for the ordinary requirements of our day.

We depend on God for forgiveness when we’ve done wrong and worked against God’s desires.

We depend on God to lead us toward good and away from evil.

We even depend on God for God to be praised.

This dependence on God is a hallmark of the early church, not just for meeting needs but also for ministry in general. Paul confesses this in 2Corinthians 3:5 when he says:

“In and of ourselves we know we have little to offer, but any competence or value we have comes from God.” (VOICE)

(3) It insists on following the path of love.

It is this confession that we depend on God even for doing the ministry of advancing God’s kingdom which leads us to the third point: unshakable faith insists on following the path of love.

Today’s psalm offers this instruction in two parts: verse 10 and then verse 12.

“Do not trust in extortion or put vain hope in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” (Psalms 62:10 NIV11)

This first part demonstrates the wrong path. It confesses that there appear to be shortcuts in life–channels that get you further faster. But those wander from the path of love. To put it otherwise: you can’t use the weapons of darkness to advance the cause of light.

 

In stark contrast to such corner-cutting stands our God. The psalmist confesses in v.12:

“And with you, Lord, is unfailing love; and, You reward everyone according to what they have done.” (Psalms 62:12 NIV11)

God’s way is the way of love. It is a way that gives a hand-up instead of a hand-out. It lures us into being better instead of “scaring the hell out of us.” And this is the way we are going to follow if we are in fact followers of Jesus.

Remember: Jesus is the perfect revelation of God (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself tells us “If you [know] me, you [will] know my Father also” (John 8:19 ESV). And he says that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). This is why in 1John we read that love is to be the hallmark of the Christian life–it is how we ascertain whether or not we are truly following the path of Jesus. There, in 1John 3, we read:

“The central truth–the one you have heard since the beginning–is that we must love one another… We know what true love looks like because of Jesus. He gave His life for us, and He calls us to give our lives for our brothers and sisters. If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love” (1John 3:11, 16-18).

(4) It knows the only power that matters is wielded by God.

Here at last we arrive at the final point: unshakable faith knows that the only power that matters is wielded by God.

This truth is confessed in today’s psalm in v.11:

“One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: “Power belongs to you, God,” (Psalms 62:11 NIV11)

That God is a god of power could be shown by surveying another group of psalms and biblical stories. But I think we’ve already referenced some that reinforce this notion, and I’ve already gone a bit long today. So I’m going to aim for brevity instead.

First, after Jesus entered the scene, the bible speaks with striking uniformity about the victory of God over evil/darkness/sin/death/and fear. Whether you’re reading John 1:5, John 16:33, Romans 6:7, 1Corinthians 15:57, Colossians 1:20, 2Timothy 1:10, 1John 5:4, or anywhere else (and those are just my favorites!!), what we read is that the victory has already been secured. In the resurrection of Jesus, death has been defeated. Death was the greatest power wielded against us. Death is at the heart of our fears and our insecurities and even our sin. But in the resurrection, the overwhelming power of God has been demonstrated. And it has been proven to be a power far greater than any other in existence. Truly the only power that matters is wielded by God–a fact that grounds unshakable faith.

Habakkuk

To finish this morning, I want to turn to one of those little-read books of the bible: Habakkuk. It’s in that grouping of short, prophetic testimonies that is found at the end of the Old Testament. In fact, moving backward from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, you’ll find:

Malachi
Zechariah
Haggai
Zephaniah
and then Habakkuk.

Now Habakkuk’s book is actually a vision of God’s victory–the victory over Israel’s enemies, but also victory over the unjust, the violent, the cheaters and the selfish, those who profit unfairly off of others, those who capitalize off of debt, and pretty well everyone else that the bible says is opposed to the way God intends us to live. It’s a lot to pack into just three chapters.

But near the end, Habakkuk expresses unease about the world he’s in–a world where this vision of victory hasn’t yet been completed. I think it’s a description that sounds a lot like many folks I’ve talked with over the last couple years, as political and civil unrest plagues our nation and world, as we see folks keep profiting by unjust means that do real harm to others, as the famous or the wealthy keep escaping the consequences of their illegal actions or business practices, and as the world so often seems to be tearing itself apart.

In chapter 3, verse 16, Habakkuk says:

I listened and began to feel sick with fear;
my insides churned.
My lips quivered at the sound.
Decay crept into my bones;
I stood their shaking.
Now I wait quietly for the day of distress…” (VOICE)

But then, in v.17, there comes a turning–a turning toward truly unshakable faith. He continues:

Even if the fig tree does not blossom
and there are no grapes on the vines,
If the olive trees fail to give fruit
and the fields produce no food,
If the flocks die far from the fold
and there are no cattle in the stalls;

Then I will still rejoice in the Eternal!
I will rejoice in the God who saves me!

The Eternal Lord is my strength!
He has made my feet like the feet of a deer;
He allows me to walk on high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

No matter how rocky life gets……

No matter what falls apart or fails to produce……

No matter who’s getting away with what……

No matter how hellish things seem……

The crazier the world is, the more we trust God. The more our faith can develop that “unshakable” quality.

No matter what, we remember that there is still the well-trodden path of unshakable faith that we can follow: taking the long view and trusting God alone because only God’s power matters, and then (together) we take tender, gentle steps forward in love. Amen.

Pre-Membering

 

 

Exodus 12:1-14

Setting the Stage

This is a sermon about faith. I want to say that right away, so we all can keep on the right track this morning. But it’s a lot less “this is how faith works” and a lot more “have you ever noticed?…”

Our text today is comes near the end of the story of the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt, and near the end of the story of their liberation through the astounding miracles and plagues God wrought through Moses. These verses contain the instructions that establish the Passover sacrifice, which later became an intrinsic part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126). The modern Passover seder (the meal) has evolved significantly since these instructions–and even since Jesus’ day–and so it looks quite different than what happened a few thousand years ago. Symbols–of course–need to evolve if they will continue to evoke the reality they represent.

At this point in the story, God is working on liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but Pharaoh is having none of it. God keeps instructing Moses on how to perform these remarkable signs or predict the coming of terrible plagues. But Pharaoh keeps doubling down. These plagues escalate from mere inconvenience to the deaths of thousands before Pharaoh will finally tell them to leave. And in that moment–on the eve of this final, terrible plague–between life and death, between slavery and freedom, between let go and leaving–that is when God offers these symbols and these rituals to commemorate what is to come.

Symbols

Everything has meaning:

The young sheep or goat must be “without blemish” (v.5), which is consistent with the sacrificial code they have not yet received–that’ll happen in Lev 22:17-25; Deut 15:21; 17:1; usw. Such valuable animals are offered to God to remind us that God is due our best, not our leftovers. In addition, the animal is to be roasted over the fire, an anticipation of the kind of cooking they will be performing in their wilderness journeying.

Bitter herbs are the type that shepherds would eat in the wilderness–where the Hebrews are about to spend the next few decades, though they don’t yet know that. In modern Seder celebrations, the bitter herbs recall the bitterness of the slavery they endured in Egypt (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126 and here).

Alongside these foods, they are to eat bread made without yeast–unleavened bread. Such bread was actually a fairly common type to use, not altogether different than the various flat breads baked even still in that area of the world. But here the unleavened bread–the matzah–acquires new meaning: it is unleavened because the Hebrews will be quickly leaving Egypt; they do not have time for yeast breads to rise (Exod 12:39). As this meal evolved, rabbis eventually dictated that matzah may only be made of flour and water, which in turn represent the only two “ingredients” necessary for faith: humility and submission to God (see here).

Notice too that even what they wear and how they eat matters. Verses 11 and following tell us that they need to eat it with their traveling clothes and shoes on–even holding on to their walking sticks! They need to scarf it down quickly. All of this refers to the urgency of their departure–an urgency that they don’t yet know about, an urgency that comes about because (in Exodus 14) Pharaoh will regret his decision to let his cheap labor leave, and he will chase them down with chariots and the weapons of war.

“Pre-membering”

In all of these cases, the symbols God prescribes commemorate events that haven’t yet happened.

The Israelites haven’t yet been forced to gather wild greens to survive the wilderness.

They haven’t yet been limited to roasting meat over an open fire.

They haven’t yet realized the urgency of their departure.

They haven’t yet heard the instructions about offering God your best.

When instructing them to ritualize these symbols. God is inviting them to remember events that haven’t happened yet: pre-remembering—-or pre-membering, as I’m calling it.

 

This is particularly fascinating to me because this isn’t how faith usually works in the OT. “As the OT understands it, faith is always [humanity’s] reaction to God’s primary action” (Artur Weiser, TDNT VI:182). For Jews, “faith in God is not just general trust. It is grounded in what God has done in the past” (TDNT, VI:198).

Yet here, in one of the most significant stories of the OT, God invites faith on account of what God will do, instead of merely on account of what God has done.

Perhaps we think God just expects them to  shut up, obey, and take what comes…… Yet that is at odds with virtually every depiction of God in the bible.

Perhaps we think God expects the escalation of plagues was sufficient to prove to the Hebrews that God can do more…… Yet they can’t even begin to understand the meaning of these symbols until a future time when they’re living them out for real.

Perhaps we think God knows that it doesn’t take much faith for big things to happen…… Yet for all of us who have searched, we know how difficult it is to muster up even a mustard seed’s worth.

I wonder if we should see something else. I wonder if God is planting seeds of God’s own–seeds of hope that will sprout and grow and produce fruit in the most difficult times they have ahead.

I wonder if–as the Hebrews mobilized and moved out of Egypt–if some of them didn’t think: Gee, we wouldn’t have made the wagon train if we had tried to make yeast bread.

And I wonder if–as they crossed the Reed Sea with Pharaoh’s chariots chasing in hot pursuit–if some of them realized that leaving as rapidly as they did allowed them to get to the other side of the sea instead of being overcome by the Egyptians before they got there.

Did they remember the pre-membering God gave them?

I wonder: as they traveled in the wilderness or sat encamped at Sinai, eating what they could gather form the barren landscape around them, did they remember their pre-membering about the bitter herbs? As they roasted the God-gifted quail each day to eat, did they remember their pre-membering about the roasted lamb?

You get my point, I hope. It seems to me that these symbols came into meaning at the precise times when the Hebrews would have needed assurance the most.

Without their realizing it, God planted seeds of grace in them–seeds that would bear fruit at the appropriate time, whether or not they understood.

Last Supper

I think the Last Supper–itself connected to the Passover meal prescribed in Exodus 12–is another biblical example of this pre-membering.

In Matthew 26, Jesus and his disciples are observing the Passover meal–a ritual rich with symbolism and meaning about events long past. Yet Jesus takes these symbols and gives them new meaning. Just as does God in Exodus 12, Jesus makes these symbols about a future event–his suffering and death–events that will soon take place. The disciples at that time pre-member:

Jesus’ body is broken,
Jesus’ blood is shed,
a new covenant is established that ensures the forgiveness of sins.

Were these, too, seeds of grace, planted to bear fruit when grace was needed the most?

Did the disciples remember–when Jesus’ body was being whipped and torn and pierced–did they remember how Jesus broke the bread and said “this is my body”?

Did the disciples remember–when his blood flowed from his pierced head, his flayed back, and eventually his pierced side–did they remember when Jesus said “this is my blood”?

 

I wonder.

But I also hope. I hope because of all the times I have discovered such seeds of grace bearing fruit in my own life–all the times that I finally realized I needed God’s grace, only to discover that such grace was already given and present.

Such is truly the way of our loving God and friend Jesus. In the very moment we are broken apart, we discover God has already been there, quietly and fastidiously endeavoring about the work of healing, protection, hope, peace, provision, and love.

Praise be to God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom all things were made and find their being,
and in whom we discover life abundant.

Amen.

 

Faith Like a Child

2 Kings 5:1-5, 8-15c

 

Faith Like a Child

It’s easy to miss, but this story begins and ends with children. It begins with the daring testimony of a little girl, and it ends with Naʿaman becoming like a “little boy,” all over again.

This story reverberates with anticipatory echoes of those words of Jesus found in Matthew 18:3: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (NIV11).

There are (of course) many reasons we might easily overlook the fact that this story is really about the faith of a little girl.

Unlike the older, male characters, the young girl is not named.

Though named, Naʿaman is more foible than forte—he is desperate but proud, and his pride nearly prevents him from experiencing healing—as it so often does for many today. Whatever this story may be, it is not a story of Naʿaman’s faith.

The central feature of this story is likewise not the power of God wielded by Elisha—Elisha discerns and God acts, to be sure. Yet—as we read later on in Romans 10:14—”How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (ESV).

Without the testimony of this “little girl,” Naʿaman would have never heard of Elisha, never had an idea of the healing that was possible, never contacted Elisha, never been told how to be whole again, and never would he have come to testify that Yahweh God is the one true God—that “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2Kings 5:15).

Our Heroine

This girl is the true hero of the story. It is her testimony and faith that God moves most powerfully through. And if we stop to consider—even just a moment—what her life was like, then we will truly learn how the Psalmist can proclaim in Psalm 34:1: “I will praise the Lord no matter what happens” (TLB).

Aside from the boldness of her testimony, we know very little about this girl. The word used in Hebrew to identify her tells us that she was a young girl who was not yet married, but who was old enough to be betrothed. Given cultural realities, this probably places her between about 8 and 16 years old.

We are told she is a prisoner of war, carried off by “the Syrians on one of their raids” (2Kings 5:2). Due to issues of tact and our generationally diverse gathering this morning, I must avoid elaborating on the kinds of things that were done to the women of enemies in wartime. Suffice it to say that a woman in bible times who found herself in the hands of enemy soldiers was usually subjected to atrocities no human being should suffer.

This girl is enslaved in war, removed from her home and everything she has known, subjected to who knows what…… And ultimately made a slave—not unlike Hagar under Sarah, performing whatever menial household jobs or abuse Naʿaman ‘s own wife imposed upon her.

Whatever suffering I think I have endured pales in comparison to this girl. In our present time, many have been moved by the stories and images of the children today who have been victimized by war, rebellion, greed, power, and fear.

As a parent and as a follower of the Christ who said “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14), I shudder to consider how many of the displaced and victimized children of our world today may have experienced the same atrocities, witnessed the same depravity, and suffered the same conditions as they are treated as less-than-human——as we blatantly ignore and are even complicit in the destruction of the divine image that they bear. All these years later, it is still children—our children—our most vulnerable—who suffer the worst on account of our selfish and sinful decisions.

Hope to the Hopeless……

This is our hero this morning: a girl who has endured more than any human being should. A girl who is in the midst of circumstances where there is no possibility for improvement, for liberation, for life. Her reality involves being in this sub-human system of slavery until the day she finally and mercifully dies.

And yet.

And yet her voice is clear.

And yet her testimony sounds loud.

And yet her faith endures more solid and confident than my own.

“And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6 ESV).

Suffering = TestimonyN

Among the instructions given by the apostle Paul to the Christian community at Thessaloniki, Paul offers this command: “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:18 ESV).

Paul knows the context of the Thessalonians; he knows that the road ahead will not be smooth; he knows this will not be an easy instruction to follow. Earlier in the same chapter (5), Paul talks about global upheaval, darkness, and danger—he is telling them what to expect down the road. But he wants them to hold fast to the faith because a faithful testimony is even more powerful when offered in the context of such adversity.

In the case of the girl in our reading, it is precisely the context of her faithful testimony that makes it even more powerful. Hers is not the fair-weather faith (of then or now) that is so easily confused with nationalism. In fact, in the understanding of the day, the reality that the Syrians won the battle that resulted in her enslavement was a statement that their god defeated her God. Yet she knows her God is not defeated—her God lives! She knows that whatever they worship cannot be God and cannot have power because the only God is the God Yahweh, the God of Israel. No matter what has happened to her, she has faith that God’s way will work out in the end.

It’s a simple faith—the faith of a child. But by golly if it isn’t the most powerful and enduring sort of faith around. It’s the kind of faith of which Jesus says, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 ESV).

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 NIV11).

Amen.

Prayer

God,
Give us the gift of faith—
Faith like a Child.

Make ours a simple trust,
Knowing that you are able
Always and everywhere
To act for good in our lives.

When we get knocked down,
Give us strength to get up again.
For we know that with your help
Nothing can ever keep us down.

Help us see through the false religion
That deceives us into believing in anything
Other than you for our salvation:
Be it our nation, our church,
Ourselves, or any other thing.

Teach us to be, like Jesus,
A people who value life,
A people who value each other,
A people who looks for God’s image
In everyone, everywhere,
And in all circumstances.

Convict us of the ways
That we participate in the violence that is done
To children,
To women,
To minorities and the marginalized,
To those of other religions,
To those of other denominations,
And to our enemies—
All of whom are our neighbors.

Teach us, in Christ, the way of peace.

Amen.

 

Here It Comes

1Thess 5:1-11

Winter

Winter is coming.

That reality is pretty hard to ignore after the arctic blast of this past week. Monday I was enjoying my day off by hiking with the family—we were in short sleeves and enjoying pleasant fall weather. That night, however, the wind picked up as a front moved in. You know: you experienced it too. Over an hour or so, the mercury plummeted nearly 20 degrees.

When I arrived at church this morning it was only 14 degrees, with   a “feels like” temperature of -1.

Winter is coming. We feel it in our bones. So even without thinking, we gather and split firewood. We make sure the deep freeze is full. We “winterize” our houses and our cars and our wardrobes.

Winter is coming. There is no denying it. No one can say they are in the dark anymore. No one can say they are surprised. What began in the turning of the grass and the rustle of wind-through-leaves has grown, escalated, and intensified into the cold wind of winter that seems to sap even the heat of the sun.

Winter is coming. No human, animal, insect, or even plant in Atchison is asleep to that fact. We have woken up. We are aware. Winter is coming.

Thessalonians

At the time our scripture reading picks up in 1Thessalonians, Paul has already been talking about the coming Day of the Lord for some time. In those previous verses of chapter 4, the apostle sketches out a teaching on the return of Christ in the future. He wants his hearers to know that those who have already died in faith will not be at a disadvantage on the Day of the Lord.

But in contrast to the future-oriented teaching of chapter 4, Paul’s focus in chapter 5 is decidedly on the present. These instructions are not concerned with what Christians should believe about the future, they are about how they should act in the present.

Their actions—to use the expression Paul employs repeatedly here—should be driven by their ongoing awakening to God’s Kingdom. You see, if we truly know Christ’s return is immanent, then we will feel it in our bones the same way we do as winter approaches. That knowledge will drive us—consciously and subconsciously—to action: to work even more diligently—even more urgently—in the cause of Christ.

  • What (I wonder) is our equivalent of gathering and splitting firewood?
  • What is our equivalent of winterizing our houses, cars, and wardrobes?
  • What is our equivalent of gathering the foodstuffs necessary to sustain us through the season?

While they may not line up perfectly with this analogy of winter awareness and preparation, Paul does issue three instructions to the Thessalonians here.

1. “Be sober”

The first instructions are found in v.6, where the apostle urges Christians to “keep awake and be sober”—instructions repeated and expanded upon in vv.7-8 as well.

Now this is a passage of mixed metaphors, but it is still clear that Paul is not urging all of us to be insomniacs and teetotalers. Here and other places we see this direction is a plea to Christians:

to wake up to the truth of God’s kingdom,

to not dull our senses to God’s action,

and to be attentive and ready to respond when God breaks into our lives in small or large ways.

This part of Thessalonians is heavily dependent upon Jesus’ own teaching, especially those teachings recorded in Matthew 24 (42-43), Mark 13 (33-37), and Luke 12 (37-38). Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus teaching that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and all three Gospels record Jesus using a variety of analogies and parables to help his hearers understand this instruction to stay awake. These analogies include things like:

…trying to catch or ward off a thief at night,

…guarding over someone else’s home or possessions while they are away,

…eagerly waiting for the arrival of one who is delayed,

…and even anticipating a natural disaster.

All involve readiness. All involve gathering knowledge and resources. All involve the ability to immediately accept and adapt to the changing reality of what is coming.

At today’s stage of the history of God and the world, we cannot afford for our senses to be dulled—they must be heightened! We cannot afford to sleepily or wearily procrastinate our response to God’s invitation to mission—it must be immediate, or it may be too late.

You know how in the old movies, someone will get hysterical about something, and their counterpart will slap them in the face. The impact “wakes up” the previously hysterical person, and they can suddenly think clearly and do what needs done.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in real life. But the twin instructions to “be sober!” and “wake up!” are intended to be that kind of slap in the face, something to break our hysterical focus on this world so we can think and act clearly for the cause of Christ. Jesus, Paul, and the others who use these idioms want to see Christians clear their heads, come out of the fog we are in, and see fully what God is doing around and through us.

2. Gear Up

If the first instruction involves coming to terms with the reality of what is happening around us, the second requires preparing for our involvement in it. Verse 8 of our reading says: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet [put on] the hope of salvation.”

Paul’s language here is very reminiscent of what he writes in Ephesians 6, in that famous passage instructing believers to “take up the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:13). Much as with that text—the emphasis here is on defensive—rather than offensive—weaponry. What are these defensive guards?——They are faith, hope, and love.

Which should immediately bring to mind what Paul famously writes in 1Cor 11 (12-13), other words about life in this world and the coming Day of the Lord:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

So how do we “gear up” and prepare for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in this world?

Quite simply: we become disciplined practitioners of faith, hope, and love.

We study and reflect to remind ourselves of the hope of salvation, which is secure in Christ Jesus.

We grow our faith as we pray and increase in our trust of the God whose faithfulness endures forever.

And we intentionally choose to follow the path of love, as revealed to us by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

3. Leave No One Behind

That leads us to the third instruction. After coming to terms with the reality of what is happening around us, and preparing for our involvement in it, Paul’s third instruction is to “Encourage one another and build up each other” (v.11).

You see, our responsibility is not to ourselves. It is to others. I wonder if what Paul is advocating here is something like a “No man left behind” policy. As Christians, our responsibility is to support and encourage one another—it is to see them through. I mean, listen to this rapid sampling of verses.

Mark 12:31, Jesus instructs: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

John 15:13, Jesus declares: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Luke 17:33, Jesus teaches: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Revelation 12:11, the Voice in John’s vision says: “And they have conquered [the Enemy] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

I could read a lot more. But I don’t think I have to. You know the Christian life should be focused on others instead of yourself. I know it too. But we all have to struggle daily to purge that selfishness that seeks our own encouragement and growth over that of our neighbor.

I think I mentioned this a couple weeks ago—it’s been on my mind a lot. There’s an old Jewish proverb that says if you save one person, you save the entire world (Talmud Bavli, Art Scroll Series, Tractate Sanhedrin, folio 37a).

It’s a powerful concept. And it’s a notion that has some resonance with teachings in our New Testament as well. In it, I hear echoes of Jude 22-23:

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear…

And then there’s Matthew 10:42:

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

And of course Matthew 25:40:

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Jesus is coming again.

Let us wake up to the reality of God’s Kingdom—living in it now, even though it is not yet fully revealed.

Let us diligently practice faith, hope, and love—training and strengthening ourselves to be ready for God’s call.

Let us genuinely support each other—Let us “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” as we read in Galatians 6:2.

Let us do it today, so that on that day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.

Amen.