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.

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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.

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.

God Only Knows

 

Scripture: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

 

God Only Knows

In 1966, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys crooned: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”

It’s probably because of the countless hours my mother subjected an adolescent me to the music of that era, but I cannot hear the words “God only knows” without my mind jumping to a falsetto and providing the rest of the lyrics.

But the phrase “God only knows” existed long before the Beach Boys. In English, we can track it back to at least the 1400’s, but an equivalent can be found in languages reaching back millennia prior and across varied languages and cultures.

Saying “God only knows” means what we’re talking about is unknowable. Sometimes we use it as an honest acknowledgement of our human limitations, but more often it is used as a kind of hyperbole that spoofs our relationships.

It’s what we say when people ask why our spouses are upset at us……

Or it’s given as an explanation for what motivates management to make such bad choices at work……

Or it’s offered in exasperation for why we can’t stop eating french fries until they’re all gone……

In many ways, “God only knows” has become the most common way to spoof our ignorance……or our aloneness.

And that’s kind of tragic (I think), because our God being all-knowing is no joke.

Or as the Indian Chief says to Peter Pan: “Me no spoof’um.”

Based on the psalm reading, I’d like to suggest that really believing in an all-knowing God is going to lead to three dramatic transformations in our lives.

1. Accountability

First, believing that God is all-knowing holds accountable our actions, thoughts, and life path. I really wrestled with whether to even talk about this today because I think it’s easy to get the wrong idea. I grew up in a church that taught that God was like an evil Santa Clause……just waiting and watching to zap us when we get it wrong.

In case you didn’t know, that is not the God of the Old and New Testaments; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God revealed most completely in Jesus the Christ, who demonstrated God’s love for us, in willingly offering up his life, so we might discover true life.

God is not this evil Santa Clause. God is rather the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15: watching and eagerly waiting, and ready to run and receive us and hold us and celebrate our return.

 

Let me put it another way. If I’m driving, and I see a police car, do you know what I immediately, instinctually do? I slow down. Sometimes, not soon enough.

If I know I’m being watched, I pay much closer attention to what I’m doing. If someone can see me, I aim to follow the rules that much more clearly. And I know it’s not just me.

My children are always more focused when a parent is in the room. Why? Because presence itself is a kind of accountability. Because being observed is enough to make us change behavior.

It’s the same in our relationship with God. Realizing that God clearly knows our goings and comings, and even our thoughts, cannot help but bring us some accountability in the exact same way.

Not because God is waiting for us to screw up.

But because God, like any loving parent, wants to see us succeed.

2. Humility

Second: Really believing that God is all-knowing produces humility in us.

Let’s be honest—if everyone here today knew even half the stuff we are ashamed about from our pasts, we couldn’t even think of walking in here and looking anyone in the eye.

The fact that God knows it all already is the perfect antidote to the self-righteousness that has permeated the particularly American version of Christianity with which we are most familiar. We cannot even pretend to be perfect with each other if we really believe that God knows it all about us already.

That we continue to persist in this delusion suggests we are much more like Jonah than most of the other biblical characters. It proves that we really do believe (incorrectly) that we can run away from God, that there are places we can shove things where God cannot see them, and that we can somehow evade the balance of God’s justice.

It’s all wrong.

I’m not sure you can point to any single teaching of Jesus that does not build off of humility. And when Jesus is giving his most direct instruction to the disciples about how they are to continue following him, he washes their feet and reminds them that they are not better than him. If he washes their feet, how much more should they wash each other’s feet (cf. John 13). In other words, if Jesus possesses such humility that he does not think even this most filthy of tasks is below him, how dare any of them—how dare any of us?—not follow the path of humility and service?

3. Values Life

Finally, believing in an all-knowing God leads followers of Jesus to more deeply value life. Here too I tread carefully, because these verses of this psalm have been used to advance a political agenda that is (at best) tangental to my point this morning.

The psalmist speaks of how God observed the very cells of his body being knit together in his mother’s womb. It’s a powerful image that is intended to invoke our memory of the creation story recorded in Genesis, yet plumb the depths in the other direction. Instead of God overseeing the separation of light from dark and the creation of the cosmos, God observes DNA and mitochondria…… a face appears where once was merely a mass of cells…… a mouth…… ears…… arms and legs…… organs…… bones replace cartilage…… and so on.

It’s hard to imagine God overseeing this process without it producing in us an increased respect for the value of life.

But if we’re following Jesus—and if we’re really being transformed by this all-knowing God into people who truly value life—then we’re going to see that life doesn’t end at birth.

As God grows in us a sense of the value of life, we will certainly find ourselves advocating for the increase of access to health services countless groups of people.

If we begin to value life the way God values life, we will rapidly find ourselves arguing that children ought to have nutritious food, that sick people should be able to see a doctor, that mental health should be accessible to all (because Lord knows admitting you need it is hard enough)……

If we value life like God values life, we’re going to start thinking crazy thoughts about workers having more rights than corporations, about the importance of schools and the value of teachers, and even about the way we should treat those folks who have done heinous things because they didn’t value life.

If we value life like God value’s life, we’re going to be cementing up all the cracks in the sidewalk of life so nobody—nobody!—ever falls through again.

On that day:

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. (Isa 40:4 ESV)

On that day:

[The Lord] “shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4 ESV)

On that day:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world……”

And why???

Because you believed the right things? No!
Because you went to church on the right days? No!
Because you voted for the candidate that a religious flyer told you to? No!

No, no, and no! The king invites those on the right to the feast because those on the right learned to value life like God values life:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (Matthew 25:31–36 ESV)

If we really believe in an all-knowing God, this is where we inevitably end up. It’s a place occupied by Jesus our Lord, our example, our savior, and our guide. And in the end, perhaps the first thing we need to do is voice a simple prayer to the God who loves us: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”

 

The Voice of the Lord

 

Scripture: Psalm 29

 

I Can’t Hear

There is a question…… a sentiment…… a concern that I hear more regularly than any other brought to me as a pastor.

And contrary to what you might expect, the question is NOT: I’d like to tithe more, but worry what others would think.

More than anything else, what I hear is: I can’t hear God speaking. I try everything I know to do, but it’s just dead air. Does God even hear me? Notice me? Care about me?

 

Hearing and being heard are basic human needs—needs I would argue that are as vital to our health and wellbeing as food, clothing, and shelter. When we are not heard—or when we need to hear from someone but just get “empty air”—our mental, emotional, and spiritual health declines…… and science has long ago proven that this produces a negative impact on our physical health too.

Words have power. In Matthew 5, when Jesus is teaching how to interpret scripture, he uses “Do not murder” from the Ten Commandments as a test case. But getting to the heart of the instruction, Jesus gets to the heart of our sin:

“Anyone who taunts another, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him ‘Loser’ or ‘Fool’ or ‘Scum,’ will have to answer to the high court. And anyone who calls his brother a fool may find himself in the fires of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22b VOICE, corrected).

Words have power. There are countless novels that build on the notion that once you know something or someone’s name, you have power over it in some shape or form. We even get a sense of this in Exodus 3, when Moses encounters God in the burning bush. There, Moses is unwilling to carry God’s message of deliverance to the enslaved Hebrews—not without knowing the name of this god who promises so much. In his time and culture, knowing the god’s name means the god is bound to him—the god has to honor its word. So God responds in Exodus 3:14:

“I AM WHO I AM. This is what you should tell the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to rescue you.'”

Of course, as much power as words have, God’s words have that much more. In the Genesis 1 account of creation, the very elements of the world bend to God’s voice. God speaks into the chaos and God’s words shape them into being for all of time.

In John’s gospel, Jesus is presented as being the embodiment—the incarnation—of this God who speaks things into shape and being. He uses the Greek word logos to connect back to the God whose voice has such amazing creative power. Most of the time, logos is translated “word” when it is adapted into the English. But “logos essentially refers to the act of speaking or bringing thoughts to expression” (VOICE, p.1288). One of my favorite recent translations is called “The Voice,” after the way it translates logos in John 1. It is actually a really decent way of communicating the broader sense behind logos. Instead of boring you with the logic behind it, just hear the first couple verses of John 1:

Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The voice was and is God. This celestial word remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos… all things that exist were birthed in Him. (John 1:1-2 VOICE)

1. What does it feel like for God’s voice to break into your life?

But back to our main point this morning: sure words have power, but what does it feel like for God’s voice to break into your life?

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.”
Psalm 29:3 (NIV11)

Sometimes when we hear God’s voice, it is deafening like peals of thunder that rattle windows and make our stomachs queasy. These are moments when, like Job, we are overwhelmed with the whirlwind that is God—forever beyond our comprehension and eternally reminding us that we are smaller than we would like to believe…… and yet somehow, for some reason, God still lovingly cares for us.

“The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.”
Psalm 29:4 (NIV11)

Sometimes when we hear God’s voice, we are overwhelmed with an awareness of God’s power and majesty. Whatever troubles us, we know keenly that it will be alright……that the end of all things is firmly in God’s capable hands and we need only to continue in our simple trust.

“The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.”
Psalm 29:5 (NIV11)

Sometimes, when we hear God’s voice, it as though all the obstacles before us break apart in an explosion fit for a Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever is holding us back—whatever is blocking our way—is annihilated, allowing us to move ahead once again in God’s purposes.

“He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild ox.”
Psalm 29:6 (NIV11)

Sometimes, when we hear God’s voice, the years drop away and with them our skepticism, cynicism, and world-hardened hearts. We become alive in Christ in a way we cannot remember since that summer camp as a teenager. These are moments that we—like Christ speaks to Nicodemus in John 3—experience a kind of rebirth, a spiritual mountaintop that may sustain us for years to come.

“The voice of the Lord strikes
with flashes of lightning.”
Psalm 29:7 (NIV11)

Sometimes, when we hear God’s voice, it comes out of nowhere. We weren’t expecting it—perhaps because we’d given up on hearing it. It flashes with an intensity that is blinding, and leaves us a bit shaken, wondering quite what transpired. Did we really hear something? Was it all in our head? Was it truly God?

“The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.”
Psalm 29:8-9a (NIV11)

Sometimes, when we hear God’s voice, it hurts. It shakes up our lives. It aches those dry places in our soul. It twists us up inside and strips us bare. And even if we believe and know that God is working to transform us into the image of our Lord Jesus Christ, there’s no getting around that it’s painful.

 

But I have to supplement this psalm with a brief reading from 1Kings 19 as well. Because there’s another experience of hearing God’s voice that the psalm does not speak to. There, starting in v.11, God tells Elijah to “go stand on the mountainside in My presence.” Elijah then has to discern which experience is truly God’s presence. It says:

The Eternal passed by him. The mighty wind separated the mountains and crumbled every stone before the Eternal, but the Eternal was not within this wind. After the wind passed through, an earthquake shook the earth, but the Eternal was not within this earthquake. After the earthquake was over, there was a fire, but the Eternal was not within this fire. After the fire died out, there was nothing but the sound of a calm breeze. And through this breeze a gentle, quiet voice entered into Elijah’s ears. He covered his face with his cloak and went to the mouth of the cave. (1Kings 19:11b-13 VOICE).

In other words, Elijah discerned that sometimes when we hear God’s voice, it is so gentle and quiet that it could easily be missed—especially when there are so much more raucous and dramatic experiences that abound. If we are not discerning, we could mistakenly believe that something noisy in our lives is God speaking to us, when the reality might be that God’s still, small voice goes unheard.

2. How do I hear God’s voice more clearly?

Which brings me to the last part of my sermon……and arguably the most important part: How can we learn to hear God speaking? When we turn our attention to God, how can we know that God is on the other end of the prayer-phone?

First: Learn to listen. Listening is a discipline that few of us practice. If we did, our marriages would be stronger, our parenting would be better, our friendships would be more fruitful, and this world would be a more peaceful and verdant place. And that’s just if we learned to really listen to each other.

We have to learn to listen to God too. And I think one of the best ways to start this practice is to engage in an ancient way of reading scripture. It’s called “sacred reading” and it’s really pretty simple. After picking a passage of scripture (I’d recommend starting with the Psalms), you follow this pattern.

First, sit a moment quietly and invite God to be present with you. Believe—genuinely believe—that God is going to speak to you.

Next, read the passage slowly……truly slowly. As you do, pay attention to words or phrases that seem to have more weight than others—they may almost seem bolded in your bible, or they may sort of “ring” in your ears. In all likelihood, there may be a couple of these during the first reading.

Then, read it slowly again. This time, pay particular attention to the pieces that stuck out last time. Determine which one is most “weighty.” If you have to read through a few more times to figure this out, take whatever time is needed. Just don’t rush it. Some ancient writers suggest slowing down to one word per breath if you’re having trouble discerning.

Once you’ve discerned a word or phrase, sit with it—mediate on it—and invite God to reveal why God wants you to pay attention here. Perhaps ask: “What does this Word mean for my life? What do I need to change?” Allow your mind to drift a bit, but if you go too far afield, return to your center by focusing back on the word or phrase.

After this comes a prayerful response. This may be hardest to describe, because it depends so much on the experience of the previous step. Perhaps you’ve sensed God calling you to abandon your will for God’s, so you pray for that to happen. Maybe you’ve discerned God calling you to specific action, so you pray for encouragement and strength to make it so. But perhaps you sit as long as you can, and you still don’t know what it means. Respond honestly here too, committing to continue to wrestle with it and listen through the day for God’s intent to become clear.

There is, then, a final stage. This too is hard to describe. It is in essence God’s response to us. In my experience, it often involves just being with God—in silence, and sometimes almost like I’m frozen by God’s presence for a few moments. Other times you might be overwhelmed with an awareness of God’s love, or care, or peace. And of course, sometimes this final stage doesn’t seem to happen at all—because we aren’t really hearing or feeling God very clearly. This is a reminder that practices such as listening to God are truly disciplines: we must train ourselves and practice diligently if we want to accomplish such endeavors.

So learn to listen.

 

Second (the rest of these will go more quickly, I assure you): Listen together. That means listen in community. One of those distinctly Baptist commitments is the realization that we best hear God’s voice in community, when everyone brings their voice and discernment to the table. If you’re having trouble hearing God on your own, one of the best things you can do is bring someone else into the process—to listen together. That could be a Christian friend you respect, it could be your pastor, it could be a formal spiritual director (such as is available at the Sofia Center of the Mount). But whoever it is—or however many they may be—make sure these are people who you believe “walk the talk,” so to speak—or else they are not going to lift you up in this endeavor.

 

Third: Listen discriminately. I’ve made reference to discernment several times already. The Scriptures are clear that there are other voices out there, voices that lead us away from the path of Jesus. In 1John 4, this is made crystal clear. The author writes:

My loved ones, I warn you: do not trust every spirit. Instead, examine them carefully to determine if they come from God, because the world is filled with the voices of many false prophets. Here is how you know God’s Spirit: if a spirit affirms the truth that Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, has come in human flesh, then that spirit is from God. (1John 4:1-2 VOICE).

In other words, the test of truth is Jesus as he lived incarnate in this world. If what we hear measures up to what Jesus taught and the way Jesus lived and treated people, then we know it to be truth. If it does not, then John tells us it is the spirit of one of the many antiChrists that roam among us.

 

As a last instruction for learning to hear God’s voice, let me offer this: Trust what you hear and discern. I know in my life there are times I hear God’s voice clearly and undeniably, but I don’t want to hear what God is saying. So I deny the undeniable. I ignore what I hear clearly, much like Mark says Jesus’ disciples do whenever Jesus speaks to them “plainly” about his impending death (cf. Mark 8:32). It may feel like following what we hear and discern from God will be the death of us, but I encourage you to trust what you hear and discern. Jesus says that being a disciple involves taking up our cross and following him (Mark 8:34), yet that is the way that leads to true life.

Perspective

Now, as I finish up this morning, there is one more thing I want you to think about: perspective.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. And I wonder sometimes if our experiences of hearing God’s voice aren’t a bit misleading in terms of the experiences we’ve discussed today. Most of the time—in the moment of hearing God’s voice—I don’t know that it feels like thunder, or majestic, or explosive, or the powerful spiritual experience of youth. I wonder if most of the time—in the moment—it feels like that still, small voice that Elijah experienced. Easily missed. Easily ignored.

But yet.

When we hear it and respond……
When we discern and trust……
When we acknowledge God’s voice and we act on it……
Maybe it is in the way it impacts our lives that these more dramatic experiences become unfurled. Maybe it is only with hindsight that we can see how significantly God’s voice affects us.

This, too, is a good reason to listen in community with others. This, too, is a good reason to make listening a diligent practice in your life. This, too, is a good reason to keep at this thing, even if you’re not hearing God quite yet.

We, as followers of Jesus Christ and members (together) of his body—we are all in this together. Let us listen together. Let us discern together. Let us worship……together.

Significant

Scripture: Psalm 148

Poor Judgment

We humans are often poor judges of what is significant.

When I look back over my life, my own track record is pretty abysmal. An example: my choice of which college to attend.

Once I narrowed down college choices to three, I visited each. Ultimately, I chose to attend the one with crab grass. Seriously. That was what did it for me. The school I visited previously was so clean-cut it felt artificial. I didn’t fit there. But I fit with crab grass.

It’s a pretty poor logical leap, I’ll readily admit. And a rather flippant sort attitude toward a decision that ultimately shepherded me through theological crisis, introduced me to my spouse and some of my best friends, and had a significant impact in setting me along my current life path.

Another example: I chose to attend seminary as a stalling technique. Seriously, again, yes. I wanted to go to “real” grad school—you know, to work on a Ph.D.—but I had trouble narrowing my field down to the acceptable categories. So I avoided making the decision for three more years by attending seminary.

Again, a fairly petty process of decision-making for a commitment that resulted in more shaping of my worldview than probably any other I have made. This decision set me up for my travels in the Middle East, it forced me to find real-world application for my academic interests, and (perhaps most to the point) it was my official training for the job I now have…… Because of stalling.

On the other side of the coin, there have been countless decisions I thought were going to be life-changing yet are barely noticeable in hindsight. Purchasing decisions tend to fall into this category. So do conversations I’m too afraid to have.

It’s quite humbling, really. If it’s a decision that greatly impacted my life, I probably did not regard it with much significance at the time. If it’s a decision I thought would be immensely significant, it probably didn’t make much difference at all.

Jesus’ Birth

The story of Jesus’ birth illustrates that this pattern is larger than just me. All the people who should have recognized its significance completely missed the point.

All those religious people who knew the bible inside and out……

All those academics who debated the finer—and sometimes trifling—points of theology……

All those priests who serviced the temple and carried out the rituals of the faith……

All of them had all the pieces right in front of them, but they never put them together. It was the most significant event in human history, but it went right over their heads.

Those with Eyes to See

But not everyone missed it. You know who does tend to recognize what is really significant in the world? What really changes things?

Creation. Creation senses things and begins adjusting to shifts and pressures that we haven’t even started to notice.

Outsiders. Those on the margins of the world and culture are more susceptible to shifts that would make them victims, and so they tend to be more in tune with what these things mean.

Those in power. Those wielding the power of this world tend to have keener insight than most when it comes to what threatens that power.

Creation…… Outsiders…… Those in power…… These happen to be the elements in the psalm that recognize the significance of Yahweh God. And if we read closely, these are also the elements in the story of Jesus’ birth that recognize the significance there, too.

1. Creation

Many of the same elements of creation that praise God in Psalm 148 proclaim God’s praise in the birth of Christ as well. In the Luke 2 account, the heavens become filled with “the shining light of God’s glory” (Luke 2:9 VOICE). An angel and then even a “heavenly host” appear proclaiming God’s praise (just like v.2 of the psalm). And let’s not forget the feeding trough in which the baby Jesus is laid; while the bible doesn’t name the specific animals that were nearby, it isn’t too much a stretch to imagine the cattle of the psalm “lowing” near the baby Jesus, as we sing in the carol “Away in a Manger.”

Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the Magi see a peculiar star—something in creation that is out-of-the-ordinary—and follow it to Judea.

The “heavens,” “the heights above,” “the angels,” the “heavenly hosts,” the “sun and moon,” the “shining stars,” the “highest heavens,” the “waters above the skies,” and even the “cattle” have certainly added their voices in recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth.

2. Outsiders

But the psalm also suggests another group that tends to recognize the true significance of things: outsiders. The psalm makes reference to women, the elderly, and children praising God (v.12)—the very people with the least power in the ancient world. They define “outsiders” in the sense that they are powerless.

But the psalmist goes further than that. In the Hebrew Bible (the same as our Old Testament), the writers refer to non-Israelite rulers using the words of v.11 of the psalm: “kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth.” Non-Israelite rulers would of course be people who don’t know Yahweh-God. In the psalm, this trope anticipates a time when all people know and follow God’s direction and justice—much akin to the prophetic visions of Isaiah 2 and other places. The leaders and nations referenced in the psalm are outsiders, and it is outsiders who are precisely the ones who first recognize the significance of Jesus’ birth.

In Luke, it is famously a rag-tag band of shepherds who first receive the birth announcement, and subsequently follow their curiosity and hearts to our infant Savior. For Matthew, foreign, pagan Magi—astrologers rather than kings—travel from afar. Tragically, they are more in tune with what God is doing than God’s own people. They realize it’s significance.

3. The Powerful

There is (then) a third group of people (overlapping somewhat with the previous group) that recognize the significance of what God is doing: those in power. “Kings,” “princes,” and “judges” are ones who ordered the ancient world. They wield the power, control the money, and have absolute authority. That means, of course, that they are the ones with the most to lose when the Son of God—the Messiah—comes onto the scene and turns the world upside down.

Matthew’s story illustrates this for us most clearly. When King Herod began to hear rumors of what the Magi expected to find, he grew concerned—he knew immediately that Jesus’ birth had significant repercussions for his ability to hold onto his power and authority. So he tries to manipulate the Magi into betraying the newborn Messiah; and, when he realizes his trap failed, he slaughters countless infants and toddlers in an effort to protect his power.

Faithful people may have missed the significance of that newborn baby, but those in power knew just how dangerous this Jesus was to them; they did not miss the significance of his unassuming birth.

Conclusion

While I’m not arguing this psalm is prophetic in any way, I find it a remarkably appropriate description and response to the birth of Jesus.

In the advent of Christ,

“the name of the Lord” is praised;
God “alone is exalted”;
and God’s “splendor [shone] above the earth and the heavens” (v.13).

In the birth of Jesus,

God “has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart” (v.14).

In its own way, Psalm 148 guides us into recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth for ourselves and all of creation. Just as faithful people have seen for thousands of years, this ancient prayer and songbook of God’s people guides us (this morning) into relationship, celebration, and awareness.

And so, in recognition of the significance of the appearing of our Savior, let us join our voices with this Psalmist of old. Let us “Praise the Lord.”

Love Deep Inside

This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”

I Will Light Candles this Christmas, by Howard Thurman

I will light Candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25 & Luke 2:1-7

 

Love of Food

In my family, we enjoy food. And maybe because of that, we’ve developed our own sort of language to talk about our food experiences. Just the other day, after a delicious Thai curry, I remarked that my “happy tummy” was making it hard to think of what to prepare for supper. Our cooking involves family recipes with secret ingredients in recipes we prepare. And honestly, as cliché as it sounds, I think you can taste the love that goes into food.

When I eat good food—especially good for you good food—I feel a warmth and a contentedness that is hard to describe. It’s almost like there’s a love deep inside me that just glows through my whole body.

My father would hate hearing me say this, by the way. One of his pet peeves was when we’d say “I love this!” referring to food. “We love people, not food,” he’d counter.

And I know he’s right. But I continue to contend that food remains an effective means of communicating love. It’s been the center of showing hospitality since…well……the Beginning.

Hospitality & Bethlehem

What does all this have to do with our scripture? With the Christmas story?

Well…… hospitality—and hence food—does have a lot to do with the story. So many people are traveling for this census—a disruption that the biblical story shows takes years before people settle back into whatever “normal life” would be.

Mary and Joseph—famously—find no room in what the King James translation called an “inn,” and so they end up laying their baby Jesus in a manger. In truth, the word here translated “inn” would be better translated “guest room” or something of the like. It is, in fact, the same word used of the “upper room” that Jesus and his disciples used for their final Passover celebration together, and in which Jesus washed their feet. That there was no room for them in the guest room meant there were other (perhaps less distant) relatives staying in the space as well, so Mary and her family had to crash elsewhere around the home.

Today, that might be the couch in the living room. But in the first century, it was the first floor of the house. This would be the only level with a dirt floor. It is where the cooking would be done, and yes—if the family had livestock (as this one clearly did)—it would be where the animals were brought inside, were it too cold for them to remain outside.

I know, all this completely destroys our cinematic imaginings of what Jesus’ birth looked like. Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow.

Movin’ On Up! (or Down)

Anyway, some years later, Jesus will tell a story of a feast (you can find it in Luke 14). In his day, where you sat at the table indicated how honored you were as a guest. He warned not to presume that we get the honored spot, because someone might come to the party that was more important than you: How humiliating it would be to be asked to make room for someone else like that!

Instead, Jesus suggested that we choose for ourselves a seat below that which we think we deserve. That way, the host will move us up to a more important seat: How amazing that would feel!

 

I wonder if Jesus ever thought of his birth when he told that story.

Here were the parents of the Messiah—who was himself about to be born into the world—yet they were relegated to the least-honored accommodations of the home. They were moved down—down the list of importance and (quite literally) downstairs.

But if only the hosts had known, would they not have given up their own room to make space for the parents (and the birth) of the Savior of the World?

Love Deep Inside

Love, it seems, was hidden deep inside. It appeared where no one was looking. It received no honor or privilege. It did not enter the world with power and might. Even the hospitality it was given was the barest minimum.

But these things did not hamper love. Love was birthed into the world anyway. Without pomp and circumstance. Without power and privilege. Without even a decent bed, apparently.

 

All these years later, I’m not sure much has changed. Where love appears in the world, it often emerges where no one was looking. Without honor or privilege. Without power and authority. It just subtly, subversively emerges and changes us forever.

I don’t know about you, but there have been plenty of times in my life when I failed to offer hospitality to love.

Situations of injustice in which I was too embarrassed to stand up.

People in need of kindness that I was too busy to offer.

Opportunities I missed because I was too focused on myself.

If only I’d known.

If only we’d known.

You see, I don’t think we’re really that different than the “innkeeper”-relative in these stories. We are so busy about the things of this world…… We are so invested in systems of honor and privilege that rely on the things we can see with our eyes…… We are so rooted in our own lives that it’s hard to see the new thing that God is doing—it’s hard to see the love deep inside all those things that are outside what is “normal” for us.

Entertaining Angels

In Hebrews 13, the writer warns us to “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (vv.1-2 ESV).

This instruction builds strongly on the Old Testament tradition where this precise thing happens over and over—God’s emissary (God’s angel) is initially mistaken for just another person, but ultimately exposes their purpose and message.

In the birth story of Jesus, this “entertaining angels” thing is precisely what happens. The parents of the Messiah—and the Messiah himself—are unrecognized and do not receive much in the way of hospitality. Love remains unrecognized, buried deep inside, at least for the moment.

The Way of Jesus

These stories—and this season—should be a reminder to followers of Jesus that we are to be hospitable to one another……and to strangers. Now more than ever our culture seems to be shaped by a fear-focused rhetoric that rejects notions of hospitality, kindness, and welcome. The more different someone is than you, the more we are being taught to fear them.

Yet that path……is not the one we are to follow—if we are truly followers of Jesus. The Way of Jesus is one

that welcomes the stranger,
that shelters the alien,
that feeds the hungry,
that gives drink to the thirsty,
that extends forgiveness to the sinner,
that works toward healing for the sick and wounded,
that proclaims liberty to all who are enslaved,
that brings light to those in darkness.

The Way of Jesus begins and ends with the hospitality he and his parents never received in that little town of Bethlehem.

And the reason is: that such hospitality and welcome is the only way to connect with the love deep inside that God is trying to grow in and for each person.

That meth addict

That drunk

That Islamic radical you see on TV

That peaceful Muslim that lives across town

That immigrant you doubt has papers

That poor person you think is abusing the system

That coworker you can’t stand

That aunt you hope doesn’t show up at your holiday party

That church member who always grates you the wrong way

These are people that God loves. These are people God is trying to plant seeds of love deep inside. These are the “those who are sick” that Jesus says are “in need of healing” in Mark 2:17. These are the people that should be left with that warm, good-food feeling of love when we pass by their presence—because they (of all people) need reminded that the gospel of Jesus is indeed good news.

As Howard Thurman has reminded us of our identity in Christ this morning, so let us commit:

I will light Candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

May it be so. Amen.