Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

The Curious Garden

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown.

Scripture: Genesis 2.4-9, 15

Life outside of Sunday Morning

In the youth group, we have been seeking ways of discovering how faith really does matter in life outside of Sunday morning. Part of that process has been actively listening to the youth as they voice things that they wrestle with, things that don’t make sense, things they are afraid of or feel ill-equipped to deal with, and things they see as pressing issues in their lives now and in their future.

Perhaps because of the one-two punch of extreme flooding followed by extreme heat, there have been some animated conversations about creation, and ecology, and pollution, and climate change.

What are our responsibilities with the climate and the environment—as humans?—as persons of faith in God and Jesus?

How are we to be good stewards of this world?

These concerns were among the top of our youths’ list. And whether or not you feel the urgency they do about these issues, they are not not issues that going away. And these questions about creation care are not political questions—they are faith questions that are worthy of being wrestled with by people of faith.

The Facts

Whether or not you choose to believe the 97% of climate scientists worldwide who are convinced that the earth’s climate is warming, it is impossible to ignore the vast changes to the ecosystems of the world that have transpired even in the last couple decades. 

Some areas of the globe have experienced more and more intense periods of drought;

Others, more and more intense storm systems;

Others, more wide-ranging and destructive wildfires.

We see that fisheries are collapsing;

That many species have been driven by changes in climate and habitat to occupy areas they never previously occupied;

and that thousands of species are going extinct when the biomes they occupy simply disappear.

That these things are happening is not up for question; they are fact, agreed upon by right and left alike, by both those pro- and anti-science, by those of faith and no faith. The only doubt anyone can inject into the conversation is about the cause—the explanation why these things are happening. But these changes are accepted as factual by all.

They impact our species’ ability to produce food…… and our friends’ ability to work and provide for their families…… 

These realities impact the homes of millions of people worldwide…… and the health of those who live there……

To say nothing of the things we lose along the way:

the species of plants and animals that could have had medical benefits

historic sites and scenic areas

unique biomes created with purpose by God

and perhaps (ultimately) even our ability as a species to survive in certain parts of the globe that were once teeming with abundant life.

These are simply the facts and the concerns they bring. So what then is the response of those aligned with the heart of God?……of those who have committed to discipling the Way of Jesus?

Eden

Once upon a time, in a time long past and a land far, far away—God began cultivating a patch of land we have come to call “Eden.” 

Genesis 1 tells of God’s considered purpose and order in bringing all things into existence. First, spaces are carved out of the “formless void”—spaces that will enable the existence of purposeful objects and life forms: the sun, moon, and stars; birds in the heavens, and fish in the seas; an incredible variety of land-dwelling creatures. All of this is brought into being and God declares it “good” and then “very good” [Genesis 1:31]—words that in Hebrew mean not just good, but:

appropriate

valuable

pleasing

desirable

and beautiful.

This Hebrew concept of goodness is intrinsically bound up with that of shalom/peace. To be good is to be at peace with all around you. It is to be one with other things/people in a way wherein your wellbeing is connected to theirs—to be beneficially interdependent and supporting of each other.

This is the way God describes not just the first human beings, created male and female in God’s image [Genesis 1:27], but “everything that he had made” [Genesis 1:31]. Creation is very good. Very purposeful. Very appropriate. Very much to be desired as it is. Very much at peace with itself…… in balanced harmony with itself……

This is the good creation that God has made.

And this goodness of creation is something the first human is tasked with maintaining. In Genesis 2:15, we learn that God places the first human into the garden of creation with a purpose. And what is that purpose?——”to till it and keep it.”

Tilling

Now, being that we reside in a community shaped by farming, I suspect we are all at least passingly familiar with the concept of tilling the soil—or “working it” as the NIV translates. You don’t just grow crops by scattering seed willy-nilly anywhere and everywhere—that’s part of why Jesus’ parable of the sower grabs our attention so effectively.

Soil must be prepared in order to ensure the seed has the best opportunity to thrive and to be productive. Working the soil involves turning it—breaking it up so there is room for roots to grow and nutrients to be absorbed. Perhaps there are rocks or other things that need removed; or perhaps nutrients that are lacking, so fertilizer has to be worked into the soil. Then there are the inevitable weeds that threaten to choke our plantings by consuming these nutrients; they must be dealt with as well. And of course, it may be that what the soil needs for productivity to happen is a rest—the opportunity to lay fallow for a season. All of these realities are tied up in the concept of working the ground in Genesis 2:15.

But it is considerably broader and different than just that too. The Hebrew word that appears here is the same root as the word “servant”……and in Greek translation, the word “deacon.” The human (in this story) is placed in the garden to serve it. And serving the soil—serving the land……serving the earth—this is a much more expansive concept than simply “working it.”

To serve the land requires prioritizing its wellbeing above that of your own wellbeing.

To serve the earth recognizes that your wellbeing is tied to that of the wellbeing of the planet—to care for it is to care for yourself.

To serve the soil forces us to get dirty for the wellbeing of God’s good creation.

Keeping

The other half of this God-given commission dovetails into this. God places the human in the garden of creation “to keep it” [Genesis 2:15] It may well be sufficient to think of “keeping” creation as not losing it.——But as things stand, we have lost a considerable amount of it, and we continue to lose more.

Just like the first half of the commission, the Hebrew language is both more specific and more expansive at the same time. In Hebrew, to “keep” something is less about having and more about maintaining. Guards in the Old Testament will do this to protect a city. People at risk of losing something will do this to preserve what they find valuable. God calls on the people of Israel to do this in order to maintain their covenant with God, and the people call on God to do this to survive when they face threats both without and within.

To “keep” the good creation of God is to maintain and preserve its goodness and balance—the very things that (not many verses before) God commended creation for.

Taken together, the tasks of serving the earth and keeping it involve both maintaining its goodness and promoting its growth. Yet neither task seems to have been taken very seriously by the faithful of God over (at least) the last few hundred years.

The Command Continues

Which is strange, in a way. You will not find anywhere in scripture that suggests this responsibility was ever rescinded by God or that it was fulfilled along the way. 

As a contrasting example: The command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth [Genesis 1:28] seems to have been fulfilled by God at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 [vv.8-9]. We don’t get another instruction about such expansive multiplication until Jesus tells his followers to do that—and then, not through biology but through disciple-making [Matthew 28:19-20]. 

Yet this God-purposed vocation to till the earth and keep it continues to be fulfilled by faithful folk throughout the biblical story—even after it gets hard [Genesis 3:17-19].

The ground continues to be tilled.

Trees continue to be tended.

Animals continue to be shepherded

There even continues to be concern for the soil itself [Leviticus 25:4-5]

Throughout the story, and all the way to us today: We are inheritors of that vocation to care for the good creation of God.

 

So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to be the boy—or the girl—who sees a need for a gardener? Are we going to reclaim the God-issued directive to care for creation and promote life in it?

Even if you become convinced of this responsibility and discern the leading of God to reclaim the role of “gardener of creation,” it can be hard to know where to start.

Let’s be honest—regardless of what call we may discern to embody the counter-cultural Kingdom of God, it’s hard to know where to start. The problems are so big. The implications are so wide reaching. The issues are so intertwined.

It is here that our children’s book stands as a helpful call to the kind of simplicity of mission that we discussed in Sunday School last week, and which has come up in the sermons a couple times in the past month.

Liam—the boy in the story—saw a problem: “the plants were dying. They needed a gardener.” 

And though he did not yet have the skill set he needed or a sustainability plan that would “solved the problem” completely, he decided to do what he could. In one practically microscopically small area of this world-wide problem, Liam began watering, pruning, and tending a few plants. 

Along the way he learned, because he wanted to do better. 

And as he diligently persisted against all obstacles, Liam not only began to feel like he was competent in his task, but he was also able to see that his actions were producing results. That handful of plants he began caring for began to spread further and further away.

There were, of course, setbacks along the way. And Liam had much to learn. But eventually it was not just his garden that was expanding, it was his mission. Others, seeing the goodness of what Liam was doing—even if they never met him in person—were inspired to take up the responsibility to become gardeners themselves.

 

This is a pretty solid game plan for changing the world:

whether you are taking up the call to care for God’s good creation……

whether you are inspired by the scriptures to affirm the image of God in people who look and sound different than you do yourself……

whether you are hearing loudly the biblical mandate for justice, especially for those that society is structured to disadvantage……

or whether you are just trying to make the world a more compassionate place.

How do we do it?

We will start small, and we usually won’t really know what we’re doing. But that won’t stop us from acting, so we will do what we can where we can.

We will embody our convictions humbly yet boldly; knowing that we have much to learn, yet confident that we are attending to realities and people that are dear to God’s heart.

Our confidence will be such that we do not need others to join us for us to be certain we are doing the right thing. And yet we will be eager to share the work with anyone interested in doing the same.

And so eventually, slowly, over time and space, we will see everything change. It can’t help but change—not if the Lord of Creation is at work through us.

Receiving + Forgiveness

Scripture: John 20:19-31

Another Contrast

In this second week of Eastertide, we continue our reading of the resurrection narrative as told by John the evangelist. And given the time we spent last week reflecting on Mary Magdalene, it is worth pointing out (as we begin today) yet another stark contrast between Mary and the Twelve. 

Mary, as we read last week, was already at the tomb, well before daylight. It may be that she had never left the body of Jesus, and only that morning found an opportunity to perform the necessary embalming procedure. 

Regardless, it is she that first encounters the risen Christ. She pursued him, to be sure; and this made clear by the fact that she was there when no one else was willing to come. While Mary didn’t know what she was going to find, she and she alone was looking for Jesus—and she found him with breathless joy.

 

The Twelve disciples, in contrast, are not looking for Jesus. In fact, Luke tells us [Luke 24:10-11] that most of the disciples outright refused to accept the proclamation of Mary, chocking it up to the hysterics of emotional women. 

The disciples do not go looking for Jesus, so Jesus has to go looking for the disciples. In fact, Jesus goes looking for the disciples not once but twice, because even the men refuse to believe each other about this supposed resurrection of their Teacher. 

 

But this isn’t a “be like Mary” thing, or a “don’t be like the men.” It simply stands as a contrast—and it is a contrast that the gospel writer purposely highlighted in telling this story. There is intentionality here, but it’s not to say “be good, not bad.” 

Instead, it’s a reminder of the lengths that God will go to in pursuit of us. To reach back to Jesus’ famous story of the prodigal son and the loving father, that father was likely scanning the horizon for his son looong before his son even began his turning back home. So it is in life—God is moving toward us long before we move toward God. 

Sometimes—as with Mary—we meet in the middle. 

And sometimes—as with the Twelve—God comes all the way to us, without us giving up an inch. 

But that just demonstrates how much God loves us.

Forgiveness

And all this really does form a nice preface to the topic I really want to be attentive to this morning: forgiveness…… and especially what is presented regarding forgiveness in vv.22-23 of our scripture lesson. There we read: 

“When he [that is, Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” (John 20:22–23 NRSV)

Or in another translation, for variety:

“Now [Jesus] drew close enough to each of them that they could feel His breath. He breathed on them: ‘Welcome the Holy Spirit of the living God. You now have the mantle of God’s forgiveness. As you go, you are able to share the life-giving power to forgive sins, or to withhold forgiveness.'” [VOICE]

Powerful stuff.

There are two things here that Jesus charges to his followers: a hospitality toward the Spirit, and the power to forgive or withhold forgiveness.

Spirit-Hospitality

Let’s first talk about breathing. 

Deep breath in……
Deep breath out……

The exercise of breathing bears some pretty significant powers. Aside from…… well… maintaining life, intentional breathing brings considerable health benefits. Intentional deep breathing lowers our blood pressure, reduces stress, and slows a heightened heart rate. It increases the oxygenation of our blood, which promotes the removal of toxins and advances healing. It encourages healthy digestion and even builds core strength.

The ancients may not have had all these scientific studies to back up their perspective, but to them breath was life. It was that simple. Without breath, there is no life; more breath, better life. 

There’s a reason that such intentional deep breathing has been a part of every meditative technique ever developed. 

 

Here, [John 20:22] Jesus breathes on his followers.

In the native language of Jesus and those disciples, the word for breath is the same as spirit: ruach. 

Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive the Holy Breath. 

Breathe in Jesus’ breath. Breathe in Jesus’ spirit.

Take that which animates Jesus‘ body and life, and let it animate your own body and life.

Now, since we’ve got not just the story of Jesus and his disciples, but also that of the early church, we know that the Holy Spirit doesn’t fully come upon the disciples until Pentecost—fifty days after the resurrection [Acts 2:4]. That’s the story of Acts 2. And it’s hard for me to think that John got the timeline so wrong that he completely forgot about Pentecost…… I guess tongues of fire and tornadic winds just seem memorable to me.

 

That means: John much be communicating something else. 

And in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry in this particular gospel, I think that something else is rooted in what I’ll call “spirit-hospitality.” I think Jesus—as John tells this story—is trying to impress upon his followers the importance of being receptive to the Spirit of God. 

And this receptiveness he hints at is a kind of hospitality.

Just as we might order our homes in such a way to host others—through space, patio furniture, or whatever. 

Just as we might order our lives in such a way to incorporate others—through time, meals, connections, and so on.

In the same way, we can order ourselves in such a way to welcome God’s abiding presence.

“Receive the Holy Spirit” [John 20:22] may just be John’s way of calling all Christ-followers to the Kingdom life that Jesus described and demonstrated. Given the interplay between spirit and breath, it may even be that John wants us to see this spirit-hospitality as vital for our very life and survival: breathing the Spirit and ordering our lives so as to welcome Her is just as essential to life as breathing oxygen and consuming other nutrients.

Forgive or No?

Which brings us to the second charge [John 20:23] in this text: the power to forgive or withhold forgiveness.

Now, like many of you, I was taught from an early age that only God forgives sin. In fact, that was one of the reasons the pastors I grew up with would frequently condemn the Catholic church next door—”those Catholics” believed human beings could forgive sin (or so my pastors misunderstood their doctrines). 

It was that and the gambling (bingo). 

But sadly, these pastors were not true to the Bible or Jesus in their claims. We can clearly see that here, and Jesus makes the same claim in other places. Matthew twice records Jesus insisting that his followers have this power (16:19; 18:18). And across the board, Jesus maintains that this is not merely forgiving someone who sins against us (cf. Matthew 18:21), but it rather involves the entire cosmic realms of both the human- and God-spheres [Matthew 18:18]. 

Somehow—in ways we do not comprehend—we have the power to forgive the sins of others. And—even more disturbing—we have the power to obstruct their receipt of forgiveness.

Frightening, isn’t it?

I mean: Why would God give us such a power? 

Why?—when we have demonstrated such a readiness to abuse one another?

Why?—when we have so eagerly purposed each other’s destruction for our own gain?

Why?—when we have so consistently held grudges and sought the harm of our enemies?

Why would God give us such power?

The answer, I suspect, is because God intends to draw more good out of us than we even imagine can exist. It is because God wants to include us in all of God’s expansive and loving purposes.

A Christ-Shaped Life

And here is where that spirit-hospitality and forgiveness come together. Here is where we find that being revived by the breath of Jesus has implications for our life together as human beings.

You see, throughout the story of Jesus we find descriptions—depictions, really—of the Christ-shaped life…… or, as we might say, the Kingdom life.

We grossly misunderstand Jesus when we think his teachings are simply a new set of rules we have to follow. When we believe such, we reduce Jesus to a new kind of Pharisee-ism. We make Jesus into a new version of the very slavery from which he sought to liberate us [Matthew 5:20]. 

Instead of giving us a new slate of rules to follow, Jesus uses object lessons and teachable moments to describe the kind of person God intends us to be—what we might call genuinely good people living genuinely good lives—which (as it turns out) we are not capable of doing without divine intervention.

As Jesus describes the person living this “kingdom life,” we discover that kingdom people are those “who, from the deepest levels of their understanding and motivation, are committed to promoting the good of everyone they deal with—including, of course, God and themselves” (Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p.187).

As author Dallas Willard has written: 

“In kingdom life we extend the respect to others that we would naturally hope others would extend to us. That is how love behaves.” (DW, DC, p.217)

It’s the Golden Rule, right? “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NRSV).

Take the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 for instance. 

Jesus is not instructing us to be poor in spirit [Matt 5:3], 

or to mourn [Matt 5:4], 

or to be meek [Matt 5:5], 

or to hunger and thirst for righteousness [Matt 5:6], and so on. 

That would be exchanging one kind of works-righteousness for another. That would be trying to achieve our own salvation through what we do ourselves. 

Instead, Jesus is painting a picture of what the Kingdom life looks like. Anyone has access to this Kingdom and its power, even and especially those that everyone else would discount: like the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those longing for justice, and so on. As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, we see Jesus paint a picture of a person who is rooted in the Kingdom of God. This is a person who naturally embodies the behaviors Jesus describes—out of the transformation of their heart, their actions will flow (and not the other way around!).

So the truly good person is one who has no use for anger or contempt, who has an intense desire to help, who does not cultivate lust, who does not employ verbal manipulation, who wills good even for those who have harmed them, and so on.

This is what Jesus describes as chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel play out.

We see this descriptive approach in the writings of Paul and the other New Testament authors as well. Take the famous “fruit of the Spirit” passage from Galatians 5: 

The truly good person—the person living in the Kingdom—the person who has been born again into the abundant life that begins here and now—the Christ-shaped life is one that demonstrates “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 

Like Jesus, Paul is not telling us to “fake it ’till we make it.” But he is rather insisting that: if we spend time with Jesus in God’s present Kingdom, our hearts will be so transformed that we naturally demonstrate these things with our life. 

To quote Dallas Willard again:

“When we enter the life of friendship with the Jesus who is now at work in our universe, we stand in a new reality where condemnation is simply irrelevant. There is before God, Paul says, ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1).” (DW, DC, p.227)

Outro

I think this is an important reminder as we turn our attention back to John’s text.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” (John 20:23 NRSV)

You see, as frightening as it may be that we have the power to withhold forgiveness from those who need it (and who among us doesn’t?), Jesus knows that such an action would be an anathema to one who is being transformed into Christlikeness. 

He is again describing the one who lives fully in the Kingdom of the Heavens. Such a person—a person who embodies spirit-hospitality—a person who has received the Spirit of the living God—such a person will not hold grudges, because such a person desires even their enemies be reconciled to God and blessed.

That is not a call to try harder.
It is instead a call to stop trying harder, and to let God do the hard work.

It’s a call to the disciplined life of a true disciple…… to let the living waters rush over you…… to eat of the bread of life…… to be born again, each and every day—forgiven, restored, renewed by wave after wave of God’s love…… the millisecond we reach into the ever-present Kingdom of Christ.

As Jesus spoke to his disciples that day: “Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27b NIV).

The Kingdom is here. It is at hand. It is within us and available to us.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29 NRSV).

All Good Things Come to an End

Scripture: Joshua 5:10-12

Intro

While brief, today’s scripture lesson describes one of the darkest days in the history of ancient Israel…… But also one of the most hopeful. 

Hopefully, on the journey we are about to take together, you will be able to see both sides of their experience, and maybe even begin reflecting on a similar intertwining of hope and uncertainty within both our experience as a church, and our experience as individual followers of Jesus.

The Run Up

These verses describe a turning point in the life of the ancient Israelites—the moment [v.12] when the manna that had become a regular and normal part of their life ceased to come. So we first have to investigate this manna: what it is (that was actually a pun) and what it meant to them.

If you remember the story of the Hebrew people, things really get started around Genesis 12 [vv.1-3], when God calls Abraham to a special relationship that will bring blessing to the whole world.

Over the next couple generations and chapters, we see various dramas played out as Abraham and his family begin to learn what it means to covenant with and trust this God. When they do trust, God is with them in a powerful way that even makes their neighbors take notice [Gen 26:28].

The normal pressures of life in that area of the globe—things like draught, famine, and war—lead these “children of Abraham” to seek refuge in Egypt. In the stories of Abraham’s grandson Joseph, we see how God prepared an abundance in Egypt in order to provide for his people through this difficult time. Just as with Joseph’s father (Isaac) and his grandfather (Abraham), God is with Joseph [Genesis 39:3-4] in a way that is both noticeable and beneficial to others [Genesis 41:38, 40].

But over time, tensions between between the citizens of Egypt and these refugee Hebrews begin to rise. The book of Exodus begins by telling us that “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8 NRSV). Seeds of fear and division [Exodus 1:10] are sown by the Enemy among this melting pot of the ancient world, and so begins the ruthless process of demeaning, dehumanizing, and enslaving other human beings in order to profit off them [Exodus 1:12b-14].

Generations of Hebrews come and go amidst the increasing burdens of slavery, and they are treated like little more than farm animals—even to the point [Exodus 1:16] that the Egyptians try to control their “breeding.”

Eventually—and at what the bible would call “the right time” or “the fullness of time”—God appears to a man named Moses and says:

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:7–8 NRSV)

And this God does, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”—which is the bible’s preferred way of referencing all the deeds of power that were involved in the exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15 NRSV). Miracles, plagues, crossing the sea on dry ground, destroying an entire army without God’s people lifting a hand—all these are part of the “glorious triumph” of which Miriam sings [Exodus 15:21].

Yet almost immediately, the journeying Hebrews turn from triumph to despair. The ordinary, mundane realities of life take the wind from their sails, and they turn their attention from God to their stomachs. 

They’re thirsty [Exodus 15:24]……

and God responds with patience and compassion [Exodus 15:25a],

and even abundance [Exodus 15:27].

But they still had not learned to trust this God. So next time they’re hungry [Exodus 16:3], and they despair to the point that they completely turn their backs on God and Moses. Yet again God responds [Exodus 16:4a]—and again with compassion and patience—enabling them to eat quite literally out of God’s hand each day. God rains down manna [Exodus 16:12b] each morning, and God brings in covens of quail each night. All of this—including the one day per week these things do not appear—are explicitly intended by God to teach them trust.

These daily provisions of food—directly from the hand of God—begin almost immediately upon crossing the Sea. And over the next years and chapters, they become as synonymous with God’s presence as did the pillars of cloud and fire: which guided them through their journeys, and showed them where to make camp.

Through those years, the people learned about God and themselves—the Torah, God’s instruction, was given to them; and they discovered how their life was to be different than other peoples in order to achieve and demonstrate the good and abundant life which God wants to bring to all. They also, of course, failed miserably in their covenantal responsibilities by repeatedly failing to trust in God. 

But the manna stayed. God’s daily provision continued; and through that, they knew that God hadn’t given up on them. 

As long as the manna kept coming, they knew that God was with them. 

As long as the manna kept coming, they continued to learn how to trust in the future that God had promised.

But then the manna stopped.

Back to Joshua 5

It stopped here (in Joshua 5) at what must have seemed like the most critical moment of their entire journey—and their entire lives, for most of them.

Leadership has just transitioned from Moses to Joshua [Deuteronomy 34:9]. The people of Israel had just crossed the Jordan River [Joshua 3:16b-17] into the land that had been promised them—this land! The land right there under their feet! They’re finally there! They’re finally here!!

Except……

Except there are already people living here, just as there were back in the days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. A scouting party has already checked out Jericho [Joshua 2:1], observing tremendous military strength. They’ve got a fight ahead of them for sure…… 

And it is in the midst of this moment, that these tangible, daily reminders of God’s presence and provision…… disappear.

Abandonment?

I don’t know that any of us can adequately imagine how devastating this must have been. Most of us know what it’s like to feel like the rug got pulled out from under us, but this must have been ten-times as traumatic.

How do we know that God is still with us?

Why isn’t God caring for us as we’re used to?

Can we even be sure God will go with us into battle?

Have we done something wrong, and God has abandoned us?

This never happened with Moses! Why is it happening with Joshua?

But Also Hope

None of us can fully appreciate the complicated emotions of that day. Because this isn’t just the day the manna stopped, it is also the day they first ate of the produce of this Promised Land, the land that (remember?) was so fertile it was said hyperbolically to “flow with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8b].

On this day, at Gilgal, they learned how true that was.

 

Back in the book of Numbers, when the people of Israel first approached the Promised Land, Moses sent spies to check things out. As recorded in chapter 13 there, these spies brought some of the produce of the land to the people, as a demonstration of how fertile it was. 

The centerpiece of their presentation [Numbers 13:23-24] was a cluster of grapes so huge it had to be carried between two people……. so huge that the name of the place where it was found was changed to memorialize this incredible harvest. 

Just think—just imagine!—what it must have been like for the Israelites in Joshua 5 to taste some of that for themselves. They no doubt grew up hearing legend and lore from the older folks about this nearly-mythical cluster and the other produce brought back in Moses’ day. 

Here at last:

They learned all this talk wasn’t just a bunch of old husbands’ tales.

After years of eating the same monotonous diet, they learned the glorious smell of fresh baked bread…… they learned how sweet a fig could be…… how juicy a pomegranate…… how enormous a cluster of grapes……

But more to the point: they learned how God was capable of fulfilling a future even beyond their wildest imaginations—both exactly like they expected, and simultaneously nothing like they expected. 

Here, they learned that to live into God’s promised future, they had to leave behind the familiar ways God has related to them.

New Skete

And that—sisters and brothers—is a monumentally difficult task. In the book In the Spirit of Happiness, the monks of the New Skete community in New York talk about this in the context of the spiritual progress we make with God—and they do so in a way I still find astounding and challenging. 

The monks talk about all the kinds of things we seek in our spiritual advancement: that warm feeling John Wesley is known for describing, that overwhelming emotional connection with God, that tangible sense of God’s presence, and so on. For most of us, these “markers” are what we seek in our spiritual practice and worship, and our experience of them is the way we know we’re “doing it right.”

But the monks are relentless in their insistence that all these things are mere crutchesgifts from our generous God to help us until we are strong enough to stand with God on our own.

Large parts of In the Spirit of Happiness are framed as a conversation between a “Seeker” and an experienced spiritual leader. The Seeker feels he is undergoing a time of spiritual dryness. Even though he continues to engage in the practices that have brought him such spiritual “highs” previously, he now feels little (cf. p.37). 

Even though he’s still living out trust and faithfulness in God, the manna has disappeared.

Annoyingly, his guide calls this “very good,” and then asks “What happens to your dedication when you’re not getting emotionally rewarded for it?” (p.38).

The guide then continues:

“This is the real beginning of the spiritual life, when the hard work starts… Up to now, everything’s been preliminary—and delightful! Forget that now—now there’s no candy, no unusual emotional gratification. 

So what do you do? Did you really mean what you said… that the search for God is what you really desire? Now is the time to recall the enthusiasm of your first fervor, the determination to offer ourselves unreservedly, and at the same time to let go of the craving for emotional consolation.” (p.38)

This “emotional consolation” is what the monks call the honeymoon stage of spirituality, which invariably passes for all of us. But this “breaking free from emotional dependency doesn’t happen all at once, but goes on throughout our lives……” and it leads us to the question:

“What does it mean when spirituality no longer feels good? … What do you do?” (p.38-39)

Our greatest fear in all this is that God has abandoned us, seemingly confirmed by our inability to sense God’s presence with our emotions. But the monks are emphatic, insisting:

“Our greatest fear proves groundless! God hasn’t abandoned us at all!”

They remind us that “there is no place where God is not present. [God’s] presence is not contingent upon our feeling it. It simply is.

Thay say: “We must learn to remember this and calm ourselves. By [God’s] apparent “absence,” God is leading us to a more mature level of consciousness, self-offering, and love. [God] is leading us from the love of God for the sake of [God’s] gifts, to the love of God for his own sake. 

As we progress further in the spiritual journey, we discover that what is happening to us is more akin to giving birth. Any mother knows the life that comes out of the pain of childbirth. The same can be said for the process of being born spiritually.” (p.42)

 

Challenging words from the monks of New Skete. 

And I think the Israelites in Joshua 5 discovered something of this firsthand—that day the manna didn’t show up.

Outro

All good things come to an end. But in God, an end only makes way for something more…… something better and beyond our wildest imaginations—even as it fulfills God’s most ancient promises of abundant life, blessing, and an eternal and abiding presence that waters, feeds, and gives rest beyond anything possible on our own.

So here’s what I’m thinking about:

What is God calling you to?

Where is God opening up a new future for you?

Where are you starting to taste the fulfillment of God’s promises in your life?

And if you are, what might that mean for the ways you’ve experienced God before?

How does that change your relationship with God, and your relating with God?

What might that mean for the ways you’ve expressed your faith or lived out your beliefs previously?

If God has brought you to the edge of something new, what is there that now is comfortable that might be coming to an end? 

What good things might be at their end, if you find God has brought you to the fulfillment of promises already?

These are hard questions—for any of us and all of us, regardless of how long or little we have been pursuing the Christian life. But they testify through scripture of this process of being born again—crossing a threshold into a new kind of being with God, and with all of creation.

As we continue our Lenten journey through the Cross and to that Resurrection morning, such hard questions are really the only kind that matter.

 

A Prayer: Adapted from Psalm 32

Truly happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

O God, we acknowledge our sin to you,
We do not hide our iniquity;
For when we confess our transgressions to the LORD
you forgive the guilt of our sin.

Therefore, let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 

You are our hiding place;
you preserve us from trouble;
you surround us with glad cries of deliverance.

Instruct us, O God,
and teach us the way we should go;
Counsel us with your eye upon us.
May we not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

But may we be glad in the LORD
 and rejoice,
and shout for joy,
for you are our righteousness. Amen.

This Is Good News

Scripture: Luke 3:7-18

What Should We Do?

If it wasn’t clear last week, the personality of John the Baptist has long captured my imagination. Those extraordinary characteristics of his life, faith, and ministry are just sooo captivating. But alongside all of that, there’s the fact that John’s teaching and ministry so completely anticipates Jesus’ own. John’s proclamation of the Kingdom and what discipleship means is perfectly consistent with that of Jesus…… 

Somehow, it seems that before Jesus even enters the scene, John manages to show everyone what being a follower of Jesus means. 

This particular passage describing John’s ministry has a lot of different things to teach us, but the Luke’s focus in telling it is on discipleship. Discipleship and what it means is the answer to the crowds’ question in v.10: “What then should we do?”

I hope you find this to be familiar ground. “What then should we do?” is the natural human response to an encounter with God

And in encountering God we always seem to discover both our own insufficiency and God’s sufficiency. 

In encountering God, we are called into repentance, into reflecting on the fruits of our life (and our human efforts), and into the core of who we are. 

In encountering God, we find a simultaneous affirmation of love and a calling to be something more—something we can only be if God is the one changing us.

Between John’s teaching here and his responses to the crowds, I believe there are some significant morsels to be gleaned about the nature of discipleship—the nature of what we do in response to experiencing God.

Discipleship Is Not Passive

First, let me suggest that discipleship is not something passive. It is not something that happens to us without any involvement of ourselves. 

In v.8, John suggests that some in the crowds think they do not require the transforming work of discipleship in their lives—simply because of who they are. They “have Abraham for an ancestor.” They think the life of faith is about bearing the right label—for them “descendant of Abraham,” but for us what? Christian? Baptist? Republican? Democrat? Church member? Baptized believer? Tither? Good person?

If you think that “getting right with God” is based on who you are associated with—or having your name on a list somewhere—you are sorely mistaken. John reminds his hearers that the Creator who brought all matter in existence could easily transform mere stones into “members,” if members were what God was after.

Discipleship is not something passive; it is not about “being” something. It requires that we “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v.8). That’s active. That’s “doing.” As one author has offered: “Discipleship is about generating intention” (Dallas Willard). Discipleship doesn’t just happen. Or perhaps: it only happens when there is a plan, a purpose, and energy directed toward an outcome. 

Discipleship Involves Others

Discipleship also involves others; it is not something we do alone. Looking at the instructions offered by John starting in v.10, all of them involve relationships:

Give your extra coat to the one without a coat (v.11)

Do not wield your authority to the disadvantage of others (v.13)

Do not harm others in your pursuit of wealth (v.14).

The kinds of relationships involved in discipleship end up being multifaceted, but might be able to be condensed down to two basic, overlapping circles—a Venn diagram of sorts.

Some of those involved in our practice of discipleship are those within our community—whether we define that as the community of the church or something different. We require these people to help us see things about ourselves we cannot see (much in the same vein as John exposing the way the people rely on their heritage to “cover them”). We require their accountability. We require these people to teach us what we do not know. We require them to carry us when we are weak. And we, of course, do the same for them. 

That brings us to the second group of people we’re talking about. These are the recipients of our faithful practices. They are the ones receiving—receiving of our generosity, our justice, our kindness, our self-restraint. Sometimes these people are within our community; but this circle needs to be much bigger than just those we are closest to or most comfortable with. We need to encounter some people who don’t have a coat to keep warm. We need to discover some extortionists and those they injure…… some abusers and their victims…… those who wield fear and those victim to it…… because this is the real world, and the real world is where the rubber of discipleship meets the road of life. 

The biblical story testifies—from the very creation of humanity as recorded in Genesis 2—that we human beings are created to be in community with each other. There is an interconnection between us…… an interdependence on each other. As Americans, we resist this simultaneous need and responsibility for each other. The whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth is a grand deception of the Enemy, wherein we deny the help we ourselves receive in order to deny help to others in need. But this interdependence is an integral component of the kind of discipleship that John taught…… and that Jesus requires.

Discipleship Is Contextualized

So here’s a third thing that John teaches us here about discipleship: discipleship is contextualized. What do I mean by that? 

I mean that John recognizes the path of discipleship does not look the same for everyone. 

To the crowds in general, John instructs: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” and don’t rely on your heritage to save you. (Luke 3:8 NRSV)

To another segment of the crowds, John insists they need to be generous with the surpluses they have—redistributing their wealth in order to provide for those without. (Luke 3:11 NRSV)

To tax collectors, John says: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:13 NRSV)

Similarly, soldiers are instructed to “not extort money from anyone by threats and false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14 NRSV)

Different people; different paths. We are gifted differently (as Paul talks about in 1Corinthians 12). And God knows our experiences of life can be incredibly different, too. 

The road you take is going to be quite different if you start in Atchison, KS…… or Detroit, MI…… or Buenos Aires, Brazil…… or Tokyo, Japan…… or Berlin, Germany…… or Khartum in the Sudan…… or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia…… or wherever else you might begin.

It is a glorious thing that God meets us where we are. In very literal ways, this is what the Incarnation is all about…… it is what the season of Advent is about. God meets us where we are: within creation, deep in the mire of sin, the light of hope fading from our eyes. 

Discipleship Is Life Changing

And though presence is powerful, God does not just sit with us there; God changes our fates, as God changes us. That’s the last element of discipleship that John teaches us here: discipleship is life-changing.

I don’t want to get bogged down in historical minutia this morning, though it’s always tempting. I hope it is sufficient to say that in the ancient world, tax collectors did collect more than prescribed—it is who they were; it is how the business worked; it just was part of being a tax collector. 

The same points can be made about soldiers—abusing their authority and power to get all kinds of “fringe benefits” was part-and-parcel to being a soldier. I imagine most soldiers back then wouldn’t think soldiering was worth it, if you took these “fringe benefits” out of the equation. 

In both cases, we’re talking about what “everybody” does. It’s not just that these were common practices; to not participate in them was confrontational to your colleagues, and akin to spitting in their eyes. To not do these things was to upset the apple cart of society enough to risk being bullied, fired, and ostracized.

Discipleship is life-changing. God calls us and draws us toward somewhere different than where we are. God invites us into awareness and discovery…… into repentance and forgiveness. Our transforming God seeks to transform us.

There are frequent New Testament citations that talk about the nature of this transforming work of God. In each case, it is clear we are being transformed into the image of Christ. 2Corinthians 3:18 is as good an example as any. Paul says:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2Corinthians 3:18 NRSV)

The apostle Paul anticipates a day when we will see Jesus clearly, and we will all be transformed into his (same) image.

Now I’m not going to point fingers here, [humorous tone!!] but you-all need to experience some more transformation in order to look like Jesus. Of course, I do too——like major work…….like “raze it to the foundation and start over” work. That means we cannot stay as we are; we have to embrace the change that God is trying to work in our lives. 

It is hard work. The cost is high. But it is worth it, when we also count the benefit.

Good News

The last verse of the reading today identifies John preaching the “good news.” What Luke means here is certainly what is elsewhere announced as the nearness of God’s kingdom. Yet at the same time, he seems to intend the inclusion of the teachings just discussed as well—Luke seems to mean that these teachings are somehow “good news” too.

So I wonder…… Perhaps these teachings could be seen as expansions of that kingdom proclamation. Maybe these are real-life examples of where the rubber meets the road. 

That would certainly be consistent with the call to discipleship that we find throughout Jesus’ ministry, as well as the Great Commission with which he leaves us—which has “disciple-making” as its central command.

These teachings about discipleship, I believe, are good news. They are good news because they are baby steps towards being recreated in the image of Jesus. They are good news because they remind us that we can be better than we are.

Discipleship is good news for us because deep-down inside we know things aren’t right…. that we aren’t right. We know:

[Luke 3:8] that we tend to practice a passive instead of active faith, 

[Luke 3:11] that we hoard our resources even when we know they are needed by others, 

[Luke 3:13] that we’re happy to benefit from an unjust system, 

[Luke 3:14] that we’re eager to use and even abuse power and privilege for our own gain, 

[Luke 3:14b] and that we don’t know how to be content with what we have.

All these are pools of darkness in our soul. They are shadow places where the light of God’s love has yet to penetrate. They are the “old self” that is yet to be reborn of God’s kingdom. 

And the promise of discipleship is that God does meet us where we are. That we can be more than we are. That this slavery of sin and failure and inadequacy is self-imposed: liberation is available when we will turn to God.

But it’s not just going to happen to us. Discipleship and discipline are from a common root word. We have to train ourselves to be open to God’s redemptive work in us. Speaking metaphorically about his own practice of discipleship, Paul says:

“I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” (1Corinthians 9:27 NRSV)

If that sounds extraordinary, it is. But it is extraordinary in the same way that John is extraordinary, and that we are called to become extraordinary as a people dwelling in the present Kingdom of God.

Direction

As I have offered many times before, an important part of my job (as I define it) is to provide direction and community to those desiring to learn more about these kingdom practices—the “spiritual disciplines,” as we sometimes call them. These are intentional practices that the church has used for centuries to invite God’s transforming power to work within us. 

To use an analogy, these traditional practices are the various tools in the toolbox of the Christian life. Growing up in church, I was only taught one or two of them—and at that, I only received an anemic version of a practice and was taught it only passively.

I really do believe that God wants to transform us. And I really do believe that most Christians want to grow in their spiritual lives. But I also believe that most of us don’t really know how to make that happen.

But the good news—if you’ll allow the pun—is that the tools are there. We just have to be willing to pick them up and learn to use them. 

The Not-So-Subtle Work of God

 

Scripture: Psalm 50:1-6

 

 

 

Transfiguration: Mark 8-9

It happened before they even knew what was going on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subtle Goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in order for that to happen:

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

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

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

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

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