Jesus Said What? – A Thanksgiving Sermon on John 6.25-35

(preached at Cherryvale UMC in Staunton, VA on 11/27/13)

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you are your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God? Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we might see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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After miraculously feeding 5,000 people, the crowd stayed on the other side of the sea. Though they had been properly fed by the Word, the loaves, and the fishes, when they discovered that this miracle man was nowhere to be found, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they finally caught up with him on the other side, they called out, “Teacher, where did you come from?!?” Jesus responded, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me for the wrong reasons, you came here not looking for signs, but because I gave you enough to eat yesterday. Do not work for the food that spoils, but instead for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

“Okay, okay, so what do we have to do in order to perform the works of God?

Jesus answered simply, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

“Well, who do you think you are Jesus of Nazareth? What sort of sign are you going to perform? Why should we listen to you? How can you prove what you are saying to us? Sure, yesterday you fed all of us, made something out of nothing, but so did Moses in the wilderness. Why should we turn away from him, to you?”

“Very truly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, the manna, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Now Jesus that sounds pretty good to us, we would like some of that bread!”

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“No, you don’t get it. I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

One of the great paradoxes of what it means to be Christian, is that we already know the end of the story while we’re stuck in the middle of it. Because we read from God’s word in order to remember the mighty acts of God in the world, we are all well versed on what happens in conclusion. Therefore it becomes nearly impossible for us to imagine the depth and meaning of these narratives in and of themselves.

Try with me, if you can, to imagine that you are there among the crowd. Yesterday you were blown away by this nothing of a man who made something out of nothing. As you stood in line with your stomach rumbling, you were given more fish and bread than you had ever seen in your life. Now, you were so hungry that you ate until your stomach was about to explode, (just like many of us will do tomorrow…) and the next day, the miracle man was gone. As your hunger started to creep back up, you agreed with those around you to go looking for this Jesus.

So here you are, gathered together to hear him speak once again. Some of the people in the front challenged him about Moses’ miracle in the wilderness, something about Manna, but you just want him to provide some more food. So as Jesus begins to describe this true bread from heaven that gives life to the world, your mouth begins to water. You imagine a glowing loaf cooked perfectly, warm and moist on the inside, with just enough crust on the outside. You join the chorus around you, “Give us some of that bread Jesus! We want that always!” And Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.”

For us, the temptation to jump to the end of the story is great. We hear “bread of life” and we think about Holy Communion, we think about the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, we think about the crucifixion and the resurrection. And though it is important to know the end of the story, we’re not there yet.

I imagine that many who had gathered together that day were very confused. “What did he say? He’s the bread of life? What in the world could that mean?”

They don’t get it. The crowds that had witnessed Jesus’ miracle the day before knew exactly what they wanted, but thats not what Jesus is offering.

Today too many of us give the impression that numbers and popularity and packed pews are all important and sufficient in themselves. Many churches seem willing to accept people on any terms, if only they will come at all. How interesting is it then, that Christ would only accept the crowds on his terms, and would not want them upon any others. It hurt and frustrated him that they were merely interested in his ability to provide an easing of material difficulties or an increase in their comforts. “You came to me only for the chance of loaves and fish.”

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Similarly, in our contemporary culture people are hugely interested in the by-products of Christianity, but hardly at all in Christianity itself. Crowds of folk are constantly looking for whatever they can get out of church and worship. They are primarily interested in the kind of faith that will give them bread and fish, bigger homes, shorter hours, better health, happier families. Today Christ looks into the depth of our hearts and triumphantly declares, “there are far better and more satisfying things within your reach than you have realized.”

The whole exchange begins with an accusation by Jesus regarding the crowds’ overwhelming desire and interest in full stomachs, instead of the power of theologically oriented signs. Jesus proposes to give them enduring food and not the kind they consumed the day before. The exchange then elicits a question from the crowd about the “works of God” which Jesus reduces to one, namely belief; belief “in him whom he has sent.”

What is belief? What does belief mean for each of you? Are we called to believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit? Is belief about accepting the bible as truth? Can we boil down our belief to something like the Apostles’ Creed?

Often times belief in Christian living is compartmentalized into believing that God simply exists.

The kind of belief that Jesus talks about with the crowds in John 6 is a different kind of belief. Belief is more than mental affirmation, belief is a world view, belief is a paradigm shift, belief is about a redefinition of reality.

What we believe, shapes how we behave.

Everything about what we do begins with belief; we believe in Jesus Christ and the things for which he stands, the way and the truth and the life he teaches us, the God whom he reveals to us, the grace and faith he came to offer us, the victory over death which he makes possible even for the least likely of us, the kingdom of God that he inaugurates for us. 

Okay Jesus, you want us to believe, to drop everything, to change our lives, to pick up our own crosses, to follow you. But why? Moses fed us with the manna in the wilderness, what can your belief offer us?

Moses was Moses, a mighty servant and steward of the Lord. Yet what Moses gave to the wandering Israelites was not the bread from heaven; it is God the Father who gives you the bread from heaven, and that is being offered to you this day. What Moses provided, rather what God provided through Moses, was merely food. What Jesus offers the crowd is the almighty God.

Tomorrow, millions will gather together with friends and family to celebrate the wonderful holiday of Thanksgiving. Crowds will develop in all of the airports, the roads will be filled with traffic, and kitchens will be teaming with individuals trying to concoct the perfect mashed potato – turkey – gravy – cranberry – stuffing combination of all time. After exchanging pleasant and cliche reflections on what we are most thankful for this year, most of us will partake to ridiculous degrees on the food set before us. Mountains of mashed potatoes will be eroded with rivers of gravy. Quarries of cranberry salad will rival seas of stuffing.

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Perhaps most frightening is the fact that within 24 hours, we can go from thanking God for all the blessing in our lives, to fighting one another at Best Buy in order to purchase something to fill our insatiable appetite.

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We know what we want, but thats not what Jesus is offering.

I like to think that, as the church, we have matured from our fragile days of discipleship in the first century. I like to believe that because we know the end of the story, we are better prepared to heed Jesus’ call to a life in the kingdom. I like to imagine that, as moderns, we are ready to take up our crosses in brilliant fashion and follow Jesus into glory.

But the truth is, we are still standing in that crowd asking Jesus for the bread.

We struggle so desperately to find meaning in our lives through failed relationships, the accumulation of material possessions, and vocational discernment. We hear the word of the Lord in scripture, and then quickly fall back away into the shadow of our lives. We thank God for our families and then bicker and fight as if they were not precious gifts in our lives.

Just as He did that day in the crowd, Christ looks out to all of us this thanksgiving season and offers us something more fulfilling than anything else. “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“I am the bread of life”; search throughout the scriptures, I challenge you to find something equally simple and profound in summarizing the Good News. This the gospel of Jesus Christ at its very finest! How ample in its sweep, how generous in its description, how impossible to evade. This is a passage to which we can all cling in the darkest moments in our lives. With this one sentence we discover an everlasting hope that will endure all things.

“I am the bread of life”; Jesus Christ is as important to us as the very food we eat. Indeed, Christ is more important to us than food. No amount of food or drink or any material thing will ever fill us the way that Christ does. Through the bread of life that Christ offers we receive strength to live out our faith, we are sustained and nurtured and loved in all things.

“I am the bread of life”; The triune God is an end to all the craving and discontent in our lives. The bread of life roots our identities in the one from whom all blessings flow, the maker in whom we live and move and have our being.

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In a few moments all of you will be invited to Christ’s table to partake of him through the bread and the wine. Just as Jesus stood before the crowd to proclaim his identity as the bread of life, Jesus once gathered with his disciples to remember the stories of God in the world and share one final meal.

What are you thankful for this year? How have you been trying to fill the voids in your life? If you want to be filled, if you want to find a sustenance in your life, if you desire to have your life transformed, if you need to be made whole, if you want to discover purpose and faithfulness in your life, if you desire to know God, if you hope to find peace in your lives, then come. Come to Christ’s table. Feast on the true bread from heaven, believe in Jesus Christ, and be filled by the Spirit.

Amen.

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Cross and Crown – Sermon on Jeremiah 23.1-6 and Luke 23.32-43

Jeremiah 23.1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall fear nor longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

 

Luke 23.32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence for condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

 

If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.

The first time I traveled to Guatemala I had no idea what to expect. Sure I had been on previous mission trips to different parts of the United States, but I had yet to serve the church in a truly different environment. Everywhere we traveled there was a sense of excitement in the air because everything was so remarkably fresh. The abundance of colors in the differing marketplaces, the worn and wrinkled faces of the elderly mayans carrying heavy loads, and the mountains scratching across the horizon.

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I had been looking forward to the trip for sometime and when we finally arrived, everything was meeting my expectations. I believed that we were truly serving God’s kingdom by serving our Guatemalan neighbors by building stoves in the indigenous highland areas. I believed that we had something to share with them, not to convert them, but to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ and demonstrate the love of God in the world.

On one of the early days of the trip, our team arrived in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche’ Mayan culture. It was a pit stop for us on the way to the higher regions, and we were there for lunch and to explore the vast and dense market. Everywhere you turned you were overwhelmed by the sense of time and tradition, as if this place had remained unchanged for the last few centuries. I wandered through the winding streets, peeked in some of the different booths, but really I was just trying to soak up the culture.

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At some point, I became lost. I could not see anyone from my group and continued to travel aimlessly throughout the town. I tried to keep it together, not panic, and decided to find a high vantage point in order to get a bearing on my surroundings. I walked until the stones under my feet started to slant upwards and eventually found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps were covered with Mayans, sitting and sprawling over every space, and I had to weave my way back and forth in order to reach the entrance of the church. Though I should have immediately turned around to look out at the town, something drew me inside.

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The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings and decorations had nearly all disappeared from view. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever entered. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooded seats until I finally found myself standing in the front of the church. There poised in front of me was perhaps one of the most pristine sculptures of Christ that I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders with one hand outstretched with a remarkable golden crown resting on his forehead: Christ the King.

 

The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the Christian calendar. The greater church had celebrated the knowledge and image of Christ as king for centuries, but Pope Pius IX officially added to the Christian year in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this feast so bad in order to add it to the life of worship. When the first celebration of Christ the King occurred, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for three years, the maniacal man named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the United States was preparing for the Great Depression. In such a time, when the world seemed out of control, the church asserted that, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of the universe.

This day, this celebration in the life of the church, became the church’s great nevertheless to the godlessness of the world. Despite the rise of dictators, wars, fear, and death, despite the widespread notion that religion was only a “private affair” for individuals, Christ the King asserted that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and he shall reign forever and ever. 

During the celebration of holy mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Monastery 6 members of the OCDS community made promises to the Order.  Dr. Jason Bourgeois and Judy Hawkins professed their temporary vows for 2 years and David Travers, Suzie Megown, Kath

On Christ the King Sunday the Lectionary provides for us scriptures that reflect the “kingliness” of Jesus. The Old Testament scripture from Jeremiah, contains a prophetic word about the coming Messiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah reports the Word of the Lord to a people in a time of chaos: there are people who are unworthily leading and scattering God’s sheep. But nevertheless, God will bring about a righteous Branch, a king to rule all things, a king of righteousness.

What do we want out of a king? Someone who will execute justice and righteousness? Someone who has our best interests at heart? Someone who lowers our taxes? Someone who will lead us victoriously into battle?

The Israelites wanted a king like David. They so desired someone to come in the name of the Lord in order to overthrow the powers that be, and take a seat on their appointed throne. To be crowned with glorious gems and rubies, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth with power. What kind of a king do we want?

 

And he was led away to the place called The Skull with two others, who were criminals. There Jesus was crucified with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. With the blood still wet on his hands and feet, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” those who had gathered to witness his death began to cast lots for his clothing, and people stood by watching, waiting. The leaders began to mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers present also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And there was a sign hung over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

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One of the criminals hung next to Christ kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself AND us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, saying “Are you not afraid of God, since you are under the same punishment? And we were condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he looked to the Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

That is our King.

When you really get down to it, when you hear Luke’s remembrance of the crucifixion, it is so simple and straightforward. This is in contrast with the flood of feeling-filled poetry, hymns, sermons, and images that have flowed ever since. Our King did not reign in glory according to the expectations of the world. Instead of a long flowing purple robe he was left nearly naked on the cross. Instead of a crown of rubies, diamonds, and gems, he wore a crown of thorns. Instead of a majestic throne inlaid with gold and comfort, Christ reigned from a cross.

The Romans were notorious for using crucifixion as a form of execution for common criminals because it not only warned the public about the crimes against Rome, but it also added shame, pain, and a slow death. Yet somehow, instead of being hung for shame, Jesus Christ was elevated to his throne on the cross.

In that simple moment of hanging for all to see, Christ the King reigned magnificently over God’s kingdom and demonstrated the depth of what it means to be our King. Jesus refused to test God and heed the call of his tormentors to save himself. Three separate times Jesus was mocked to “save himself,” with the one criminal adding, “and us.” In his final moments Jesus does save someone, and that the one he saved was a dying criminal fits perfectly with the greater message of God’s Good News of the world. In Jesus’ dying hour, he continued his ministry: For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost. That is what it means to be King.

 

As I stood in that Guatemalan church, I was confronted for the very first time about what it really means to believe that Christ is the King. I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard yet Christ stood before me as the King. In that moment I saw the paradox of the crucifixion, that the King of God’s glory was hung on a cross to die, that Christians in Guatemala can see the world slipping away from them, yet Christ is still King of the universe. I thought I was bringing something with me to Guatemala, that I was carrying God’s message. I believed I was looking for and seeking out God in my own life when God was the one looking for me; waiting to confront me in that dark and empty church.

How remarkable is it that we worship a God who loves us so much that he is continually looking for us, finding us in the differing moments of our lives to remind us who is really in charge? How beautiful is it that our God came in the form of flesh, to be the incarnate Word, and reign from a cross at the place called The Skull? How perfect is it that our King does not meet the expectations of the world, but instead turns the world upside down? How blessed are we that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us?

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, we have come to the conclusion of our liturgical calendar. We began with Christ’s birth made our way through his life death and resurrection. We have remembered the stories of the Old Testament where God made covenant with his people to be their God. We have witnessed the tragedies that have occurred in the world, we have lost loved ones, and suffered in our own lives.

Yet, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of all things.

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Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, brought forth a new age in the life of humanity, ushered in a new kingdom by water and the Spirit, reigned triumphantly from the most unexpected of places. Jesus Christ, Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus Christ, Son of God, died on a cross for the world so that we might all be reunited and reconciled with God. Jesus Christ, the Holy One, taught us about how to live and love abundantly in God’s Kingdom. Jesus Christ, King of the universe, was resurrected from the grave to share life eternal with us.

Hallelujah! To God be the Glory forever and ever!

Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional – 11/25/13

 

Devotional:

Philippians 4.4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

 

My family loves to celebrate different holidays. My maternal grandmother loves to go out of her way to develop new and fun games depending on the particular festivity. On Easter there is always an easter egg hunt in addition to counting all of the different easter bunnies throughout the house. On Christmas we are usually given a random assortment of objects with the challenge to create something that is indicative of the Advent season in addition to trivia quizzes about differing Christmas songs, scriptures, and traditions. I will wear my grandfather’s lederhosen while my sisters will wear some of my grandmother’s dirndls. Holidays are a big deal.

Mertins Family Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

On Thanksgiving we always gather together as a family while also inviting friends to partake in this special holiday. The abundance of food and guests usually leaves us with having to put up temporary tables in different rooms in order to accommodate. There is usually some sort of Turkey quiz, or an acrostic poem for something like “M-A-S-H-E-D-P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S.” But the best thanksgiving tradition takes place immediately following the blessing of the food where everyone has to go around the table and share with the group what they are most thankful for. One of my uncles usually says something that makes the entire table laugh, one of my cousins leaves us with something deep to ponder, and my grandmother usually has us all in tears by the time she finishes. I love sharing what we are thankful for because it gives us a time and a space to reflect on the goodness in our lives with the people who embody God’s goodness for us.

Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about the Christian life as happy and holy. He encourages the budding Christian community to rejoice in the Lord, to think about the blessings in their lives, and to keep the faith.

As we gather together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends and family I encourage you to share the goodness of your lives. Reflect on how God has made your life happy and holy. Reflect on how you can be a blessing for others.

Remember that as you gather together around a communal table, Christ has invited you to partake of him at his table. That from Him all blessings flow. That we all have something to be thankful for: the gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ.

Apocalypse When? – Sermon on Luke 21.5-19

Luke 21.5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

 

            The disciples have gathered together with Jesus. They’ve probably shared some bread, fish, and wine while sitting around and talking about the latest news from Galilee and the recent happenings in Jerusalem. Peter, ever extraverted, decides to change the conversation to the majesty of the temple: “Oh how lovely it was, adorned with remarkable stones and the gifts dedicated to God. Have you ever seen such gold in your lives?” The other disciples nod in approval, while Jesus remained silent. Bartholomew furthers Peter’s claim: “The temple of God is indeed a witness to God’s majesty in the world. Only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could have such a place!” They all begin to agree with one another, affirming the glory and might of their God, the God of Israel, worthy of such a temple.

            But then, in sharp contrast to their excited exclamations, Jesus speaks up, “All of these things that you see, the temple in all its glory, the days will come when not one of these stones will be left upon another; all of them will be thrown down.

            The disciples have been around Jesus long enough to know that when he says something like this, its important to pay attention. “But how could this be?” they wondered; the temple was a sign of God’s glory. So then one of the disciples, perhaps Peter, asked on behalf of the whole group, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

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            What a question. Its stories like this one that help to remind me how similar we all are to the disciples. Because that question is the same one I would’ve asked. Okay Jesus, things are going to get rough, when? What will happen to let us know that this is about to take place?

            How appropriate and funny is it that Jesus’ first warning about the apocalypse is directed toward the would-be-prophets who predict the end of the world? Just within my lifetime I can think of a number of examples of the self-affirmed prophets who claim to know the exact date of the approaching end of the world. And even though Jesus has clearly warned us against them, when they come forth with their predictions, they never fail to get a hearing, media presence, and air time.

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And people listen to them! Droves of people go to the bank and withdraw their life savings, bunkers are dug and filled with emergency supplies, and some even take their own lives rather than accept the coming doom and gloom predicted by these would-be prophets. Jesus looks out at his disciples, and therefore every one of us, and declares, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

            There always seems to be some other form of allegiance in the world that appears better than what we learn to live into from God’s Word. Some affiliation more fruitful, some path through the trials of life that seems more certain and secure. We would rather rely on reason than faith. We would prefer to deal with material possessions than with spiritual growth. The tragedy of the history of God and God’s people is that we have continually been a people running off like that, generation after generation, in pursuit of other, perhaps easier, gods.

            After this first warning, Jesus continues his diatribe regarding the eschaton: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famine and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

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            I have often heard non-Christians remark about how easy it is to be Christian. Those with a limited knowledge of what it means to be a faithful people often charge the church as being a means of escape from the harsh realities of the world. “It must be so easy to be Christian, you don’t have to worry about what really goes on in the world, just waiting for your heavenly reward.” However, in sharp contradiction to these claims Jesus very bluntly puts forth how very difficult it is, and will be, to be Christian. In a way, being Christian, is in some sense, an escape, not our of life, but right into the depth of it; from meaningless into meaning, from futility into purpose, from bondage into freedom.

            The Good News of Jesus Christ has always been paradoxical in its ability to disturb the ways of the world. Those with privilege look on it with suspicion, those with power look at it with disappointment. The Jewish leaders were shaken by it and fearful. Rome outlawed it. The first disciples all suffered persecution and condemnation. Jesus did not get killed for loving too much, but for turning the world upside down; for changing the perspective of what it means to be first and last, for defeating death, and removing power from the powerful.

            “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

            When Jesus addresses the disciples, describing for them the very trials and tribulations that they were to face he makes it clear that these are the hours of opportunity. When the world shouts No, the church responds with a resounding Yes!

            Our faith is not a creed, not a way of thinking about life, not 5 steps to make a better you; it is the I and Thou of a God who calls us by name, addresses us, seeks us, a moment of meeting, the time for hearing and becoming. Our faith is about confronting the problems of the world, living into them, and transforming the world for God’s kingdom. The Bible, God, and our faith is never on pause. The time is now!

            What Jesus describes in this passage is what we often call the apocalypse. What kinds of images come to your mind when you think about the apocalypse? Death? Destruction? Zombies? Though these are the popular images often associated the apocalypse, apocalypse deals with a revelation, which discloses the realm of God behind the world of historical and interpretable events.

            Timing is important when we talk about revelation from God. What Jesus describes, the events surrounding the suffering of his followers will happen in the future. There will come a time when Christians are called to testify to their faith when everything around them will argue the contrary. The apocalypse is coming in the future.

            However, most of the events that Jesus described took place within the 1st century of the church. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the disciples were called before synagogues and governors to witness to their faith. They were rejected by the world and suffered because of their association with Jesus Christ. Nations rose against nations and wars took place. The apocalypse happened in the past.

            What becomes real for us today, though, is that God’s revelation, the apocalypse, is happening right now! What Jesus described in his apocalyptic descriptions helps to show how what is going on is mixed with what is really going on. Events set in the larger context of God’s purposes in the world. We have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory and therefore we are surrounded by symbols, signs, and mysterious elements regarding what is really taking place. As strange as this may seem to us as enlightened, modern, and rational people, it is a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God.

            “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

            How easy is it to be Christian? Apparently, its not. What is at stake for us in this passage is the commitment and call to be faithful witnesses under unusual stress and frustration. For us, here in Staunton, it might be hard to imagine suffering for our Christian identities. But faithfulness and endurance under threat and disapproval (and even penalty of death) are the qualities of discipleship during the time of witnessing. Disciples, and that means all of us here, are not exempt from suffering. If there is any doubt of this period of testing and testimony is still present, you need only look to what recently happened in the Philippines, or the dozens of Christians who were recently executed in North Korea for having Bibles, or the suffering of members within this church right now. Some of you might know of the suffering within the church, perhaps its even happening to you, just look around.

            Jesus’ address to the disciples regarding the apocalypse, the revelation of God, calls us to reflect on our own discipleship. I have been told again and again that if people are not complaining about me in the church I serve, than I am not doing my job. Being Christian implies a willingness to be pushed into the discomfort of discipleship in order to live into the new reality that Christ initiated with his death on the cross.

            Are we almost Christians? Are we content to arrive on Sunday mornings in order to go back to work on Monday without any change in our lives? Are we comfortable with seeing all of the suffering around us and letting it pass by our vision without stopping to question why? Are we ready to witness God’s kingdom transform the world without our participation?

            Or are we fully Christian? Have we felt the love of God in our hearts and we are ready to respond to that love with our commitment to faithfulness? Do we sit in the shadow of the cross while awaiting the glory of the resurrection? Are we ready to witness to the goodness of God even amidst our own suffering?

            I love the question the disciples ask: “When is this going to happen?” But there’s another question I feel compelled to ask: “Why is it going to happen?” If our Christian lives are comfortable and easy, perhaps we’re not doing enough. If the amount of suffering the first disciples went through was part of God’s revelation, then maybe we should be going far enough to disrupt the powers of the world. What would it take for us to believe so fervently, that we would live such faithful lives worthy of persecution from those around us?

            We have to know that what Christ is talking about is the end. And we have to know with equal knowledge that it is also the beginning. That the God of grace and glory is bent on rescuing his own from the misery that finds us in life, and continually working toward that salvation. That God is committed to saving us with the Good News according to Christ, and eagerly doing it by means of every life that will give itself away to him and his kingdom.

            Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place? The apocalypse, the revelation of God, is now.

            Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 11/18/13

Devotional:

Psalm 46.1-3

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

 

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In 1735 John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist renewal movement of the Church of England, made his way from England to the New World having been called to be a minister for the new colony of Georgia. Wesley prayed over this invitation for some time and eventually came to the conclusion: “My chief motive, to which all the rest are subordinate, is the hope of saving my own soul.” Though he had lived a devout life, and was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church, he felt that his own soul had yet to be saved.

During the voyage across the Atlantic, Wesley experienced a new kind of faith, one that he had yet to find in his own life. He recorded it as such in his journal: “There was now an opportunity of trying whether they (The German Moravians) were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’”

This profound experience would follow Wesley throughout the rest of his life, inevitably leading to the discovery of his own profound faith in the God who had faith in him, despite his sinfulness.

The psalmist sings out, “God is our refuge and strength… therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam…” That kind of faith is remarkable, one that takes years to cultivate and nurture. Just as Wesley was surprised by the faith of the Moravians on the ship, so too, it is often difficult for us to maintain our faith in the midst of tragedy and fear. Yet, every Sunday the church gathers together to remember our God, to remember that God came in the form of flesh and mounted the hard wood of the cross for us.

So, the next time you’re confronted with the seas and mountains in your life shaking and spilling over remember the faith that God has in you. That time and time again God went after you, to find you, to call you by name, and to embrace you. How would your life change if you had the faith to look at death and suffering in the face and simply remark, “I am not afraid”?

God of the Living – Sermon on Luke 20.27-38

Luke 20.27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

 

The Sadducees know exactly what they’re doing. They are not standing before Jesus truly desiring an answer to their question. They are not like the student whose paper is no longer decipherable because they have used their entire eraser while trying to answer a question. They are in Jesus’ presence for the purpose of embarrassment. Their aim is to argue, frustrate, and force Jesus into a particular way of thinking. The question that formed on their lips is not genuine. They are simply attempting to bait Jesus with one of their classic “what if” questions, a question on which their minds were settled long ago.

Haven’t all of us resorted to this kind of questioning at some point? The militarist asks the pacifist, “what if someone was attempting to rob you and your family, would you fight back?” or the child asks the mother, “what if the world ended tomorrow, would you really make me do my homework tonight?” or the skeptic asks the believer, “what if there is no God, would you still pray?”

“So, Jesus, Moses wrote for us about how to handle a situation if a married man dies without producing children. The wife is to remarry one of her brothers-in-law in order to have a child. But, what if this happened, and a woman remarried 7 brothers and never had any children with them, who would she be married to in the resurrection?”

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I knew a man who had a wonderful family life. He was a pastor, occasionally moved throughout his conference, but he had established roots in certain parts of the state. He enjoyed his work, but he loved coming him to his wife and children every afternoon. It was when everything seemed perfect that tragedy struck; his wife was killed in a car accident. In the wake of her death, the children were old enough to take care of themselves and when the pastor returned to work he no longer had the energy to serve the local church and so he retired. It was not for a lack of conviction or faith, but the loss of his wife struck him so deeply that he felt it would be irresponsible to try and serve others.

Time passed. The wound from his wife’s death remained open. He mourned. But after awhile he started to find a different rhythm in this new time of his life. The seasons passed and even though he still missed her, he was taking steps toward finding joy again.

He met his second wife later in life through mutual friends. It was clear that they had a connection but neither realized how deeply they cared for one another. When they married it was a joyous celebration and they spent the following decade together.

I got to know the husband and wife in their later years, visiting with them, hearing their story, and breaking bread together. They were meant for each other, and I don’t just mean finishing each others sentences kind of thing. They were adorable in their connection, in their refusal to be separated, and in their faithfulness when the former pastor developed a brain tumor.

I was unable to attend the funeral but I received a phone call from the new widow that evening. Through the abundant tears landing on the telephone I was barely able to make out her words but I could tell that something was worse than the emotions that come with attending the funeral service for your spouse. “I just don’t know what to think, Taylor,” she said while sobbing, “Today, during the service, my step-daughter, my husband’s daughter from his first marriage, delivered part of the eulogy. She stood before that crowded church and lamented the loss of her Daddy. But before she finished, she looked up in the air and said, ‘I’m so happy that Dad is back together with Mom now.”

I was silent.

“What does that mean about me?” she continued. “What will happen when I die? Will he be waiting for me?”

How could anyone speak into that situation? What could you say to help fill the void that her husband left, while remaining faithful to the God who has faith in us.

For a few moments I waited silently on the phone unsure of what to say. But then I remembered that Jesus had been asked a similar question…

 

Jesus was asked a question that would’ve typically elicited a pastoral response. After all, this story comes toward the end of Luke’s gospel; Jesus has already traveled all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and pastorally caring for his flock everywhere that he traveled. His answer to the Sadducee’s question is important and vital to our lives not only as Christians but also to all people who reflect on life and death.

Jesus begins his response to the Sadducees’ loaded question rather directly: “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but to those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry not are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die because they are like angels and are children of God being children of the resurrection.”

In this first part of his response Jesus pointed out the inappropriateness of their question. There is a difference between this age, and the age to come. In this present age the reality of death makes marriage and the perpetuation of life essential. In order to continue the cycle of life, new lives need to be brought into the world. However, in the age to come, in the resurrection, death will be no more, death will die, and those who are blessed enough to attain the resurrection will be as children of God. There is no marriage in the resurrection because it is no longer needed, God’s purposes for life after life after death will be so glorious and inexplicably remarkable that marriage will be no more. 

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There is a difference here between what we commonly imagine about heaven and life after death regarding the immortality of the soul and the resurrection. Many would have us believe that to be Christian means that we have immortal souls, but there is an important distinction between immortality and resurrection. Immortality is based on a doctrine of human nature that denies death; resurrection is based on a doctrine of God which says that even though we die, God gives life to the dead.

In the second part of his response Jesus relies on the teaching of Moses to help undermine the question from the Sadducees. The Sadducees believed that a teaching, belief, practice, or habit was not authentic unless it could be found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, the so-called “Mosaic Law.” They would search through those books and unless it was there, it was not relevant or viable for their faith. So Jesus draws on the teaching of Moses, particularly the incident of the burning bush, to further defend his answer.

Do you remember the story? Moses, a shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro is out in the wilderness tending the flock. In the midst of his work he is confronted by a bush that is burning, but the flames refuse to consume the bush. In this interplay between human and the divine Moses is commissioned by God to deliver God’s people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Reluctant to undertake such a task, Moses questions, “Who am I to say sent me?” And God responded, “Tell them I AM sent you, I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.”

So when Jesus responds to the Sadducees he remembers this story for them. God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. What we do in the here and now is important, and God will take care of us when our time comes. You may think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses as being dead, but God is their God, they are alive through him.

The Sadducees, in their strict conformity to their theological persuasion were unable to comprehend that standing before them was God in the flesh, that Jesus himself was the Word, the new law, and the new covenant. He not only brought a new teaching, but he himself was the new teaching.

Just as during the time of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees, there has been confusion over the implications of the resurrection throughout the history of the church. Resurrection has often been understood in one of two ways: Experientially or Eschatologically.  (bear with me here)

An experiential resurrection would allow for all of us here to achieve a newness in our lives in the here and now on earth; “we have been raised to new life in Jesus Christ.” An eschatological resurrection would mean that God will give life to our bodies after we die to live and reign in the new heaven and the new earth; “Behold I am making all things new.”

What is important for us, what Christ conveyed to that crowd of doubters, is that both of these resurrections contain truth. There is a beauty in the experiential resurrection that we discover when we find ourselves caught up in the mission of God and there is an indescribable fulfillment in the eschatological resurrection that will come when God makes all things new.

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So I stood there silent on the other end of the phone while the new widow cried out of frustration and fear. “What does that mean about me?” she pleaded “What will happen when I die?”

I took a deep breath before speaking into her reality.

“I don’t know whether or not this will bring you peace right now, but a long time ago somebody asked Jesus a really similar question about marriage in the resurrection. I can never tell you for sure what will happen, but I can tell you what Jesus says. In the next life, in the resurrection, there will be no marriage. God will wrap us up in such a way that marriage will no longer be necessary to convey the deep sense of love and connection that it does in this realm. Your husband will not be married to anyone but we will all belong to one another. I know that right now this probably isn’t the most helpful or pastoral response, but isn’t there something beautiful about the fact that when we go on to greater glory we will all be equal before everyone?”

 

The way Jesus confronted the question of the Sadducees is so relevant for us today as people of grace who contemplate both life and death. What will happen to us in the resurrection? Who will be belong to? Many of these questions trouble us because we are so desperately clinging to the material world here and now. In our families, marriage, and relationships we find fulfillment and purpose. If we lose someone that we root our identity in, what happens in the age to come?

God will take care of us. God will lead us through the loss of our loved ones and hold them within his warm embrace until that time that all the saints will be reunited; not as brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, but as children of God. 

Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is the way that God responds to our questions – not with answers which flatter us, or make the world simpler than it really is, but with his life given for us, that we might more fully give our lives to him.

As we prepare to go forth into the world remember that God is with you in the mundane and in the radiant. God is with you in life and in death, in marriage and divorce, in fear and joy. God is with us in all things here now and forevermore; he is not a God of the dead but a God of the living.

Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional – 11/11/13

Devotional:

 

2 Thessalonians 3.6-

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

 

He had attended church throughout his life, but his faith was basically idle. He listened to the sermons, put money in the offering plate when it came by, and even attended a few bible studies. However, the extent of his belief, participation, and discipleship was lacking. It was clear that nothing excited him about church and he was simply attending because it was the “right thing” to do.

The pastor took notice of this and decided to invite the young man on a mission trip to build stoves for indigenous Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala. Though perhaps initially reluctant, the young man thought it might be a nice little vacation and he would get to work on his spanish.

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For 5 days he was worked to the bone. The food and coffee were often cold, the air was too thin for proper working conditions, he kept finding dried cement between his fingers, and he was perpetually exhausted. But something happened. Something changed within his disposition while in that remote village of the Highlands; his faith caught on fire. Though he felt run down by the physically exhaustion, for the first time in his live his faith was no longer idle. He was working for the kingdom of God and (as if the blindfold had been removed from his eyes) he began to see the importance, joy, and depth of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica regarding the idleness present in the worshipping church. Clearly, there were people that were not participating to the degree that Paul would have liked and their behavior was detrimental to the greater church. While reading his words about isolating the idle believers it seems too drastic and definitely unchristian. Though it is perhaps extreme, the point that Paul makes is remarkably important: Christianity is dependent on the character of its disciples. If idleness is present throughout the church, the excitement and joy of what it means to the be the body of Christ for the world will disappear. Paul encouraged the Christians in Thessalonica to keep away from idle believers, but perhaps what we really need to do is help build up their faith, invite them to participate in ways that will light their faith on fire, so that the kingdom can become real for them.

So, if you know someone idle in their faith, reach out to them. Invite them to participate in new and exciting ways. Help them to see the glory and joy of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

If you feel that your faith is idle, find ways to engage in the local church. How can you serve those in need? Where can you be Christ’s body for others? What would it take to set your faith ablaze?

Faith is only faith when it is being practiced.