Monday, April 28, 2014

Christ the Lord

(A sermon based on Colossians 1:15-20 for the 2nd Sunday of Easter 2014)

Last October, Amanda Fiegl of National Geographic asked National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) meteorologist Stephen Corfidi why some sunsets are so spectacularly colorful. Here is his explanation:

When a beam of sunlight strikes a molecule in the atmosphere, what's called "scattering" occurs, sending some of the light's wavelengths off in different directions. This happens millions of times before that beam gets to your eyeball at sunset.

The two main molecules in air, oxygen and nitrogen, are very small compared to the wavelengths of the incoming sunlight—about a thousand times smaller. That means that they preferentially scatter the shortest wavelengths, which are the blues and purples. Basically, that's why the daytime sky is blue. The daytime sky would actually look purple to humans were it not for the fact that the sensitivity of our eyes peaks in the middle [green] part of the spectrum—that is, closer to blue than to purple.

But at sunset, the light takes a much longer path through the atmosphere to your eye than it did at noon, when the sun was right overhead. And that is enough to make a big difference as far as our human eyes are concerned. It means that much of the blue has scattered out long before the light reaches us. The blues could be somewhere over the West Coast, leaving a disproportionate amount of oranges and reds as that beam of light hits the East Coast.

Now that you have that explanation, you will enjoy and appreciate a gorgeous sunset more than you used to enjoy it, won’t you? Actually, you’re likely just to “ooh” and “aah” and to be amazed at the wonder of the thing and to give little thought to the very important and true scientific explanation of it.

Today’s passage prompts similar thoughts in me. Clearly, the passage is packed with much important Christology, with much important teaching about the person and nature of Christ the Lord. We could—and, one day, should—delve deeply into what these verses say about Christ.

But isn’t there something about these words that invites us to stare, our mouths hanging open and our minds stunned, at the wonder of it all? Listen to them again:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Many scholars believe that this passage is an early Christian hymn that was incorporated into this letter. What do we do with hymns? We don’t analyze them (well, hymnologists do, we but we aren’t hymnologists) ; we sing them! How do hymns speak to us? They speak not so much logically as emotionally. Hymns are a means of celebration and praise—and that’s how we should experience these words.

And what is the impact of the hymn? It communicates to us in very powerful language that Jesus Christ is everything, that he is the all in all, that he is the one from whom all things come, in whom all things come together, in whom all things are being reconciled to God, and in whom all hope resides.

He is “the firstborn of all creation,” meaning that he is the source and origin of all that is created—every planet, every star, every plant, every animal, every person, every atom, and every quark. Without him was nothing made that was made. He is the centerpiece that holds everything together.

He is the “the firstborn from the dead,” meaning that he is the source and origin, through his resurrection, of our resurrection. He is thus the source of all our hope and of all of our life.

In Jesus Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”; he was God in the flesh walking among us. If we want to see who God is, we look at Jesus. And, most amazingly, Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, died on the cross, thereby reconciling us and all things to God.

We need to hear and to submit to this great truth; we need to stand in awe of this great God. Why? Because if Christ our Lord made everything and holds everything together, he is making everything and will make everything as it is meant to be. Because if Christ our Lord is the founder and the sustainer of the Church, he is making the Church and will make the Church everything that it is meant to be. Because if Christ our Lord is our Creator and our Savior, he is making us and will make us everything that we are meant to be.

And if Christ our Lord is doing all of that, then Christ our Lord surely can get us through whatever we are going through and can use it for good according to his purpose.

Christ is our joy. He is our peace. He is our hope. He is our life.

He is our everything!

Be aware. And be amazed …

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Remember: He Came to Bring New Life

(A sermon based on Matthew 28:1-10 for Easter Sunday 2014)

When the stone was placed over the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, death with its accompanying anxiety and hopelessness had won again, as it was accustomed to doing. When the stone was placed over the mouth of the tomb, life with its accompanying love and hope had lost again, as it was accustomed to doing.

It was a crushing defeat.

Death, you see, hung over the world and over every life in the world like a dark cloud that was absolutely certain to produce life-threatening storms. Everybody was going to die and so everybody had to live in dread of death; that dread affected everything in life for everybody. Not only was everybody going to die but everybody had to deal with the events and situations in life that drained the life from them—and they had to face them with no real hope for the future.

When the stone was placed over the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, those with the power, the prestige, the privilege, and the pride had won again, as they were accustomed to doing. When the stone was placed over the mouth of the tomb, those who were the put upon, the spat upon, and the looked down upon had lost again, as they were accustomed to doing.

It was a crushing defeat.

But such was, after all, the way of the world. Such is, after all, the way of the world.

It is not, however, the way of the Lord. It is not the way of the future. And it is not the way of the present, at least not for those who trust in the God who did what we celebrate on Easter Sunday and on every Sunday. That’s because when Jesus was raised from the dead and broke free of that tomb, God set in motion a kind of life that is filled with possibilities both in this world and in the world to come. And when the two Marys came to the tomb on Sunday morning and found the stone that death and power had used to put Jesus away rolled away, they found themselves swept up into the life that is real life.

We who trust in Jesus and in his resurrection are swept up into that life, too. God has set in motion something that cannot and will not be stopped; God has begun a new creation that will eventually and inevitably come into its fullness. The resurrection of Jesus is not just an amazing but isolated incident that happened in the past; it is not only something that enables our own resurrection somewhere out there in the future. Now, granted, Jesus was raised 2000 years ago and, granted, we will one day be raised because Jesus has paved the way for our resurrection. But the resurrection of Jesus sets resurrection loose in the here and now; already we are experiencing resurrection as we move toward our ultimate resurrection and already we can be living the resurrection life even as we still know that we will die one day and even as we still face situations and circumstances that threaten to drain the life from us.

Try to get a picture of what’s going on right here and right now. Listen to some of what Paul says about it:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)

What is this way into which we have been raised and are being raised?

It is the way of hope into which we have been raised and are being raised. We are growing in trust in what God is doing, in the new thing that God is bringing about. In the resurrection, hopelessness gives way to hope and despair gives way to trust; God in Christ has conquered death and God in Christ gives us real life in this life.

It is the way of love into which we have been raised and are being raised. We have been and are being raised into a life in which we can grow toward loving God with everything we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” It is in our willingness to have our entire self, our entire life, engaged with God and with the possibilities that God brings that we can see the new thing that God set in motion through Jesus (see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp. 72ff.). I would turn Wittgenstein’s statement around to add, “It is the resurrection that leads to love.” In the power of the resurrection, in the power of the new life that God brings about, in the power of the new creation that God is bringing about, we learn the value of love—of giving ourselves fully to God and to each other.

Nothing short of resurrection—of Christ in you—can lead to such love.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we will be raised to new life!

Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been raised to new life!

So let us live in the hope and love that only the resurrected Christ in us can make alive in us!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Remember: He Came to Die

(A sermon based on John 19:28-37 for Good Friday 2014)

Here is the basic fact that we call to our remembrance on Good Friday: Jesus Christ died on the cross. Often, we add to that sentence this phrase: “for us.” The theologians of the Church have thought many thoughts and have produced many words over the centuries on what it means to say that Jesus died “for us” but the Church—and wisely, I think—has never adopted one approach to understanding exactly how the death of Jesus “saves” us. Instead, the Church has seen that several different understandings each point us to a piece of the meaning of death of Jesus on the cross.

Tonight I want to focus on just one way to think about the cross but I focus on it because I believe it is the most important one since it provides the umbrella under which all the other ways of thinking about the cross sit.

Here is the truth I hope you’ll take home with you: Jesus died on the cross to make real and present God’s love for us. After all, God is love (1 John 4:8) and, according to the Gospel of John, in Jesus “the Word because flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:14, 18)
So—since God is love and since Jesus made God known to us, Jesus made God’s love known to us. What did Jesus show us about God’s love? He showed us that God’s love leads God to die on the cross for us. He showed us that God loves us so much that God will go with us through the worst things we can experience, up to, including, and, as we will remember on Sunday, beyond our death.

As William Placher put it, “The Incarnation shows that in Christ God is with us. The cross shows that in Christ God is with us, no matter what” (Placher, pp. 128-129). The baby in the manger shows us that God is with us; the man on the cross shows us that God is with us in anything and in everything—even the worst things. God loves us so much that in Christ God came into this world where we are; God loves us so much that in Christ God died on the cross.

I want to mention just two results of the truth that in the cross we see how far the love of God goes.

First, God’s love leads to our love.

In 1 John we read,

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

So the love of God that we know in the crucified Christ inspires us to love one another; it is as we love one another that we know we have experienced the love of God.

Second, God’s love never leaves us alone.

As we read in Romans 8,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

Nothing—absolutely nothing—can separate us from the love of God that we find in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is the love of God that Jesus came and died to bring to us: the love that is so abundant that it overflows into love for other people and the love that is so strong that nothing can tear us from its arms.

So tonight as you look at Jesus on the cross, make sure you see the love that is there. And make sure to take it with you …

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Remember: He Came to Stir Things Up

(A sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm Sunday 2014)

“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

The reactions that Jesus got from the crowd that accompanied him as he rode into Jerusalem and that the got from the people in the city were reactions that, we may be sure, he anticipated—indeed, that he intentionally provoked.

After all, he went to Jerusalem with his followers on purpose.

After all, he sent for the donkey on which he would ride into the city, knowing full well that his doing so would make a statement that he was carrying out the prophecy that Matthew quoted in verse 5.

After all, while he at times tried to tamp down the fervor of the crowds over the expectations and hopes that he provoked in them, this time he not only did not try to snuff out the flames but seems to have purposefully fanned them.

After all, the first thing that he did upon entering the city was to go to the temple and cause a commotion there by running off the merchants and money-changers who were callously getting in the way of people’s—and especially of Gentiles’—worship of God.

Clearly, Jesus intentionally stirred things up on Palm Sunday.

But Jesus did not stir things up just to be stirring things up; he stirred things up for very particular and important reasons. He stirred things up because it was time for him to complete his mission of showing the people of the world just how far God would go to love them. He stirred things up because he wanted to call attention to who he really was: not a militaristic and nationalistic Messiah who would take power and rule by force but a humble Messiah who would win the victory over sin, death, and oppression through service and sacrifice, through death on a cross and through his resurrection from the dead.

Jesus’ effort to draw attention to himself worked. His followers spread their cloaks and their palm branches on the road in front of Jesus as he rode the donkey into the city and the people in the city got all worked up wondering what all the commotion was about.

But…whereas on Palm Sunday people adored him, on Good Friday they would turn their eyes away from him. Whereas on Palm Sunday people laid their garments before him, on Good Friday soldiers would cast lots for his robe. Whereas on Palm Sunday people praised him for who they thought he was, on Good Friday they would be silent in the face of who he really was.

Five days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem, no one would be praising him and no one would be wondering about his significance as his body hung lifeless on a cross. The exuberant celebration and wondering consternation provoked by his entry into the city would be replaced by the oppressive horror of crucifixion.

But now … well, now we know who Jesus really is; we know that he is the Son of God who came to take away the sin of the world and that he is the Suffering Servant who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. When we really get hold of those truths, Jesus still shakes things up. When the Church gets hold of those truths and begins to live out his way of radical love, amazing grace, and selfless sacrifice in the world, then the Church shakes things up like Jesus did.

Your ministers have decided that it’s time to shake some things up around here. You will have noticed that this morning’s service was a little bit different than what you are accustomed to and you will notice other differences over the next few weeks. Beginning today we are going to be offering Children’s Church every Sunday. Over the next few weeks we will be announcing some changes to our schedule for the summer months and some very special events and emphases that will take place during those months.

We have good motives in making some of these changes. For one thing, we frankly want to get your attention. For another thing, we want to try to make some positive steps to increase participation in worship and in discipleship. For yet another thing, we want to listen to some of your heart-felt recommendations.

But please know that our primary motive is not to increase attendance in worship or to increase interest in church activities; our main motive is to draw attention to our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, we want to draw attention to our Lord Jesus Christ not as we want him to be, not as we imagine him to be, and not as we expect him to be, but rather as he really is.

Whatever changes come and whatever efforts we make to increase the level of participation, please be assured that they are motivated not by a desire to have big crowds or to make a big impression. We are shaking some things up because we want people, starting with us, to see and to know who Jesus really is.

Attendance and participation were high on Palm Sunday when it looked like Jesus was going to be and do what everyone wanted him to be and do—when it looked like God’s way for his people was going to be smooth, easy, and desirable. But on Good Friday, when God’s way for his Son and for his people was most clearly seen—a way that demanded love, humility, service, and sacrifice—attendance and participation bottomed out.

Yes, Jesus on Palm Sunday shook things up—but that shaking was but a faint prelude to the way he would shake things up on Good Friday.

Our shaking up of things around here is intentional and purposeful, but it is not a shaking up of things for the sake of shaking things up; it is a prelude to what will really shake things up: our being crucified with Christ and raised to new life in him …

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Jesus: Forty Days of Testing

(A sermon based on Matthew 4:1-11 for April 6, 2014, the 5th Sunday in Lent. Fifth in a series entitled "Making Good Use of Forty Days.")

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus always passed his tests. I do not always pass my tests—and neither do you.

It’s important to note that Jesus’ testing in the wilderness comes immediately following his baptism where the voice from heaven affirmed that he was God’s beloved Son. The temptations hit him exactly at the point of what it meant for him to be the Son of God. The most serious temptations that we encounter hit us at the same point: what does it mean for us to be the children of God?

We of the Church are, you might say, the third in a series when it comes to being tested.

First there were the people of Israel who, after their exodus from Egypt, were tested by God in the wilderness; Moses, speaking to the people as they stood poised to enter the land, told them, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

The people of Israel had been set free to be the children of God—but would they succeed at being free? Would they trust in God? Sadly, they would not. Happily, God would not give up on them.

Second in the testing series is Jesus. Driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness following his baptism, Jesus is tempted by the devil to abandon his trust in God—the kind of trust that caused Jesus to serve and obey his Father, no matter what it cost him—in favor of a lesser, shallower, and easier relationship with God.

So after going without food for forty days, Jesus hears the tempter say, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread” to which Jesus replies, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus would value listening to and following God over anything, even meeting his basic needs. He could have used his relationship with his Father to get his needs met; instead, he chose to be committed to his Father even if it meant his needs went unmet. He chose to live in light of the fact that it was not about him.

Jesus then hears the tempter say, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple, because the Bible says God won’t let anything happen to you” to which Jesus replies that the Bible also says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus will trust in God no matter what comes but he won’t put God’s care to the test; he will trust in God but he won’t presume upon that relationship. He would be called to do things that were risky and that appeared foolish but he wouldn’t take foolish risks in order to prove to himself that God indeed cared about him.

Jesus finally hears the tempter say, upon being shown all the kingdoms of the world, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” to which Jesus replies, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus will take no shortcuts; he will not accept the limited “all” that Satan can give but will be faithful to God and will worship and serve God alone and let God do with him and give him what God will.

At the end of his earthly sojourn, just before he ascended back to his Father, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” so the way of following his Father with all of its cost led to his receiving far more than the “all” that the devil promised.

We of the Church are third in the series; we are being tested to see if we will live up to our identity as the people of God. Honesty compels us to admit that we are not passing the test; hope compels us to affirm God has not given up on us and that we can make progress going forward.

Sometimes we are just like Israel in the wilderness: we try to find an easier way, we take shortcuts, we give God way too little thought, we fail to consider God in our every thought, word, and action, and we value the temporary over the eternal. Sometimes we experience a flash of being like Jesus in his wilderness: we trust thoroughly in God, we put obedience to God ahead of everything else, and we make every effort to do what we do in the way God would have us do it.

Most of the time, I imagine, we are in between the negative and positive extremes, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

Can we agree that we need to be growing as followers of Jesus? Can we agree that we need to be—that we can be—that we should be—growing in our relationship with God so that we want nothing more than to love God with everything we are and so that even when we find ourselves doing less than that we also find ourselves being determined not to settle for less than that?

Israel in the wilderness showed us what it is to fail—but we’ve learned that on our own.

Jesus in the wilderness showed us what it is to succeed—and with God’s help, we can learn that, too.

So here we are in our wilderness, in our time of testing, confronted by the temptation to be less than we can be, to trust less than we can trust, and to obey less than we can obey. What will we do?

I pray that we will let the living Word of God and the Spirit of God lead and teach and empower us to grow in refusing the temptation to live less than boldly and to grow toward living as the people that God made and saved us to be.

What does that mean?

Well, a few years after he passed his test in the wilderness, Jesus Christ the Son of God hung on a cross where he was thirsty and was offered only pain-dulling wine to drink, which he refused; he hung on a cross from which he was challenged to bring himself down, but he would not; he hung on a cross on which his dead limp body sagged as, for the first time, someone—a Roman centurion—recognized that he was indeed the Son of God.

If you are the Son of God,” were the words with which the devil taunted Jesus.

“You are the Son of God,” were the words the Roman centurion uttered when Jesus died.

If you are the child of God,” the devil will whisper to us, “take the easy way out.”

“But you are the child of God,” the Son of God whispers to us, “when you give yourself up, when you take up your cross and follow Jesus, and when you die to self and live to God and for others …”