Sunday, February 15, 2015

Listen to Jesus

(A sermon based on Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration Sunday 2015)

To whom do you listen?

So many voices vie for our attention and for our allegiance.

The voices of our past may call us to live in guilt or regret. The voices of our family and friends may call us to live our life the way they think we should live it. The voices of commentators may call us to view the world the way they see it. The voices of our fellow church members and of our preachers may call us to think about things from a point of view that calls itself “Christian” but may not have much to do with the actual way of Christ. The voice of our ego may call us to focus our energies on self-interest and self-protection.

The voice of God, though, calls us to listen to Jesus.

And we should.

Jesus is, after all, the One who is the culmination and the apex of God’s way in the world. He is, after all, the fulfillment of the promises of God. He is, after all, the beloved Son of God. He is, after all, the resurrected and glorified Savior of the world.

Those are some of the truths about Jesus that his Transfiguration revealed.

Jesus took his inner circle of Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain; a mountain in the Bible often serves as a place where a special revelation from God is given and received—and that is certainly what takes place on this mountain. There on that mountain in front of those three disciples Jesus was transfigured; that means that he was changed in a way that revealed the glory that would be his following his coming crucifixion and resurrection. So Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of how Jesus would appear after his glorification.

Elijah and Moses appeared and talked with Jesus. Both of them were regarded in Jewish tradition as being forerunners of and pointers to the Messiah. Moreover, Elijah represented the Prophets and Moses represented the Torah; when they are gone and Jesus is left alone the truth is pictured that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything toward which the Law and the Prophets pointed. Then they heard the voice of God telling them what that voice had affirmed for Jesus at his baptism: he is the Son of God.

And since Jesus is the Son of God, the voice of God said, Jesus’s disciples—the ones who know Jesus and know that he is the Son of God—are to listen to him. Jesus’s voice is the voice to which they are to pay attention; Jesus’s voice is the voice to which they are to give their allegiance.

God clearly was willing to go to great extremes to convince the disciples that they should listen to Jesus.

Why was it so hard for the disciples to do that?

Why is it so hard for us to do that?

You may have noticed that our passage began with the phrase “Six days later” which raises the question “six days later than what?” For the answer we have to look back to the previous chapter in which we read about a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples at a place called Caesarea Philippi (it begins at 8:27). There he asked him who people were saying he was; they gave various answers. Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am” and Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.”

Then Jesus set about explaining to the disciples what it meant for him to be the Messiah; he said 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” (8:31). Peter didn’t like that at all; he began to tell Jesus that he was wrong. Jesus, “looking at his disciples” (because it was very important that they understand just how terribly wrong Peter was), rebuked Peter by saying “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33).

Jesus knew the ways of God because Jesus was the Son of God. The followers of Jesus, be they the ones who walked with him in the first century or the ones who walk with him in the twenty-first century, need to listen to him because he knows the ways of God—not only for his life but also for our lives.

And there’s the rub.

Perhaps Peter, being the smart guy that he was, realized that if Jesus was going to walk such a difficult road his disciples might be expected to walk it, too. If Jesus was going to give rather than receive, he might expect them to do that also. If he was going to give his power up rather than seize power for himself, he might expect them to do that also. If he was going to offer up his life rather than protect it, he might expect them to do that also.

Jesus in fact went on to make that very point: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus closed his words with this startling statement: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).

Ashamed of what words? Of the words that Jesus had just spoken about the way he was taking and about the way that his disciples were to take. The disciples had to get it. We disciples have to get it. It is absolutely necessary for us to embrace the fact that the road is long and the way is hard and the path is treacherous that leads to glory.

So six days later God further hammered the point home by letting three disciples—and because it’s in our Bibles, letting all of us—see Jesus in the state that would be his once he traveled the road that was his to travel.

Then God said, “Listen to him!”

Now God says, “Listen to him!”

But why don’t we?

We don’t because we’d rather listen to other voices that tell us that the way can be easy and the path can be smooth. We don’t because we’d rather listen to the loudest voice of all—the one that tells us that it’s all about us. We don’t because down deep we believe that our way is better than his way.

We need to listen to Jesus.

We have to listen to Jesus.

And Jesus tells us that his way is our way—the way of selflessness, the way of service, and the way of sacrifice.

It is the way of love.

It is the way of Jesus.

If we follow Jesus it is our way …

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wait. Move. Stay. Go.

(A sermon based on Isaiah 40:21-31 & Mark 1:29-39 for Sunday, February 8)

What has you stuck? What has you stuck in a rut, stuck in a mess, stuck in a quandary, or stuck in your life?

Maybe it’s the state of the world that has you stuck. You look around you at all that is happening in the world and you wonder if anybody can do anything about it and if anybody even cares about it. You may even wonder if God cares.

That’s the way it was for many of the people addressed by the prophet whose words are found in Isaiah 40-55. They were in exile in Babylon, having been ripped from their homeland in Judah a few decades before the prophet spoke these words. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the temple within it had been levelled; the faith of many people was destroyed along with the buildings. Their thinking went something like this: Babylon had conquered Judah so Babylon was stronger than Judah; Babylon’s gods had defeated Judah’s God so those gods must be stronger than the Lord.

You can understand how they would feel that way. Maybe you even feel that way. Maybe you look at the ways in which so many people in this world as suffering because of the horrible actions of a misguided few. Consider ISIS, for example, that radical so-called Islamist force comprised of an estimated 30,000 fighters that is creating havoc in the Middle East and that so cruelly executes its captives. Maybe you look at that and at the other evils that people perpetrate against other people and sometimes find yourself thinking that God has written us off.

In response to such thoughts the prophet thunders, “Have you not known? Have you not heart? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). We must never forget that God is indeed God and that the cruelties that seem so strong will in time and in fact fall.

There was a day when it was crystal clear that the forces of evil, of cruelty, and of hate had won. It was on a long-ago Friday on Golgotha’s hill when the only perfectly loving, fully gracious, and totally selfless person who ever lived was executed in the most humiliating fashion possible. On Friday night he lay in the tomb; on Saturday and into Sunday morning he lay there, dead. But on Sunday morning something happened. On Sunday morning love won over hate, selflessness won over selfishness, humility won over arrogance, and God won over all the forces of evil that had been reveling in their seeming victory.

“He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:29-31). Sometimes we have to wait but God in God’s time and in God’s grace will get us moving. God got the people moving back from Babylon to Judah. God got the people moving rebuilding their temple. God got the people moving reconstituting their nation. But they had to wait a while.

And on Easter Sunday morning, God got Jesus moving so that he was no longer dead but was alive. But Jesus had to wait a while.

God will give us strength to get moving, too—but sometimes we have to wait a while.

So maybe it’s the state of the world that has you stuck. Wait on God; God will get you moving.

Or maybe it’s the state of your life that has you stuck. That was the case with Simon’s mother-in-law; she was sick and confined to bed. That meant not only that she was physically ill but that she was unable to fulfill the social expectations that gave so much of the meaning to people in her environment.

Is there something about your life that has you stuck? Is there something that drains the meaning from your life or that makes you feel like life is not worth living? Jesus wants to touch you and raise you up so you can really live again. And when Jesus raises you up he will set you on your feet so you can do what most needs doing—he will enable you to serve others.

Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve her guests as soon as her feet hit the floor. Jesus helps us for own sake, to be sure, but he also helps us so we can help others. Jesus helps us because he loves us, to be sure, but he also helps us because he wants us to love others.

Sometimes we have to wait for Jesus’ touch, too—but once he has raised us up, it’s time to get moving and to give ourselves away for the sake of others. His grace is too great for us to keep it to ourselves!

That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to wait for complete restoration before we start serving; if we wait for that we’ll never serve. Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever went away but I’m sure she had other problems—if not then, then eventually; Jacob limped after his encounter with God; Jesus’ wounds were still visible after his resurrection. We are all, to use Henri Nouwen’s famous term, wounded healers.

Maybe it’s the state of our perspective that has us stuck.

Lots of people then came to Jesus for his healing touch. The next morning, he went out by himself to pray but Simon came looking for him. “Everyone is looking for you,” Simon told him. Simon wanted to alert Jesus to the fact that there was still much to do; perhaps he wanted Jesus to be aware of the fact that if he was going to build a big following in the local area he was going to have to stay with it.

But Jesus told him he couldn’t stay there; there were other people in other places and he needed to go because that was why he came. He came not to pile his grace up in one place; he came rather to spread it around.

Bill Moyers once said that Baptists are like jalapeno peppers—spread them around and they add flavor to life but put too many of them in one place and they’ll bring tears to your eyes. Israel has two large lakes, one called the Sea of Galilee and the other the Dead Sea. Do you know why the Sea of Galilee is alive and the Dead Sea is dead? It’s because the Jordan River flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee but only flows into the Dead Sea. The reason the Sea of Galilee is alive is that it passes the life-giving river along; the reason the Dead Sea is dead is that it keeps the river for itself.

If our perspective is that it is better to keep God’s grace for ourselves and to try to keep piling it here for us and for ours, then we are likely to bring tears to stagnate to the point that we become sick and make others sick. But if our perspective is that it is better to pass along the love and grace and healing and mercy and forgiveness that we have received from Jesus, then we will become healthier and healthier and will contribute more and more to the health of the community and the world around us.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about vaccinations in the light of the recent measles outbreak in our country. One thing I have learned is that there is such a thing as “herd immunity” or “community immunity.” It is defined this way:

When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak. Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines—such as infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals—get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained. []

We get inoculated and we have our children inoculated, in other words, not only for our sake but for the sake of others.

What will we do with the life and the healing and the grace that God has given us?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Church is an Expectant Body

(A sermon based on Mark 1:14-20 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 for February 1, 2015)

“Blessed are those who don’t expect much for they shall not be disappointed.” So goes a saying I picked up somewhere along the road. It’s also a saying that I have decided to throw down on the ground and stomp to smithereens because it is, from a Christian perspective, an abysmally inappropriate attitude. We should be the most expectant people on the planet; we should be always on the lookout for what God is doing and for how God is calling us to help out.

We are looking for what is going to happen. We are looking expectantly for the coming of the Lord and for God’s bringing about of a new heaven and a new earth; we are looking for God’s fulfilling of all of God’s purposes and for God making all things like God intends for them to be. So Paul advised the Corinthians—and he is careful in 1 Corinthians 7 to say that he is offering his opinion and not a word from the Lord—to “deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (v. 31a). Why? Because, he said, “the present from of this world is passing away” (v. 32a).

Now, we can no more live in the world without living in it than the Corinthians could. And Paul makes it abundantly clear through his many instructions in his letters that we Christians are to live fully in this world—indeed, we should live in it more fully than anyone else! But Paul offers us a very important corrective to the line of thinking that all too many of us follow without even realizing it: we say we believe in heaven but we treat this world as if it is all there is. As C. S. Lewis said, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 119].

There is a new world coming and we are looking for God to bring it about when Jesus comes again.

But we are also looking expectantly at what is happening. We are looking expectantly for God’s kingdom right here and now on this old Earth because it is already present on this old Earth. God’s kingdom came when Jesus made his appearance on Earth and especially when he undertook his ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he proclaimed as he began his preaching ministry (Mark 1:15a). Elsewhere he said that we shouldn’t pay attention to people telling us “The kingdom is there” because, he said, the kingdom is among us (Luke 17:21).

So Jesus began his ministry by preaching that the kingdom was near. And then he immediately set about calling people to work alongside him in doing the work of the kingdom.

Jesus is still doing that.

Jesus calls each and every one of us to serve alongside him, too. The call to salvation is also a call to service—and what an opportunity to serve is ours!

The Gospels name those whom Jesus called. Jesus did not just call “some people” to be his disciples; he called Simon and Andrew and James and John. He calls us in particular, too. He calls our church and he calls each one of us in our individuality and in our particularity. We all follow Jesus but we do not follow Jesus in exactly the same way.

So we need to grow in our knowledge of who God made us to be—again, both as individuals and as a church—so that we can respond as who we really are and serve as we really are. Before we are called to do what we are supposed to do we are called to be who we are supposed to be; before we are called to do something we are called to follow someone.

Being a Christian is a highly personal thing—we have a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ our Lord and we follow personally.

I could legitimately tell you that you are all members of the body of Christ and that if you aren’t here to fill your place and to do your job then we are not fully the body of Christ. That is true; emphasizing that point is one of the reasons that we are having this special Body of Christ Sunday. I want to go to a deeper place and to a prior necessity, though: I want to call each of us to open our lives up to Jesus, to ask him to show us who we really are, and to speak to us of who he would have us be and of what he would have us do.

There is a Hasidic tale of the Rabbi Zusya who said that in the world to come they would not ask him “Why weren’t you Moses?” They would ask instead, he said, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”

God does not want you to be Paul or Mary or some contemporary Christian that you admire. God wants you to be you. God does not want us to be some other church; God wants us to be us.

This is our time. The kingdom is coming but the kingdom is also already here. We expect God to do great things in the future but God expects us to do great things in the present.

We can only do them as we open our lives us to Jesus and as we ask him to show us who we are and as we then live like that.

Let’s live expecting Jesus to show us who we are. Let’s live expecting us to live our lives as he shows us how to live them. Let’s live …