Food Sacrificed to Idols and Other Problems for Modern Living – 2018/01/28

Psalm 111
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Sermon:

Carissa was supposed to teach a continuing education class for the teachers at the Marion school on Friday, but it had to be rescheduled.  Anyway, as most all of you know, Carissa teaches ESL – that is, she teaches English to people who don’t speak it.  As part of this continuing education thing she was doing, she was going to have the other teachers watch a Swedish educational video and answer questions in Swedish.  The idea was that the teachers could see what it was like for a student who didn’t speak English to be given an assignment to do in class – if it’s not modified at all, it’s going to be hard – nearly impossible – to do.

I think it’s very easy to feel that way as Christians reading our own Bibles.  I would venture to say that most Christians own a Bible (there are roughly 1.8  Bibles per person in the United States), but don’t necessarily use it.  Part of the reason – maybe the whole reason – people don’t open that Bible is that they’re worried about not understanding it.  They believe that it’s impossible for people to understand, unless they’ve specifically studied it in school.

This is quite contrary to some other movements in history, particularly the Reformation, from which our Presbyterian tradition comes.  In the Reformation, one of the big stated goals was to get the Bible into the hands of common people, because it was basically an understandable read.  This waffling back and forth as to whether the Bible is something anyone can understand has gone on for centuries, and will undoubtedly continue.  On the one hand, most of the words in the Bible can be understood by anyone with an 8th-grade education.  On the other hand, most of the context of the Bible is what people miss.  Of course, the easiest way to understand the context is to actually open it up and read it sometimes, but that’s another sermon for another day, so I don’t want to crawl too far down that rabbit hole.

Instead, today, I would like to talk about one of those Bible passages that you can easily miss the nuance of if you don’t have an understanding of the Bible and the times in which it was written.  For example, today’s passage is from one of Paul’s letters.  Now, even if you know that Paul was one of the earliest converts to Christianity (though not one of the disciples); even if you know that this is a letter; even if you know that this letter was addressed to the church in Corinth, which is a city in Greece; even if you know all of that information, this passage could still be a mystery to you, because it’s about such a foreign concept.  Meat sacrificed to idols?!  What is this thing even talking about?  Even if you got some of that, there’s a load of context we’re missing about in-fighting in early Christian worshiping communities.  So let’s start with some information about the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire, which was the world power when Jesus lived, was one of the most powerful empires in history.  Basically all of North Africa (the parts that border the Mediterranean Sea, anyway), the Middle East, and most of Europe were under Roman control.  You may also know that in the Roman Empire, they worshiped a lot of gods.  For one thing, the emperor of Rome was considered to be a god, or at least the “son of a god,” which is why Romans got so upset about Christians talking about Jesus as the Son of God – it was treason, claiming that the emperor wasn’t truly your ruler.  But they also worshiped a whole pantheon of fictional gods and goddesses they claimed were real.  You probably know of their names:  Jupiter, Pluto, Neptune, Mercury, Venus, Mars… some other ones who the planets aren’t named after, too.

Anyway, typically, a lot of Roman celebrations revolved around holidays back in Paul’s time – just as our biggest celebrations revolve around holy days.  However, their holy days were days for these false Roman gods, not for the true God, whom we worship, who came to us in the form of Jesus Christ and saved us from our sins.

So here’s what would happen.  You had a lot of people at these festivals, including Christians.  Christians would go, because everyone went.  You had the day off of work, you went to the local Temple, you hung out with people, and you ate food.  Now, you may have noticed that something in there didn’t sound right – the part about going to the local Temple.  Well, that is, of course, where these celebrations were held.  They took place in the Temple, because they were religious feasts.  A Temple, to differentiate from other types of houses of worship, is specifically a place where you make sacrifices, particularly animal sacrifices.

In Judaism, which did have a tradition of animal sacrifice, once the animal was offered to God, it was burned completely; it was a true “offering” because you were giving it up to God.  In Roman tradition, however, you “gave up” the animal by giving it to the priest, who then didn’t burn it whole, but basically cooked it.  Then all the people at the festival ate it.  This seems a lot less like a sacrifice, which is supposed to be about giving something up, and a lot more like a potluck, I think.  But either way, it’s what happened.

Now, the church in Corinth was of three minds about this whole thing.  There were some people who attended these things, and others who didn’t.  And even among those who attended, there was further division.  Some people there would eat the food, and some wouldn’t.  See, for those who chose not to eat (whether they went or not), they weren’t eating because this was food intended for Roman gods.  They saw it as engaging in the very practice of idolatry. “Idolatry” is, of course, the word we use to mean “worshiping false gods.”  These Christians’ basic argument was this:  “If you are doing the same things as all these people and they are worshiping, then you are worshiping; and if you’re worshiping a false god, then you’re not really a Christian.”  So there were many in the church in Corinth who were mad at the people who would eat at these festivals.  But what was their logic behind eating?

Well, those who did eat the sacrificed meat had a pretty good counterargument:  they knew that these gods were fake.  They couldn’t be worshiping, they argued, because you can’t really worship something if you don’t think it’s real or important.  They looked at it as a chance to get together with other people and eat good food.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  If the other people happened to think it was all some celebration for some pretend god, who cares?  These folks weren’t interested in turning away from God… but they weren’t going to turn down a free meal, either, so they just went and enjoyed their food.  Plus, procuring meat was difficult and very expensive.  These feasts were a good time to get healthy, nutritious food that might’ve otherwise been lacking in their diets.

So that’s the controversy facing this ancient church.  And I suspect there are people out there thinking a variety of things.  For example, some of you are thinking, “That’s interesting.  I wonder what I would do.”  Some of you know which of these arguments sounds more like you already.  Some of you are thinking about what you’re going to eat after church.  And still others are thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, but WHAT does this have to do with our lives today?”

I will admit, I have preached on a great many things in the Bible, and it’s really hard to think, offhand, of anything that (on its surface) has less to do with our lives today than this passage, because it’s so absurdly granular and specific.  I don’t disagree with that.  And yet… how often are churches today in conflict?  How often to fellow Christians disagree with one another on a topic – how to live, how to vote, how to dress, where to shop, even, as people in our AJ Jacobs book study learned, what to eat.  We can disagree about any of those things and much, much more.  But in this passage, Paul gives us some amount of guidance that’s timeless, even if the problems of the passage have nothing to do with our lives – in fact, even if this problem wouldn’t have meant anything to other people in Paul’s own life.

The passage begins by telling us that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  That’s in verse 1 of the chapter.  It sounds catchy, but it’s actually the solution to the problem that Paul is addressing in the text.  Greek rhetoric sometimes works this way, in that it will propose the solution right away, then work at the problem, and then re-incorporate the solution.  It’s actually a really good way to write, but it makes it difficult to understand as a modern English-speaking audience.

When Paul says that “knowledge puffs up,” he doesn’t mean that knowledge is bad, per se; as he also says in verse one, “all of us possess knowledge.”  Rather, what he means is that knowledge, without love, does no one any good.  So he wants us to understand that love, particularly love of God and neighbor, is the most important thing we can have.  And then he supposes a scenario to those who eat the meat at these festivals.  He basically says, “Yeah, you’re right; these other gods aren’t real, and they don’t matter, and we shouldn’t be concerned about them.  BUT, if you eating this meat is hurting your brothers and sisters in Christ, maybe you should think twice about it.”

In other words, Paul wants us to consider how our actions affect others, and particularly how they affect the faith lives of others.  Paul just wants to make sure that it doesn’t become confusing for new Christians, who might think that these people who eat the food at these gatherings are engaging in worship of these false gods.

The thing that’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around in this passage is that this is one of those times when the message of the Bible rubs against the message of American culture.  Our culture, as a whole, is very individualistic.  “What’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is none of my concern.”  But this passage encourages us to actually consider the faith lives of others; for us to use our own habits, actions, and lives as a reflection of our faith.  What we do has a reflection on others, too.

How we are seen might change how people around us believe.  If people around us see that we are good, loving, kind, generous, helpful, and faithful, they will think Christians are good, loving, kind, generous, helpful, and faithful.  If people around us see that we are cruel, intolerant, vindictive, gossipy, and judgmental, they will think that Christians are cruel, intolerant, vindictive, gossipy, and judgmental.  And more and more, the most up-to-date research says that those characteristics in the second group are how people outside the church see people inside the church.  So let us not be stumbling blocks on the way to Christ.  Let us embody the life of Jesus.  Let us be thoughtful and knowledgeable, but let us above all other things be loving, and make our actions reflect the actions of the One who came to save us.  Amen.

Speak, Lord – 2018/01/14

Psalm 139:1-6
John 1:43-51
1 Samuel 3:1-10

Sermon:

You can’t help picking favorites.  When I was a kid, I was so in love with The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien that I read it more than once a year, from third to ninth grade.  My mom always tried to get my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, and though that didn’t work, I know that some people do that.  I have a friend who reads a Neil Gaiman book each year; another who reads a Jane Austen book.  It’s easy to pick a favorite book or movie, to have something you pick up every year and read or watch.  We have a whole group of food that people call “comfort food” for this very reason – it brings comfort, peace, stability, reminds us of good times, helps us connect with who we are and where we come from.

Well, of course, preachers are no different in what they like to preach about.  Today, we’ve arrived at one of those “comfort food” passages for me in our reading from 1 Samuel.  It’s not, perhaps, the best-known passage, but it is an important one.  You may be familiar with it by now, if you weren’t before I came to Marion, because I’ve used it a lot of times.  I know I preached on it three years ago, have done a Bible study on it, and it was a topic at a 3F night.  So it’s definitely one that’s a go-to for me.

I guess the reason it’s such a powerful passage for me is that I think its lessons are so universal and so important.  But before we get into all that, I want to set the stage a little, because the book of 1 Samuel takes place in a time of serious transition for the Israelites.  And while I think the lessons of the passage are universal, the setting of the story is absurdly specific.

As you may know from your Bible, or from Sunday school classes sometime in your life, the Israelites were different than the other tribes around them.  This was true for a long time, but it was especially true in the time of today’s passage from 1 Samuel.

In the ancient Middle East, there were dozens of groups of people congregated in the same area, but all of them had a king.  That was simply how the world worked.  In fact, with a very small number of exceptions, that was true for the whole world through the middle of the 1800s… which doesn’t sound that long ago, when you think about it.  Anyway, the Israelites worked a little differently.  They didn’t need a king, because they had God.  And they knew God’s will be consulting the religious leaders of their day, known as the Judges.

The Judges weren’t appointed or elected, they just sort of popped up.  I have described it before as what usually happens in a group of friends.  You’re trying to decide where to go or what to do; who’s the person that you look to in order to make the final decision?  Whoever that person is, is the leader.  The Judges kind of worked like that – people weren’t voted on or chosen by a superior; it was simply obvious to anyone who saw them.

Anyway, in this time of Judges, a mother named Hannah, who had been infertile, desperately wanted a child.  She prayed and prayed and prayed, and she promised God that, if she were to have a child, she would make sure that her son served God; she would offer him up as a living sacrifice to God’s glory, if she could just be given the gift of motherhood.  Well, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel.  And, in order to symbolize his devotion to God, he would never cut his hair, and he would never drink alcohol.  When he was old enough, she took him to Eli, the chief priest, and gave Samuel to him to raise in the Temple, so that Samuel might be made an apprentice to the priesthood – learning about the religious life, making sacrifices, and spending long hours in prayer.  His entire life of service in the Temple was laid out from a very young age – certainly less than five years old.  That was going to be his lot.  It was, of course, an honor to serve God – it still is – but his course was charted as a worker in the Temple.  His life didn’t hold any spectacular promise; his miracle had been his birth, after all.

As a very brief aside, we learn at the beginning of the passage we read today that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  I think it is, in many ways, comforting to read something like that in the Bible.  I have heard people ask, “Why aren’t things like how they were in the Bible, with miracles left and right?”  I think we miss something there; while there are a lot of miracles in the Bible, the Bible covers a lot of time.  There are more “dull” stretches in the Bible than we think about.  This may be the only place in Scripture that actually addresses that specifically and using words, but it’s nice to hear.  It’s also comforting to know that God’s special interaction in the world, whether by word or work, is never completely absent; just “rarer” in some times than others.  That’s probably a reminder we all need, from time to time:  God isn’t gone, but we can’t go around expecting miracles.  After all, if they happened constantly, they wouldn’t be miracles, now would they?

Anyway, into this time of rare words from God, Samuel serves.  And he’s doing fine.  He does his duties in the Temple.  So one night, he lies down to sleep, and that’s when something extraordinary happens.  He hears a voice saying, “Samuel, Samuel!”  Like any logical person, he runs to the only other dude he knows is there, Eli.  “Here I am,” he says.  Eli, not having called the boy, is confused, and sends him back to sleep.  I’m quite familiar with a voice breaking into my sleep and crying; but never had my son actually accused me of calling out to him.  So I can only imagine how Eli felt at this accusation.

So Samuel goes back down… only, the same thing happens again.  “Samuel, Samuel!” he hears.  And again, he goes to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.”  “Still wasn’t me, Samuel.  Go back to bed,” Eli tells him.  When it happens a third time, Eli realizes that this might not be the fever-dream of a young man.  This is God.  So he says to Samuel, “Seriously, go back to bed.  But if it happens again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Sure enough, time #4 comes.  Samuel is again called by God, and he answers as Eli instructed him.  We stopped the reading there, but what happens is this:  God reveals a vision to Samuel about the future of Israel.  And from that point on, Samuel is God’s special servant.  He becomes one of the Judges – the final one, in fact, as he is the person who anoints the first (and also the second) king of Israel.

Now, I said that this was a favorite passage of mine because it was so universal.  Listening to that story, I think it would be easy to say, “No, David, you are completely wrong; that story is insanely specific.”  And yes, it is specifically what happened to Samuel.  But it’s universal, not because everyone has the exact experience of trying to go to sleep in church only to be woken up by God; rather, it’s universal because, even when we perceive God as silent, God is active.  Even when we feel like our work is one thing, God comes along and gets ready to shake us up.  Even when we feel like we’re never going to see the big picture, God shows us that the ‘big picture’ was even bigger than we imagined.  In short, this is what we all live for as Christians.

God is calling us to do things all the time.  If we’re young, we may be called to be kind to a person we see sitting alone, or to play with a classmate who gets ignored by other students, or to be spiritual leaders by inspiring our parents to do more prayer or Bible time in the house; if we’re older, we may feel inspired to invite someone to church, or to make our job a better expression of our faith, or to make God a bigger presence in our home life; if we’re older yet, we may feel led to find a way to give more of our time back to our church, or to connect better to the youngest generation around, or to learn something new even though we’ve already learned a lot in life.  And any one of us, regardless of age, might feel the need to get in touch with a long-neglected relative or friend, or to change a destructive personal habit, or to meet new people, or to increase our time in prayer and devotion.

God calls us to many things, but just like Samuel did, we may not know where they come from.  We may not know what to do.  We may choose to ignore them.  Hopefully, like Samuel, you have in your life an Eli.  This person doesn’t need to be older or more experienced.  In fact, while Eli is older than Samuel, you’ll notice from the clues we’re given in the passage that Eli has probably never had an experience like the one Samuel is having.  Yet, he’s able to coach and encourage Samuel throughout his own process.  These coaches we meet, who help nurture our development, are wonderful people and should be thanked, and perhaps God may ask you to do just that – to thank someone who’s been taking care of you.

In the New Testament passage that we read first, from the life of Jesus, we see a similar case of God’s calling.  Jesus simply walks up to a guy (Philip) and says, “Follow me.”  Philip does, and he brings along his friend Nathanael.  Wouldn’t it be nice if all our attempts to follow God were as simple as being able to recognize God right in front of us and simply answering with an “okay” and following along?

Unfortunately, we live in a much different time.  We don’t see Jesus walking down the street.  Instead, we hear his voice in our gut.  We hear it in the prayers and the hymns at church.  We hear it in the voices of the people who love us.  We hear the voice of God all the time, calling us softly to what we’re supposed to do next.

Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed, when I need to remember what God’s love is like, I ponder how big the universe is.  It’s unimaginably big; billions of stars stretching untold lightyears of distance.  It’s impossible to picture just how big all of creation is… and yet, God loves me.  God loves you.  God cares about the choices we make.  Isn’t that amazing?  Everything is so big that it almost seems enough to glorify God.  But if I made something that big, I don’t know how concerned I would be about a couple of people here and there.  Yet, God does care.

God cares enough to interrupt our lives, repeating our name, and calling us to something new.  No matter where we are in life, God cares and calls us forward.  That’s the lesson of our story.  It’s our job to listen; it’s our job to seek out the people who can help us figure out what’s next.  Most of all, it’s our job to honor God’s love and care for us by living for Jesus, who calls us to his service anew every day.  So speak, Lord; your servants are listening!  Amen.

Gifts – 2018/01/07

Psalm 72:1-7
Mark 1:9-11
Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon:

Carissa and I are usually successful at the things we try.  We come from families where a lot was expected of us, and we’ve both gotten used to those high expectations.  Therefore, when we’re given a challenge, we tend to conquer it.  Now, of course, this can lead to conflict in a marriage, when one of us thinks one thing and the other one thinks the other.  But… well, those are stories for a different day.  See, since we’re both used to succeeding, we usually figure that, when we put our heads together, there’s no way we can fail.  Until, that is, this Christmas.

As many of you know, Carissa and I host our family Christmas; both her side and mine come together to laugh, have fun, eat ludicrous numbers of cookies, and play silly board games.  It’s a great time.  But of course, we eventually get to the present opening.  Carissa and I were struck with a crisis of conscience:  we just don’t need that much stuff.  Yet, here it comes, every Christmas:  more stuff.  So we started to try to come up with alternatives for our family:  drawing names, charitable giving, even the radical idea of no presents.  None of it would fly with our families.  I don’t know; maybe we’ll get them next year.

One of the reasons we were so struck by the amount of stuff we get is this:  I couldn’t tell you all the things I got for Christmas. It was less than two weeks ago, and I wouldn’t be able to say.  Isn’t that kind of sad?  People go to all this work to find things for you, and in less than two weeks, you can’t remember.  In fact, you might even be better at remembering what you’ve given than what you’ve gotten.  On the one hand, maybe that means that you’re a good and thoughtful gift-giver; on the other hand, maybe everyone else is as thoughtful as you are, only you just can’t remember because it’s just too hard.  If you’re like me, that makes you feel all kinds of guilty, as if you’re somehow a bad person for not remembering what other people gave you.

Well, gifts are at the center of the Epiphany story.  Every year, on January 6 (the twelfth day after Christmas – thus, the song about all the birds and the days), the season in the church year changes from Christmas to the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany celebrates the magi giving their gifts to Jesus.  Now, the first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, in which we remember Jesus’ Baptism.  Traditionally, in my time here, I’ve alternated which of these passages I preach on, so this year it’s those wisemen – the magi – bringing their gifts to Jesus.

This is a well-known story, right?  So let’s start with a couple of pieces of information that you may not know.  The name “magi” is related to the word “magician” in English, and based on their star-gazing habits probably means the word we would use in English to describe them would be “astrologers,” rather than wisemen – but that’s speculation, so I prefer “magi.”  There is certainly no evidence that they were kings (even though, yes, we will sing the “We Three Kings” song later).  “Magi” is the plural form of the word “magus,” which means that there was more than one, but we don’t know how many there were.  Traditionally, people say there were three because there are three gifts given in the passage:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, nowhere does the passage say how many there were.  In fact, they didn’t all have to be men, either.  Plurals in the Bible for groups of people take on the masculine if there is a group of men, the feminine if a group of women, but in a mixed-gender group, the plural takes the masculine. So all we know is that there were at least two magi, and at least one was a man, and that they were fortune-tellers, magicians, or astrologers.

The gifts they offer Jesus were also gifts of great significance.  The gold represents kingship – obviously.  Kings are often adorned with gold.  Jesus is the King of all the earth, so of course they gave him gold. But why frankincense and myrrh?  Well, these are two naturally-occuring things in nature known for their smells. Myrrh was usually used as a perfume, but was most often used in the ancient world as a brial preparation (to help keep bodies from smelling).  Many commentators have noted that this was probably an allusion to the fact that Jesus would one day have to die.  Frankincense was (as you may have guessed from the latter part of the word) a type of incense.  So it is also associated with smell.  Typically, it was burnt with sacrifices – again, noting the fact that Jesus was going to have to sacrifice himself.

But of course, this passage is not just full of interesting historical facts about strange words like “magi” and “myrrh” and “frankincense.”  When we read this passage as Christians, we are invited to ask ourselves about our own giving:  what do we give to Christ?

As I said at the top of the sermon, it’s often easier to remember what we’ve given than what we’ve received; yet, in one relationship, it seems to go the other way.  God has given us so much, and it’s easy to be thankful for those things when we give ourselves a moment to think to do it.  We have people who love us, a world that continues on rolling, in spite of our best efforts and our conflicts; most important, we have the very gift of Jesus himself and the promise of eternal life he gives to all of us.  But if we ask ourselves what we’ve given?  Well, that often takes a little more work.

Of course, we have many opportunities to give.  We have the chance to give financially to the church, of course.  We all have gifts and talents we can give, too:  gifts of art, or music, or friendship, or the ability to speak, or the ability to listen.  We all have the gift of time, and we can (and should!) give generously.

In the New Year’s season, people often make resolutions about how this year will differ from the last. Why not consider how your gifts to God can be different in 2018?  Perhaps you give already; then the question mes, “how do I give more?”  The church will undoubtedly appreciate the ways in which you choose to give to honor God.

Yet, I’m most struck by one thing; the final verse from a hymn we sang last week.  It’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” #196 in the hymnal. It’s a slow, almost sad-sounding Christmas song, but it’s one of my favorites.  In it, we ask (through the words of the songwriter), “What can I give him (meaning Jesus), poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.  If I were a wiseman, I would do my part.  But what I can, I give him:  give my heart.”

Brothers and sisters, in 2018, let us embrace what the magi did, and give gifts to Jesus; not just at Christmas, but all year.  So find your financial resources, and give.  Identify your talents, and give.  Find the little moments of time, and give.  And where you give already, give more.  But most important of all, whether you can give some, or any, or all of those things, you can give your heart.  So give it – the whole thing – to Jesus.  When you do, all the other giving becomes that much easier, and that much more rewarding!  Amen.

Recognizing – 2017/12/31

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

Sermon:

When I’ve gone home to visit my parents, I will inevitably see someone from my youth while I’m out and about.  When I do, one of three things happens.  The first possibility is the best:  I see someone I know whom I’d really like to talk to.  I might cross a street or walk around in a store if we’re out shopping, or perhaps go visit their table at a restaurant.  I’ll chitchat with them, and it will be pleasant.  The second kind of interaction is when I notice someone I really don’t feel like talking to.  This involves hiding; sometimes, you make eye-contact, and then you have the awkward choice of either pretending you didn’t notice one another, or you have to buck up the courage and go have a conversation you didn’t want to have.

As awkward as that second kind of interaction is, it’s far, far better than the third one.  The third one is the interaction where one of you recognizes the other, but it doesn’t go both ways.  I’ve recognized friends without them having any idea who I was.  I’ve seen someone I was sure was a pal in high school, only to realize that I’m mistaken, and it’s actually a stranger.  Those are painfully awkward moments.  I hope, for your sake, that those are not things you’ve ever had to deal with.

But the fact of the matter is, recognizing people can be a difficult business.  Largely, this is because relationships and their status are sometimes unspoken.  We don’t give people a number that represents how close of friends we are, and whether or not we’re supposed to interact if we see one another.  Rather, those things are all unspoken; they all have to be played by ear.

That’s what makes today’s passage of Scripture so remarkable.  It’s a passage all about being able to recognize Jesus, not because of miracles or wondrous signs or stars in the sky, but merely by knowing that God was present.

Simeon was just a regular guy, no one special.  But he had received a very special promise from God.  He had been promised that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah.  And there was another person at the Temple, a woman named Anna.  She was a prophet, practically living in the Temple.

Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple for his dedication to the Lord.  That day, Simeon was present, and so was Anna.  Now, to this point in the story, people recognizing Jesus hasn’t been anything special; it’s happened a bunch of times.  Mary and Joseph, for starters, have both known about the baby and how special he was.  Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, knew, too.  The shepherds recognized him.  While the Magi aren’t included in Luke’s retelling of the story, depending on how you read Matthew’s Gospel in companion with Luke’s, it’s possible the they have seen him already, too, and recognized him for who he was.  So what’s so special about Simeon and Anna recognizing this boy?  Why does this get its own little story?

Well, to this point, they are the only people who recognize Jesus for who he is, not because they were told.  They both look at him, and they just recognize him.  Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds had been told by angels.  The magi found out by reading the stars and asking around.  Elizabeth was told directly by Mary.  But only Simeon and Anna just knew by simply looking at the baby.

Brothers and sisters, recognizing God can be hard.  It’s hard to see when God is acting, and when we’re projecting our desires onto what we think God is doing.  It’s easy to read our will as God’s will.  Yet, even though it’s hard, the reason Simeon was able to recognize God in the room was that he was looking for God.  How much do we miss because we’re simply too wrapped up in worldly things to think about God?  How often do we give ourselves credit for something, instead of realizing that it was God who did it?

Anna, on the other hand, hadn’t been promised; rather, she recognized Jesus, not because she was looking, but because she was just so in-tune with God.  She made God the center of her world.  She spent probably about 60 years as a widow, and prayed every day in the Temple.  I’m not saying that everyone needs to pray that much, but there can be no denying:  she sees Jesus and recognizes him because she’s used to looking for God all the time.  It’s just how she lives her life.

See, Anna had something we should all remember:  she wasn’t just looking for God; she knew God was always present.  The same thing goes for us.  Sometimes, we blind ourselves by looking.  I would guess that once a week, I walk around the house or church looking for my cell phone while I’m talking to someone on the phone.  I’m looking for something I already have.  The same thing occurs on a spiritual level, too.  We need to know that Jesus is present in our lives.  We don’t have to look for him as if he’s hiding; we just need to let ourselves open our eyes, and figure out what he’s doing.

Our responsive reading this morning, from Ecclesiastes, said that there was a time for everything; a season to every purpose under heaven.  Well, God may appear to us differently in these different seasons.  God may interact with us differently.  I remember a time in my life when I was running from God a little bit.  I wanted to be left alone, but felt God calling me to something I didn’t want.

At that time, I literally prayed, “God, leave me alone!”  But at those times, God needed me to listen.  Yet, there have been other times when I’ve asked, “God, where are you?”  Times of grief, times of struggle, times of pain – those have been filled with doubt, fear, and profound absence.  Yet, in those times, I have more often found out that God was there; just not in the way I was expecting, because I wanted something that it wasn’t the season for.

Simeon and Anna had different seasons in their lives, too.  God showed up in their lives, though not necessarily how they expected.  I imagine that, when Simeon was told he would see the Messiah, he was expecting the King to lead Israel to freedom.  Foremost, I expect he was ready for an adult.  Anna, on the other hand, was probably content to just have God as comfort, not a living presence to guide her old age.

But you see, this passage reminds us that God is present everywhere – in a baby, as well as in the lives of the aged.  God doesn’t abandon us, no matter who we are:  a mother rejected by her peers for having a baby even though she was unmarried; the “foolish man” who chose to raise the child with her, in the knowledge that it wasn’t his; the baby born in a barn; the old people who hung out in the Temple looking for something no one else could see; the foreigners who came looking for some random kid; the poor shepherds who got to see perhaps the greatest miracle in history.  All of these folks were unlikely people, yet God found them in all their unlikeliness and showed them how they were loved, and how God was present.

Brothers and sisters, God is present with us, whatever season it might be in our lives.  And like Simeon, we’re promised that, just like Jesus, we will see Christ.  It’s our job to open our eyes and look!  Like Anna, we’re asked to put God first, so we might recognize how God is around.  Everyone is responsible to make Christ a part of our story.  On this verge of a New Year, let’s make 2018 a year when we find Christ in our lives by putting him first!  Amen.

A Christmas Story – 2017/12/24

Luke 1:26-38
Luke 1:46-55
Luke 2:1-20

Sermon:

A Red Ryder BB gun – that’s what the movie A Christmas Story revolves around. This thirty-year-old movie has become a Christmas classic, watched by millions of Americans every year. It’s about a boy named Ralphie, who believes that the perfect gift would be a Red Ryder BB Gun. It’s the thing that will bring him joy. Now, throughout the movie, we follow Ralphie in his adventures trying to convince everyone that it’s exactly what he needs.
The desire for the perfect gift is probably something we can all identify with, right? When we know what the perfect gift is, and wanting that more than we want anything else. We just know what we want. And maybe you come from a family where you make a Christmas list, and other people know what you want, and you get that thing. Maybe you’re one of those people who hint and hint and hint and hint so people figure it out. Maybe you just hope other people read your mind and get you that perfect gift. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who just goes out and gets it for yourself. No matter what, though, we might have expectations for what would make the perfect gift. Well, when we have our perfect gift in mind, whether we get it or not, we’re likely to get other things, too. But the question is this: what do we do with the gifts we didn’t ask for?
But let’s think back to that first Christmas, and the lead-up to it. Now, let’s remember that since it was the first Christmas, there was no expectation of gifts. Still, if you had said to Mary, “You know what, Mary? I’d like to give you a gift. What would you like?” I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have said, “I’d like to have a baby, even though I’m just a teenager and I’m not married yet.” Pretty sure that wasn’t on her list that year.
But that’s what Mary got for that very first Christmas. She didn’t get that one perfect item; she got the scariest, most intimidating news in the world. She was going to be responsible for giving birth to and raising the Messiah, the Son of God.
So, this Christmas, we may ask ourselves what we do with the gift we didn’t ask for. What does Mary do? The first thing she does is to give thanks. She says, “Thank you, God; you’ve lifted up me, and all people like me by honoring me with this gift. You’ve brought down the rich, the haughty, and the mighty, and elevated little people like me.” She crafts a poem on the spot that honors God and shares her great joy, even though what she got was, if we’re honest, much, much more of an intimidating thing than a book we already own or a sweater we don’t like. Mary manages, in the poem we read for our responsive reading, to be thankful.
The second thing Mary does is she shares her joy. After the angels share the news with some shepherds, these guys come in, unannounced, to see Mary, Joseph, and her baby. I think we’re so used to the story that we’re never surprised; and, if anything, we think about this story from the perspective of the shepherds. But think about it from Mary’s perspective. She just gave birth; she’s exhausted, she’s coming to grips with the reality of being, not just a mom, but the mother to God-on-earth. And into that environment walk a bunch of dirty shepherds, raving about angels and begging to see her baby.
I remember when Zeke was born, seeing Carissa holding him. We had some family there, but I was ready for them to go. The absolute last thing I would’ve wanted was a bunch of dirty strangers coming in and wanting to handle my kid… and that’s with a comfortable hospital birth, not in some barn. Yet, how does Mary react? With joy! She shares the joy she receives with the shepherds. She marvels at their tale. She wants to have others know the love that she knows.
The final thing Mary does is something we haven’t read about in today’s passage, but is rather the crux of the whole Bible. Mary raises this boy, takes care of him, treats him well, disciplines him, and guides him. In short, she loves him. When we get the Christmas gift we weren’t expecting this year, the one we didn’t want, it’s probably going to be hard to like it, much less love it. But Mary takes her unexpected gift and loves him so much.
It’s Christmas Eve, so if there’s ever a time for a simple message with an easy takeaway, it’s this service. And in this case, the trite and easy thing, the simple takeaway here, is to say that, no matter what gifts we receive, it’s important to receive them gratefully, joyfully, and lovingly. That’s what this day is all about. It’s about God loving the whole world so much that God wanted to come down, live among us, and show us how to live. God loved us so much that we were blessed with Christ Jesus.
Well, sisters and brothers, that’s the truth. We’ve been blessed with a tremendous gift. No matter what gifts we receive – if they’re that Red Ryder BB Gun we’ve been coveting, or if it’s something unexpected and unwanted, we have the opportunity to receive them the way Mary received Jesus.
But even moreso, we have the responsibility to live that way, not just on Christmas, but every day. Let us take this lesson Mary gives us, which is in many ways the first lesson Jesus gets as a human: be grateful, be joyful, be loving. Share the good things in your life, and recognize what you have. God loved us enough to come spend time with us; we can show that same respect for one another, whether the people and gifts we receive are what we hoped for, or not. After all, while Mary wasn’t asking for what she got, she wound up with the greatest gift of all. If we’re able to act as she did, we, too, may just find that what we have is even better than we ever dreamed or hoped for. Amen.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger – 2017/12/10

Psalm 85:8-13
Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Sermon:

Sometime, you might have to deliver bad news to someone. You might be afraid that they’re going to lash out at you; even though the thing in question isn’t your fault, you may still feel like they’re going to get mad at you, when all you’re doing is delivering the news.  So you might start giving this bad news by saying, “Now don’t shoot the messenger, but…”  I know I’ve done that before.

The phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger” is not a recent one.  As many of you probably know from history classes you took in school, messengers were set apart from the usual rules of war.  You couldn’t shoot messengers.  After all, if one side wanted to surrender to the other, you’d never know unless you let a messenger through.  So it was critically important that armies didn’t attack messengers.  Today, when we talk about delivering unwanted news, it’s easy to cast ourselves in this light – to be the bringers of bad news when it’s needed, but not wanting to be punished for it.

These rules about shooting the messenger have been consistent throughout the world, across geographic regions and cultures, even across time.  Yet, cultures would dress up their messengers differently, in a way that was appropriate to their own culture.  When you received a messenger in the ancient world, it wasn’t your place to criticize how he might be dressed; you weren’t there for the messenger, after all.  What you needed was the message.

Well, brothers and sisters, that brings us to today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark.  In it, we read of God’s messenger.  And, of course, that messenger comes dressed in his own garb.  It’s… well, let’s just call it “non-traditional.”  “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey,” says verse six.

I think one of the hardest things for us as modern readers of the Bible to understand is what life was like in ancient Judea.  We take so many things for granted here that it’s hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes… or sandals for a second.  When thinking about this passage, we might be ready to dismiss John’s eccentricities because he lived a long time ago.  Or we might just consider that people lived in a desert – maybe they just had a lot higher tolerance for a dirty appearance than we do.

Well, there’s some truth to that.  But on the other hand, there are tons of rules for being clean in Judaism.  There had to be, because the world was simply dirtier than the one we’re used to.  Still, they prioritized bathing and being clean.  Not to mention, John just seems to be eating whatever is nearest him.  If there’s one thing there are more rules about in Judaism than washing, it’s eating.  Yet, John is surviving off of the locusts and wild honey he’s finding in his immediate vicinity.

Basically, John is not at all respectable.  He’s the opposite, actually.  He’s a hairy weirdo who dresses funny, lives in the wilderness, and eats whatever food he can find.  That’s just as weird then as it would be now.  And yet, people are flocking to him in droves.  They’re coming to him, to meet down by the river and to be baptized by him.  Now, some of you smart-alecks out there are probably thinking that people just want John to go in the river and wash, and that’s why he’s baptizing so many people.  But that’s not the case; rather John is preaching, according to our passage from Mark, two things. So I want those two things to be the focus of my sermon today, too.

The first of the two things John is preaching is “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as Mark tells us in verse four of today’s reading.  John isn’t just bringing people down to the river to dunk them in water; they’re coming to have their sins washed away.

The idea of the forgiveness of sins being a crucial element of baptism is something we often lose in today’s world.  After all, as Christians, so many of us get used to seeing people baptized as babies that we forget about this important aspect of this ritual.  As a church that believes in infant baptism, however, we acknowledge that we are not just washing away sins that have already been committed; we’re also washing away the power that sin has over us in the world.  Yes, we will still sin, even if we were baptized as babies.  But you know what?  I’ve known a lot of people baptized as adults, and I’ve yet to meet the one who avoided sinning after the baptism.

We need baptism as a symbol, because it reminds us that God – and God alone – is capable of washing away our sins, just as dirt is washed away from our bodies.  Lost among all the talk of prayers and church attendance, of how to speak and act toward others and the world around us, is often this simple truth:  God loves you, and is happy to forgive your sins.

Our church ritualizes this forgiveness, not by re-baptizing us every week.  After all, our one baptism is enough to mark us as Christ’s, and he is constantly making us new.  Instead, we have a formalized time of confession and pardon, in which we remember that, yes, we have sinned; furthermore, God loves and forgives us, even when the world around us forgets and forsakes us.

In a world that is governed by absolute conformity to a society’s rules like the one John lived in, this Gospel call that, by the grace of God we are free from our sins, is radical, exciting, and energizing.  Our culture today is no less obsessed with image, with titles, and with perfection.  In fact, I read not that long ago that the number one reason diets fail is that people make a mistake on one day; once they’re not perfect, they’ rather give up than try to get better.  The world constantly puts these pressures on us to meet some absurd standard in order to be considered worthwhile.  Yet, our faith in Jesus offers us a way to say, “No, world; you are wrong.  I am loved, and whatever I may have done in the past, God is willing to let me start over.  Hallelujah!”

Even though this message came from a guy who, despite bathing every day, smelled like camel, people were drawn to John because of his message.  Yet, this was not the only message John preached, nor was it even his most exciting message, exciting though it was.

The second of the two things John is preaching is the coming of Christ.  John was regarded as a holy man.  Understandably so, for he was able to give his whole life over to God, living every second for God’s work in the world.  Yet, John says that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  John is setting people up to understand that greater things are afoot.

I have to say, I find that a particularly inspiring message.  When I think of all the ways that God has influenced my life, I am often left in awe.  From the family I was given, the friends I met, the experiences of Jesus I had at camp and at church, to finding my way into ministry and to this place, it’s almost impossible for me to put words to how much God has meant to me.  My life, without Jesus in it, would be nothing.

Yet, John spoke to people just like me and said, “God has more in mind.  You’re just living in the in-between time.”  For those whose lives are good, John offers blessings beyond measure.  For those whose lives are difficult, John shows them that God has a greater plan than just the disappointments this world can so often bring us.

Brothers and sisters, John lived in an age when he could attract people by saying, “This is not all there is.” So often in today’s world, we (and I mean Christian folk, too) are guilty of thinking that what we see in front of us is all there is.  It’s no better and no worse, it just is.  We can easily be conned into this thought because we’re surrounded by the incidents of our lives all the time.  Yet, we know:  Christ will come again.  Probably not today; maybe not tomorrow; maybe long after we’re all buried.  Yet still, we have hope.

We know from the day of Christ’s resurrection that the world could never be the same.  We know that, in the darkest of times, there is always the light of hope.  The Christian tradition is filled with imagery of light and darkness, because it’s so appropriate.  Particularly at this time of year, as every day gets a little bit darker, we need reminders that God still has light for us.  No matter how hopeless or dire a situation may seem, God has a way to find a way out.  After all, Jesus had met the ultimate end that our world offers – death on a cross.  Yet, he returned to show us that God is never, ever beyond hope for us.  God is always there for us, even when we feel like all is lost; our most difficult task, though, is finding how God is speaking to us.

I think sometimes we might like it if God were to send messengers dressed up in camel’s hair and smelling like bugs and honey.  That would sure make God’s messages easy to spot, wouldn’t it?  Instead, though, God comes to us in all sorts of ways, various and surprising.  Our task this Advent is to look for those messages God is sending.  While we may think we’d like something easy to identify, it’s also easy to look past someone who looks like John did.

So as you ready your hearts and your homes for Christmas this year, don’t forget to give a little thought to John and what he promises.  Your sins are forgiven, because God loves you more than reason can explain.  And this world, though it lets us down, is not where we get our final answer, because Christ will return, and in him we can hope.  Take your time, and look for the messengers who bring the hope of Christ to your life, and go out yourself, becoming a messenger to others – camel’s hair coat optional.  Amen.

Meeting Expectations – 2017/12/03

Psalm  80:7-15
Isaiah 64:1-5
Mark 13:24-37

Sermon:

Have you ever had someone tell about a good movie?  “It’s, like, the best movie ever,” they might say.  It’s high praise.  So, you sit down to watch the movie… and it just disappoints.  I remember when the Star Wars prequels came out, I believe in 2001.  I had a few friends who were massive fans of Star Wars.  I mean, I enjoyed the movies, don’t get me wrong, but I was never really “into” them as much as some people get.  Anyway, I just remember these friends being devastated by Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.  Now, it’s not a great movie; nowhere near as good as the first one.  But it also didn’t destroy the universe or anything.  But from my friends’ reactions, you’d have thought it did.

The problem, of course, was that I had a bunch of friends whose expectations were impossible to live up to.  They were asking a movie to be something it was never going to be.  We do this often; we build something up, only to get disappointed when it fails to live up to our expectations.  Parents feel this way about their kids, kids feel this way about their parents; spouses, friends – really every relationship has a moment in which one person lets the other down.  We’re just people, so that’s kind of our “normal” – failing one another.

But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise us.  Our expectations are just out of whack with reality.  So that’s what we’re here to talk about today.  Because if ever there was an unfulfilled expectation, it was when Jesus came.  Now, I know that probably sounds scandalous to everyone, but I want you to bear with me while we think it through, because it’s really important that we understand this the way Jesus’ followers and other contemporaries would have.  I think it gives us another way to look at our own lives.

First of all, we read a passage from Isaiah this morning.  It began with a cry to God to come to earth, saying, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”  Here, Isaiah expresses that understandable feeling that the world is unjust, and the even more understandable desire for God to come fix it all.

In so doing, he asks God to come with a flash and a bang – tearing open the heavens, shaking the mountains, and setting the world aflame, so that all the enemies of God tremble.  And, frankly, this is how most people expected God to come into the world that first time; with fires and floods and burning, wearing a crown and bending every knee.

Only, that’s not what happened at all, is it?  Instead, God came as a baby – not a royal baby, just a baby born in a barn to a poor family.  And who shows up for the birth?  Some angels, yeah; but they share the experience with the nearby shepherds.  These are just regular people, on a regular day, doing regular things.  There were no fires or floods, no earthquakes or bloody battles.  All that happened was the most commonplace of God’s miracles, the miracle of birth.

The thing is, if you’re expecting the sky to tear open and the world itself to start shaking, it’s going to be awfully hard to understand what was so special about this baby, isn’t it?  I mean, I’ve had people ask me many times, “How come people didn’t believe in Jesus?  They saw him do so many miracles!”  That’s true; but again, they were brought up with these words from Isaiah about God making a big show of things.  So on the one hand, you can’t blame the people who saw Jesus.  Many of them thought he was just a prophet or a special messenger… and that seems kind of reasonable, given this perspective on what they thought God would do.

But, as I’ve been saying, that’s just expectations getting in the way.  That’s us, as human beings, foisting our expectations of what God should do onto events.  It’s asking God to act they way we would act, rather than allowing us to be us, and God to be God.

And that brings us to our other reading, the passage from Mark’s Gospel.  This passage takes for granted one of the key aspects of Advent.  As you all know from our children’s sermon, we are now in the Christian season of Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas.  We are getting ready for the coming of Christ.  But for most of us, I think, that’s actually just an act of “memory.”  Advent is definitely a season in which we remember waiting in the past.  That is, it’s partially about remembering how people waited for so longthousands of years – for a Messiah.  They waited and waited for God to come, so we wait, too.

But the thing is, we’re not just supposed to be doing an act of memory.  Today we’re celebrating the sacrament of Communion, which is also an act of memory.  But more than just memory, it reminds us that we will, one day, feast with Jesus at his heavenly table.  So it’s also anticipation.  That same idea holds true for Advent.  And that’s what this passage is getting at.

For as long as Christianity has existed, we have been waiting for Jesus to return.  It’s part of the Christian deal.  We hope for Christ to come and set everything right, once and for all.  That’s what he’s told us is going to happen, and that’s what the Mark passage refers to.  The passage from today talks about suffering and miracles of darkness and the heavens themselves shaking, and the Son of Man – that is, Jesus – coming from the clouds in glory.  Jesus tells us all this in today’s reading.

But Jesus also says that it will happen within the generation to which he was talking.  Well, that didn’t happen.  So what did Jesus mean?  What are we supposed to take from this?  How on earth is this supposed to be relevant to us, and particularly what has it got to do with Christmas?

Well, if I were a betting man, I would say that Jesus is speaking in riddles here, as he’s wont to do sometimes.  Perhaps he had planned to come back within one generation, but he changed his mind.  Perhaps he did come back, but invisibly.  Perhaps because God’s time is not like our time, it’s still to come, and Jesus was using the word “generation” in a way that’s really different from how we use it.  No matter what, though, this is a passage about how Jesus will come again.

And if I were a betting man, I’d also bet that it’s safe to say that, while Jesus uses this particular type of language to refer to his second coming, his first coming was surprising and challenged everyone’s expectations; I’d expect his second coming to do the same.  Maybe it will look exactly like that, and maybe it won’t.  Maybe everyone will be able to see, or maybe only certain people will.  No matter what happens, though, the best advice to follow is that at the end of the passage:  keep awake!

That’s not just good advice during sermons; it’s also important for us as believers.  We’re supposed to make our faith a part of our lives every day, not just on the rare occasion that we deign to think of it.  When Jesus says, “Keep awake,” he doesn’t mean “don’t go to sleep.”  Rather, he means, “Pay attention.”  It’s hard to think of better advice.

So while we’re in Advent, while we’re in this season of waiting, let’s spend our waiting wisely.  Let’s look for what God is doing.  Keep awake, and open your eyes to finding God in unexpected places.  Don’t be blinded by the world around you and its expectations for you; rather, pay attention to the things God is already doing.  That way, whenever God shows up, however God shows up, you’ll notice.  Whether it’s in the sky tearing open and the earth trembling, or if it’s merely in the crying of a child, by keeping awake, we can find where God is showing up right now; and when we do that, we know we’ll be able to find Jesus when he comes again.  Amen.

November 19 & 26 Sermons

Sorry it’s been a while since the last post.  Here’s your chance to catch up!  The 26th is here at the top, and Gayle Janzen’s sermon from 11/19 is below!

Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

I’ve never been a King.  I mean, any kind of king.  I was never prom king or homecoming king or anything.  I was never voted king at a county fair or anything like that.  I was never even one of those honorary “king” titles that they give out at some jobs: “sales king for the month of August.”  Nothing.

So, at first blush, the whole idea of kings is a silly one, and (for me, at least) not a very relatable one.  But, of course, one of the things about kings is that our idea of them is super weird compared to most of the history of the world.  We think of “king” as an honor, rather than a right.  We even elect the king of most things that have a “king.”

But, of course, for most of the history of the world, kings weren’t chosen, they were born.  And most kings weren’t “right” or “wrong” based on the quality of their ideas; they were automatically right, by virtue of being king.  That is, to us, a completely backwards way of thinking about understanding a person, a role, or an idea – it is because it is.  There’s nothing more frustrating for a kid than when your parents say, “Because I said so;” yet, that’s how everything works for a king.  That doesn’t sound too good to Americans raised in this day and age.  We know about tyranny, and we believe that all of us should have a voice – even if that voice is wrong.

So that brings us to today in church.  Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It’s kind of a goofy little day in the life of the church:  the final Sunday before Advent begins and we ramp up to Christmas.  It’s important for a couple of reasons, though.  This is the first one:  during Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas, we tend to focus on the “baby” part of Jesus.  That’s great, because it helps us to remember that he came as a lowly person, just like us.

What can be lost when we do that, though, is remembering the power of Jesus.  He wasn’t just a baby.  He was the baby who would grow up to be king.  Not just king of a small province, either, or even a country; especially not prom king or used car king or something like that.  Jesus is king of the whole world.

Now, I spoke a little bit ago about how the idea of kings can sometimes rub us the wrong way a little bit as Americans.  The difference about this king is that earthly kings don’t always measure up to our standards, right?  Earthly kings can be unjust; they can be just as sinful as the rest of us, because, end of the day, they’re still just human, whatever they might want you to believe.

Jesus, though, is a righteous king; in fact, the only righteous king.  He’s the only one who can guarantee that his rule is just.  And that’s very important, because if we have a king, the only kind we would want is a just king.  Jesus is that; he is someone we can rely on, because he is the only person to have ever walked the face of this earth to have also been divine; he’s the only one who has goodness at the core of his being.  The rest of us would do well to remember that we should be happy about the fact that our heavenly king rules over his earthly realm fairly.

And in fact, in today’s reading, we get a little glimpse of how Jesus rules over his earthly kingdom.  Now, briefly, I would like to talk about the general Christian conceptions of heaven and hell.  Chiefly, I don’t think that’s what this passage is about; yet, they’re mentioned here, so I think it needs to be addressed.

Now, I’m not one of those preachers who wants to go on about heaven and hell all the time.  Partly, this is because I’ve done a lot of study of the Bible in my life, and I think some of the ideas are a lot more ambiguous than most of us likely suspect.  I also think that our job in church here is to talk about Jesus, and, frankly, he doesn’t spend that much time talking about it.

In fact, as I was researching this sermon, I looked.  Outside of Matthew’s Gospel (from which we read today), Jesus only makes three mentions of hell at all (and they’re probably not what we’d expect), and mentions heaven only very rarely.  Yet, today’s passage is from the book of Matthew, so it would do us well to mention this briefly.  Obviously, there’s a concept here that people are separated and set apart from one another, some to one destination and some to the other.

What I think is most important here is how our King makes this judgment.  See, what’s important in this passage isn’t wealth or fame or money or influence.  It isn’t political beliefs or intelligence or looks or popularity.  It isn’t church attendance or Bible verses memorized or number of friends.  The things that are emphasized are acts of love.  Not romantic love or friendship love, but love for all of humanity.

Jesus here tells people that what they’re rewarded for feeding him when he was hungry, giving drink to him when he was thirsty, welcoming him when he was the stranger, clothing him when he was naked, caring for him when he was sick, and visiting him when he was imprisoned.  The people he tells don’t remember doing these things for Jesus, but he tells them that, when they did it for others, they did it for him.

I love this passage because it’s a way of reminding us of a different bit of Scripture, the part called “the greatest commandment.”  That’s when Jesus summarizes our whole faith by telling us that we are supposed to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that there’s a second command just like it:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In other words, we show love of God by loving others; we grow in love of others by following God.  These two things are linked; it’s impossible to be living a Christian life in which we don’t help others, because we can’t love God if we’re not loving other people.  Similarly, our love of other people brings us closer to God, improves our relationship, and drives our faith.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

In short, what matters most is living like our King.  Our King was unique in his life, because he showed us what a true ruler should be like.  Our good King gave up his own life for the lives of his subjects.  He was willing to die to show us that we are loved.  He was willing to take on pain and sin that he didn’t deserve so that we could be made free through him.  Our good King made himself a servant to all of us, so that we would see how to live.  The goal wasn’t to show us how to be doormats, but to show us how we can become examples of service to others, and thereby live more like him.  We become our own, smaller version of Jesus whenever we’re able to make ourselves the servants of others.

Therefore, we’re supposed to engage in the same cycles of Jesus’ life.  I don’t know how much you’ve ever thought about the patterns of Jesus’ life, but he has a pretty specific pattern of what he does in his life.  He withdraws to pray, often.  Even though he himself was God, that didn’t mean he was supposed to stop engaging.  He also regularly attended services of worship.  Most of the time, he was the one doing the teaching; but not all of the time.  Once he was spiritually fed, he went out and served.  He fed the hungry and healed the sick.  He told people about his faith.  He was welcoming to children, women, ethnic minorities, immigrants – all the people that would be easy to look down on in his culture (and most cultures in history, in fact); yet, he treated them with the same dignity and respect that anyone else deserved.

So when we try to figure out how to be good subjects of our King, we do so by emulating him.  We take his actions and wear them in our own lives.  We need to serve when we are called.  That means helping others, particularly those in need.  When we care for someone needy, particularly someone whom society considers to be “less than” we are, we are acting out the life of Jesus.  We are supposed to use the church – this place, these people – as our grounds where we are fed.  We are supposed to collect ourselves here, just as Jesus did, to get energy to serve.

Therefore, I encourage you to engage, just as Jesus did; to build up your own faith so you can serve; serve so you can deepen your faith.  Become part of the great cycle of faith, wherein our relationship with God gets deeper, and our lives become more about living like Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we will never live exactly like Jesus.  We are not divine; we will make mistakes and mess up.  We will let other people down.  But we know that our righteous King also taught us about second chances and about grace.  We have a King whose Law is absolute; yet his law is love, forgiveness, and peace.  So, brothers and sisters, let us go out and live the Law of our King, acting just as he would, and living out his call on our lives.  Amen.

 

For a Time Such as This – 2017/11/12

Selections from the book of Esther

Sermon:

We have reached the end.  I started this sermon series on the Old Testament waaaaay back on June 11.  That means we’ve been five MONTHS in this series.  We’ve seen creation, the flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the time of the Judges, the rise of the Kings, the dividing of the Kingdom and the Exile in Babylon.  We’ve heard about Abraham and Moses and David; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a whole bunch of other Old Testament figures.  The last two weeks, we heard reading about hope for return to Jerusalem from Exile in Babylon.  Indeed, brothers and sisters, that time comes, and the Jewish people are returned to Jerusalem.

But today’s final reading from this very long series of Old Testament sermons is about something else; this reading is about the time in which the Kingdom has been restored and the Temple rebuilt.  But instead of taking place in Jerusalem, this story, as you heard, takes place in Persia.

The book of Esther is really interesting.  Chronologically, it is the last book to take place in the Old Testament.  It is therefore a fitting end to this series.  In college, I actually took an entire semester class on Esther, so I can talk about this book waaaay longer than anyone would want to hear about it.  So why not end with a book that actually takes place in Israel?  Well, Esther’s family was one of those families that, during the Exile, moved away from Babylon.  They established themselves in Susa, the capital of Persia, and that’s where they made their lives.  Even when they were allowed to return, they didn’t.  So, this story is partly about being Jewish in a foreign land.  And there’s some relevance to Christians in that; we don’t really have a “promised land” to go to; we are without a homeland, so ending on a story about people far from home makes sense to me.

But, as you may have seen in the pre-worship slideshow this morning, Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God.  At all.  So… what are we supposed to make of that?  I mean, if we’re going to end this series by talking about a book that teaches us to be faithful no matter where we may be, it would probably make more sense if the book in question actually talked about being faithful, wouldn’t it?  If we are meant to use this bit of Scripture in our faith lives, it deserves some attention as we try to figure out what it has to say to us.

In case it went by too fast for you, the brief outline of the book of Esther is that there are four characters, living two stories which come together in fascinating fashion.  King Ahasuerus, who is looking for a queen.  Then there’s Esther, the most beautiful woman in the whole kingdom, who becomes his bride.  Their story, the first of the two in this book, is pretty straightforward.  Esther is Jewish, raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died.  Mordecai is a scribe.  And he runs afoul of another servant of the king named Haman.

It begins when Haman gets a promotion.  He parades around town, looking for people to bow to him.  Mordecai won’t do it.  Mordecai doesn’t because he’s a Jew, and he won’t worship some human ruler – that’s never mentioned explicitly in the text, but is obvious if you’re familiar with other parts of the Old Testament.  This behavior infuriates Haman, who believes Mordecai is not showing proper respect – but Haman also thinks murder is beneath him, so he goes the sneaky route to punish Mordecai.  Haman tells the king that there’s this group of people who don’t follow the same laws as everyone else – the Jews.  They should all be put to death; I mean, what other solution is there to this problem?  The king, who, as you’ll see, is played like a fiddle by everyone in this story, agrees, and signs an order that the Jews can be killed on this one particular day in a couple months.

Hearing this devastating news, Mordecai and Esther conspire about all these events.  Mordecai tells Esther, “You have to DO something!”  Esther says, “But if I approach the king without permission, he can have me killed.”  Mordecai says, “Yeah, but you’ll probably die, anyway.  Don’t think that being the queen will save you from this planned genocide!”

So Esther decides to go into the king’s palace without his permission.  As she is his favorite, the king grants her permission to speak.  She, being clever, invites him (and Haman) to a special dinner she throws for them.  At that dinner, the king is so taken with Esther that he says, “I’ll give you whatever you want!”  She says, “There’s this plot to kill me and all my people, and Haman made it!”

The king, furious, fires Haman, and then gives Mordecai Haman’s old job.  He has Mordecai draft a letter saying the Jews are allowed to fight back on that planned day when they were to be murdered, and everyone lives happily ever after – well, everyone except Haman, but that’s a pretty gruesome part of the story, and I skipped it.  So that’s basically the whole story.

As we try to see what this book has to offer us, let’s first remember that Jews are a people united, not just by religion, but by shared ancestry.  That explains why Jews wanted to re-tell this story, and even why there’s a holiday (called Purim) in honor of it.  However, even if it’s important, why is it in the Bible if it’s not about God?

I have a couple of answers for that.  First of all, this book helps us understand how God is present, whether we name God or not.  Just because the people of this book didn’t name God, that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there.  As Mordecai says to Esther, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  In other words, “Maybe God put you in this position so you can save us.”  Even without naming God, Mordecai has shown us something important:  God puts us in certain places at certain times to do the right thing.

A second answer as to what a book that doesn’t mention God can tell us about God is this:  we live in an increasingly secular age in the United States.  This has been true for a couple of generations, though most people only realize it now.  There are some positives from it, though most often we’re likely to dwell on the negatives.  But how do we see God’s hand in the world, even when no one around us is saying it?

Traditionally in our country, Christianity was taken for granted, so we could say Christian things and flaunt Christian symbols in public.  But to some extent, I think, that made us lazy believers.  We came to believe that saying Christian things was the same as doing Christian things. Faith in God has to be about more than just public prayer, more than using Christian language.  It seems to me that people are more likely to complain about a lack of stores having “Merry Christmas” signs than they are about whether or not their own Christmas celebrations actually reflect anything about the Christian life.  It becomes about seeming Christian rather than being Christ-like; saying the right things rather than doing them.

Perhaps the most explicit way I’ve seen this play out in my own life was in the form of the WWJD bracelet.  You remember those, right?  For those of you too young to remember these (and I feel really old saying that), these were little rubber or woven bracelets that had the letters “WWJD” on them.  It stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and it was supposed to be a reminder to behave in a Christian way all the time.  In my opinion, this was a great idea – until they got really popular.  See, when they started, they were a subtle reminder to people to act like Jesus.  You were actually supposed to look down at them and think twice before you spoke or acted.  What they became, though, was a status symbol to show off your Christianity to others.  You started seeing them on people who wanted to look Christian, rather than people who cared about the message at all.

In this regard, the book of Esther can be a really good thing to keep in mind.  What Esther does in this book is not have a showy prayer.  She doesn’t win favor by converting the emperor to her beliefs.  She isn’t a big political hero who turns everyone into a follower of God.  Instead, she changes the world by acting in a way that a follower of God would is supposed to act.  She stands up for the innocent.  She speaks truth to power.  She risks her own life and well-being in pursuit of the greater good.

But it’s not just Esther who is to be our example.  After all, this whole story hinges on Mordecai and his unwillingness to bow down to someone who isn’t God.  Haman is parading through the streets and expecting complete and total obedience.  Mordecai, a good Jew, doesn’t want to bow down to him, because Mordecai knows that he’s just a man.  Mordecai knows that it’s not about the posture of your body; it’s about the posture of your heart.  Mordecai’s heart is right, because he puts God first; Haman’s heart is wrong, because he puts himself first.

Mordecai’s action enrages Haman, who orders not just Mordecai’s death, but death to all Jews throughout Persia.  But, even though the book of Esther doesn’t have a single mention of God, we can see that Mordecai is unwilling to bow down to idols.

To me, that’s the third and biggest takeaway from this book.  Sure, one of the lessons this book teaches is about knowing God is there, even when no one even says the word, “God.”  And a second one is that it shows us how to be faithful in a culture that isn’t explicitly our faith.  But probably the most important thing I see in this book is that we’re meant to stand up to idols, and to be obedient only to God.  If we’re familiar with the language of the word, “idol,” we’re probably used to hearing about idols in the Old Testament as statues made of wood or stone or precious metals that people worship instead of worshiping God.  In our day and age, we tend not to worship statues, and we think that makes us more “advanced” than the people who came before us.

Yet, at the end of the day, we bow down to idols often.  You see, idols don’t have to be statues.  Anything we put ahead of God can be an idol.  Concepts like pride and status are common idols.  Feelings like lust and greed can be idols.  Probably the most common idol in our culture is money.  If it’s not that, it’s our own comfort, or perhaps our own happiness.  Beyond concepts, individual people, perhaps family members or even celebrities, can become idols when we start to put them first in our lives.  Political affiliations, countries, and the flag can become idols.  The ideas of “safety” and “security” are immensely powerful idols in our culture, convincing us to push aside the radical call of inclusivity and justice in favor of staying “safe.”

The book of Esther teaches us about the courage it takes to stand up to idols.  Sometimes, the world around us is telling us that something other than God is what’s most important.  Mordecai stands up when he feels the pressure to fall in line like everyone else.  Esther stands up to the King and transgresses her station.  She has to violate the law to do what’s right, but she saves her entire people.  These are models for us, because they show one of the ideas we talked about last week in the Book of Ezekiel:  their whole lives become part of their faith witness.  It’s not just about words; it’s about living a life that makes God’s presence apparent in you.  Esther and Mordecai do that.

So let us take the example of Esther and Mordecai and live it out in our own lives.  Let us not treat God’s name like a status symbol, or a piece of jewelry we can put on or take off as we please; let’s make it a tattoo that marks us as God’s forever, and that’s visible for all the world.  Let us not believe that saying “Merry Christmas” in public, or support of school prayer, is the test of someone’s faith; instead, let our actions show that we believe God is in charge, and let our lives reflect what God wants us to do.  Let us embrace living a Jesus-life.  Let us live as God intended us to live, loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Amen.