Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Comfort ,o comfort my people, 12/18

Psalm 122
1I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
4To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
8For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

Isaiah 40:1-11
1   Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2   Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, 
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3   A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4   Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5   Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, 
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6   A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
     All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7   The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; 
surely the people are grass.
8   The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9   Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
     lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
     say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10  See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
     and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
When I hear this passage the first thing that comes to mind is the same words in Handel’s Messiah. Somehow, Handel’s music always brings the passage to life for me. The beauty of the music echoes the beauty of the words and reminds me that they aren’t just words. This is a passionate dialogue between God and the prophet about God’s beloved people Israel.

            When this passage takes place God feels far away from his people. Israel had turned away from God, like we all do sometimes. They allowed injustice and inequality to thrive in their society and forgot that God cares deeply about the poor, so Israel ended up in exile, dominated by their more powerful neighbors, the Babylonians.

            Israel’s punishment was harsh, but fitting. They turned away from God, so God let them see what it was like to be apart from him. But now God can’t take the separation anymore. God longs to bring his people home; he longs to make peace with the people he loves. God calls the prophet into action to bring Israel a message of forgiveness. “Comfort, o comfort my people,” says your God. God tells the prophet to share not only God’s message but his passion too: “Cry to her that she has served her term and paid her penalty.”

            I can picture the prophet running through the streets, yelling out the good news that God has forgiven them, that God wants them to come home, that the sins of the past are wiped out forever. The prophet imagines the power of God’s forgiveness lifting up the valleys and flattening the hills. He imagines God’s mercy carving a highway through the desert.

God’s incredible love can’t be stopped. The mountains and hills of our past aren’t high enough to keep out God’s forgiveness. The depths of our deepest despair aren’t low enough to keep God from reaching us. The wilderness emptiness we sometimes feel because of how we’ve been hurt and how we have hurt others isn’t lonely enough to keep God away.

Filled the hungry with good things, 12/11

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Luke 1:46-55

46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the LORD, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

            The book that we call Isaiah probably had three different authors in three different times. The first part, creatively called First Isaiah, follows the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah in the eighth century in Jerusalem. At that time Judah was a relatively stable, small country, that was doing pretty well economically.

The Northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by Assyria, but Judah seemed to have dodged that bullet. Perhaps that made the leaders of Judah feel superior and self-righteous. Israel had fallen because of her idolatry, but Judah had escaped and was even prospering in many ways because of her faithfulness. Isaiah’s ministry was to let Judah know that wasn’t the case, that in fact, Judah was on the wrong path too and would face destruction if they continued what they were doing. The biggest problem was that the wealthy were doing very well but were getting rich by exploiting the poor. They prided themselves on their religious devotion, but maximized profits through unjust business practices. The rich were getting richer while the poor suffered. Does that sound familiar?

Anyway, first Isaiah’s mission was to deliver God’s message that this is not OK. Religion isn’t about worship and sacrifice; it’s about living our faith everyday in how we treat others, especially the most vulnerable. Isaiah brings God’s warning that without a radical change Judah will go into exile like Israel.

Second Isaiah was probably written after first Isaiah’s prophecy of doom had already come true and Judah was in exile. It is a message of God’s hope, because even though Judah’s injustice has led to disaster, God’s love never fails. God will transform Judah into a righteous kingdom again, a kingdom so full of God’s love it shines like a light to the world.

Third Isaiah is similar in message but written later. Many of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, but the return home had not brought the total restoration of Israel they had hoped for. Third Isaiah continues to encourage them and to let them know that one day God’s plan for redemption will be complete and the whole world will be at peace.

Our passage from Isaiah comes from the third section. We can almost picture the Jews returning from exile, excited to be back home with a shot at some political autonomy. They come over the last hill craning their necks for a glimpse of home, but all they see is devastated ruins.

It’s easy to feel that way when we think about Rochester. We remember the glory days when Kodak jobs were secure and plentiful, when technology and manufacturing created a vibrant economy that supported broad prosperity and vibrant culture. Now we see the ruins of Kodak Park with many of the buildings empty and a tenth of the former work force. We see the devastation of a school district that doesn’t graduate half of its students and where functional literacy is out of reach for many kids. We see devastated families, chronic unemployment, high crime and a deep-seated sense of hopelessness.

            Nationally, we’ve seen a huge and disturbing concentration of wealth over the last forty years. When we adjust for inflation, wages for many workers are actually lower than they were forty years ago, while the people at the top of the economic pyramid are much richer and pay less in taxes. Big companies and wealthy donors have nearly unlimited access to political power and our representatives are more focused on making each other look bad than on getting anything done to make our country better. In our politics we are driven by fear, prejudice and greed rather than by the spirit of welcome and opportunity that made our nation great.

            The good news is that God wasn’t finished with Israel then and God isn’t finished with us now. Even when we turn away from God’s love, God stays faithful. God is working among the ruble and brokenness to plant and nourish something new. God is planting justice, righteousness and new life where we least expect it.

Mary, the teen mother of God (12.4)

Luke 1: 26-45
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
My name is Sam Picard. I’m the pastor of Laurelton United Presbyterian Church about 3 miles north east of here. I also work as a paramedic with Rural Metro. I meet a lot of young mothers on the ambulance. It’s not uncommon for me to take 15 year old girls to the hospital in labor. In 2007 19% of births in Rochester were to teenage mothers. Many of these moms are single. Most live in poverty and have a hard time digging themselves and their children out of that situation. Being a parent is challenging, as many of you know. Think how much harder it would be as a teenager with few financial resources.

            Many teenagers living in poverty feel hopeless. Their circumstances and surroundings can conspire to make them feel worthless. Sometimes that’s a big part of why young women get pregnant. Surrounded by poverty and violence I imagine it’s hard to imagine a better future.
There was plenty in Jesus’ scenario that could have made Mary feel the same way. Certainly, women were far from equal in that culture. The Roman occupation limited Jewish opportunity, surrounding them with constant reminders of their lack of independence and power. Nazareth, Mary’s hometown, had a bad reputation as well. Like many young mothers in Rochester’s poverty crescent, it would have been easy for Mary to feel like a nobody and give up hope.

            But that’s not how God sees things. God chose Mary to be the mother of the savior of the world. God chose an ordinary girl in challenging circumstances to play a special role in our salvation. Paul’s words about Christianity in general fit Mary well: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

            That’s part of God’s character. God doesn’t care about appearances or how the world sees things. God has a long history of seeking out unremarkable people and families to do amazing things with. One of the blessings of the church’s decline as far as economic and social power is concerned is that it frees us to see God’s love for the ordinary and humble.

            The church’s future isn’t in big fancy buildings or reaching out to the rich and famous. The church’s future is in rediscovering God’s love for the simple, for the least impressive, the under resourced, the despised and the impoverished. The church’s future is committing ourselves once again to the city, to those places forgotten or ignored by empire. Our future is in finding ways to bless and stand with those in need, reaching out to the hungry and hopeless.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The King's Judgment, 11.20

Matthew 25:31-46
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We may not know Ezekiel as well as Jeremiah and Isaiah. His visions and actions are often strange, though this vision is easy enough to follow. Ezekiel preached in the years before and after Judah’s defeat and occupation by Babylon. His prophetic words combine criticism of injustice with hope for Israel’s future. Let’s see what Ezekiel has to say to us this morning.

Ezekiel 34:1-24 (pg. 803-804)
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:

Let’s start out by getting our parts straight so we can understand this passage. Who do you think Ezekiel and God mean by the shepherds of Israel? Who are the sheep in this passage?

We’ll find out more about this in a minute, but why do you think God might want Ezekiel to prophesy against Israel’s leaders? Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer, the passage will get to it, I just want to get our brains warmed up by thinking about where we might be headed.

2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

What’s a shepherd’s job? How is a king or business leader like a shepherd? What’s their responsibility to the people they lead? What does it seem like these leaders were doing instead?

Check this out: Ezekiel says that Israel’s shepherds, Israel’s leaders, are so bad that they aren’t really shepherds at all.

5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

What happens to sheep without a shepherd? What does being scattered mean in this case? How does God feel about this situation?

7Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

God warns the shepherds, the leaders of Israel, that they haven’t done their job. They haven’t taken care of the sheep, so God is going to kick the shepherds out and take care of the sheep himself. In other words, even though it seems like the powerful can take advantage of the weak forever, even though it seems like the leaders of society can ignore the needs of others and pile up riches for themselves, it won’t always be that way. God is going to step into the picture and take care of people in need. God is going to take his flock back from the selfish leaders and give them the care they aren’t getting from their shepherds.

11For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

God’s sheep, God’s people won’t always be scattered in the wilderness. Israel and Judah are exiled from their land now, but it won’t always be that way. One day God will bring back the exiles and make sure everyone has good land to feed on. God will make sure everyone has enough.

Living in the Light, 11.13

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

            OK, raise your hand if passages like this one make you nervous or make you want to just shake your head and close the Bible. We’ve been reading passages about the end of time and the final judgment for several weeks now. It seems like as Jesus got closer to his own death he became more insistent about warning his audience that the end was coming soon for them too. I get it, and at the same time it still feels a little like we’ve been getting beaten over the head with judgment talk for weeks now.

            A couple times in the last few weeks Jesus has talked about how his return will be like a thief in the night. Paul uses the same image in today’s passage. The idea is that Christ will return suddenly, when we least expect it. In a lot of ways it’s a threatening image. We imagine darkness and shadows. We imagine a sneaky guy in a ski mask prowling around the back of the house looking for a loose windowpane. Maybe we even imagine a mugger in a dark alley striking unsuspecting victims without warning and without mercy.

             If we’re honest we often see Christ’s return like that. We think of Christ coming back and judging the world and we feel afraid. We’re suspicious of his intentions in judgment and fearful about what might happen to us. We worry he’s going to hurt us and take away our treasure like a thief. We have this Santa Clause image of Jesus making his list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.

            Paul helps us see this image in a more hopeful way. Yes, Christ will come like thief in the night, he says, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” The darkness that makes the thief seem threatening isn’t a given; it’s a choice. Christ is the light of the world and when we belong to him we aren’t stuck in the darkness. In Christ we walk in the light, and everything looks different in the light.

            When we’re in the darkness Christ’s return feels like a threat; in the light we see his return as the joyful reunion it is. In the dark God’s justice seems threatening; in the light it’s a relief because we know that everything wrong will finally be made right. In the dark it feels like we can do whatever we want and that we need to look out for ourselves. In the light we see the needs and possibilities of the world around us and it’s clear that our calling is outside our walls.

            The challenge of this passage is to be who God made us, to live like redeemed followers of Jesus, to do what we know we are called to do. Paul reminds his readers that they are in the light so they have nothing to worry about from thieves or from judgment. He also reminds them to keep acting like they are in the light, he encourages them to remember who they are.

            When we remember our identity as Jesus followers we know how to do the right thing. When we walk in the light we can see where we’re going. The Christian life is natural. It means looking at Jesus as an example of what authentic and faithful life looks like. It means caring about our neighbors, speaking up for the powerless, serving the poor. It means comforting those who are sad or afraid, reaching out to people who are lonely, sharing our hope with others. In short, it means acting like a Christian.

            Faithful Christian living takes practice but becomes almost instinctual. It’s less about rules and more about choosing our actions in the light of who we are and who Jesus is. At our core we have been redeemed and we are new creations in Christ. So when we live honest, love-filled lives we will naturally do the right thing.

Choosing and trusting, 11.6

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3aThen I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

14“Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

19But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

            The early church thought Christ would come back very soon. Jesus told his followers that some of them would still be alive when he came back. Paul was urgent about telling people about Jesus because he felt like he might not finish the job before Jesus returned.

            That sense that the end was coming was important to the early Christian church. So it came as an upsetting surprise when people in the community started dying. They expected to be waiting for Jesus when he returned, so they didn’t know how to handle it when their friends and family died.

            Paul writes the passage we just read to help them handle their grief and move forward. He reminds them that Jesus died too, but his death was not the end. Because Jesus rose from the dead, those of us who die before Christ’s return will also rise to be with Christ when he comes back. Then we will be together again with Christ when he makes all things right.

            Paul doesn’t say anything about when this is going to happen. He doesn’t give details about what Christ’s coming will look like either. There is a lot about Christ’s return that we don’t know. There’s a lot about the afterlife that we don’t know. The future, especially the future beyond our earthly lives is a mystery. It’s a mystery and sometimes that makes us anxious.
            Paul’s is wise to avoid the specifics. The details don’t matter; what matters is that God is in charge and God loves us. Christ’s life and death show us that above every thing else, no matter what the cost, God wants to be with us. Christ’s resurrection shows us that God’s love is stronger than death. We don’t know what it will look like, but when all is said and done we will be with Jesus in glory.

            The more I’ve gotten to know God, the more I appreciate Paul’s wisdom. I don’t care what heaven looks like. I’m not worried about how the resurrection will happen. I know that God loves us and that’s all that matters. The more I trust God’s love the more I’m able to let go of my anxiety about the future and focus on God’s calling for life. If you’re anxious about judgment or life after death I invite you to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection again and let go of your anxiety. Nothing is going to separate us from God’s love in Jesus. You have nothing to worry about.

            Interestingly enough, a lot of Israel’s problems had to do with the future as well. When Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai, the people worried he was gone and told Aaron to make gods to lead them. Often along the way the people worried about where they were going and feared that God and Moses had led them into a place with no future. Throughout the journey the people are anxious about where they are going and whether their leader can get them to safety.

Moses spent his life leading the people through the desert, trying to get them to trust God. Deuteronomy is a whole book of sermons from Moses about God’s faithfulness calling the people to trust and follow God. As Moses came to the end of his life he told Israel about the future and encouraged them to cling to God in their new home.

            Two weeks ago we read about Moses’ death and how Joshua followed him as Israel’s leader. Now we skip ahead in the story. Joshua led the people into Canaan and took over the land. After years of warfare Israel is more or less at peace and Joshua prepares them for life without his leadership, just like Moses did before he died.

              Joshua’s main goal isn’t setting up a government or choosing a leader to guide Israel after he is gone. Instead he focuses on getting Israel to choose to follow God. That seems like a strange decision, since Israel has been following God all this time, but Joshua is exactly right to wrap up his ministry this way.

            In theory Israel is already following God; in practice they have really been following Joshua. Joshua worries that when he’s gone the people will loose their direction. In this farewell speech Joshua reminds the people that the point isn’t following him, but following God. Joshua’s goal is getting the people to choose to follow God for themselves.

            Joshua asks the question clearly: “Choose this day whom you will serve…” Will they choose to serve the gods Abraham’s ancestors served in Mesopotamia? Will they choose to serve the gods of the people who lived in Canaan before them? Or will they choose to serve the Lord who brought them out of slavery and through the desert?

            Joshua asks the question as a one-time choice because this one question, whom we will serve, is the center of our whole life. He doesn’t raise the possibility of serving no one. For people in that time the idea of life without a god wouldn’t make sense.

            For us the choice looks a bit different because our temptations are different. We aren’t tempted by Mesopotamian or Amorite gods. Instead we’re tempted by the false god of independence and selfish success. We are not tempted to serve foreign gods, but to serve ourselves.

            The gods of our culture are freedom, selfishness and wealth. We worship at the temple of consumer culture and endless choices. We worship at the altar of me first partisan politics and blaming other people. We want freedom without responsibility. Joshua’s voice rings out calling us to choose whom we will serve. Our culture responds, “We will serve ourselves.”

            God calls us to choose differently. God calls us to choose community and faithfulness over selfish independence. God calls us to choose following the real, living God over the daily grind. God calls us to choose a true life of service to love and justice over the charade of meaningless materialism. Choose this day whom you will serve.

            It’s not a choice we make just once, when we baptize our children or commit ourselves at confirmation. It’s a choice we make every day as we buy groceries and go to work. It’s a choice we make as we choose how to treat others and how to spend our money. It’s a choice we make at school and in sports. It’s a choice we make as build our life. Choose this day whom you will serve.

            As we come together at Christ’s table we choose to serve God. We choose to serve each other. We choose to serve justice. At Christ’s table we recognize that we are hungry for community and hungry for justice. We recognize that some of our brothers and sisters are hungry for bread and security.

We can only choose to serve God when we trust God. At Christ’s table we remember that the God of the universe chose to live and die for us. This meal shared with our Lord reminds us that we can trust him. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Choose this day whom you will serve; God has already chosen to serve us.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

God's word

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
9You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

 Matthew 23:1-12
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.


My grandmother got me a Bible when I was 12. She says I told her I was going to read the wholething. Then I read two or three verses and said that was enough for the night. She said, in her lovely southern accent, “Sam, it’s going to take an awful long time to read the Bible like that.”

I don’t remember exactly when or how it happened, but soon I fell in love with the Bible. I read it on my own, which made me more interested in the sermons I heard on Sundays. I was captivated by the world of the Bible, so different than the world we live in today but still connected. I loved the stories of Moses, Israel, and King David.

More than anything I was captivated by the story of Jesus. His teaching was so powerful. He had a way of cutting through all the subtle deception and political posturing of the religious leaders. His words hit me and stuck. His life also inspired me. His love for us and his courage blew me away as did the courage and conviction of the early church.

In seventh grade I went to Catholic school and I found out that I was truly a protestant, or as my English teacher would say a protest-ant. As we studied the teachings of the Catholic church, much of it made perfect sense to me since the Christian faith is one faith no matter what church you go to.

But other things didn’t make sense to me at all. I distinctly remember learning some teaching that didn’t make sense to me and didn’t fit what I understood about scripture. I asked the teacher: “Where does that come from in the Bible?” The teacher didn’t have a good answer.

Part of my opposition was run of the mill teenage defiance; I was a pretty smart-allecky kid, after all. But part of my resistance was my reformation heritage coming through. I’ve come to value that heritage more and more. We celebrate the reformation today not to disrespect our Catholic brothers and sisters, but to stir up the spirit of the reformers in our church and in our lives.

Whenever we take scripture seriously, reformation naturally follows. That’s because scripture is God’s word, and God’s word is powerful to challenge, encourage, empower and change us. God has blessed the church with a huge variety of interpretation. Some Christians read the Bible literally; others with a more critical view. We can be faithful either way.