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Monday, February 20, 2017

Holiness: An Invitation to Cooperation

Leviticus 19
February 19, 2017

          Compliment or criticism? He’s holier than thou.  If you’re saying that about someone are you building him up?  It’s a critique.  Not a one of us would want to be called ‘holier than thou.’  Yet, I suggest that in our effort to see more of God and to know God better, in our lives, we must strive to be holy.
          One of my parenting tasks is to help my kids with grammar and writing homework, so I have to note something about this well-worn phrase, holier than thou.  The word ‘thou’ is archaic and it means you.  The word ‘holier’ is in a comparative form: holy, then the comparative ‘holier,’ and the superlative ‘holiest.’  Holier than thou is a phrase steeped in competition.  He’s not just holy.  He’s holier than you!
          No wonder it’s used as a put-down.  Holy becomes a synonym for ‘better.’  He’s holier than thou.  He’s better than you.  O no he’s not! ­ We think.  We never stop ponder what makes someone better than someone else.  We just resist the idea that one person is better at being a person than another person; we don’t like to think someone else is better at humanity than we are. 
          Holier than thou.  We say it out of the side of our mouths, a euphemism for cocky.  He’s so full himself, so holier than thou.  He thinks his stuff doesn’t stink.
          We’re so resistant to spiritual or moral comparisons, and yet much in our worldview is comparison-based.  We value competition.  Think about your own view.  Do you see the world through a cooperation-tinted lens or a competition-tinted lens?  In order for one to get ahead, does another necessarily fall behind?  Let that question settle.  Are you more prone to competition or to cooperation?  Let the question simmer as it pertains to how you move through life.
          Is it enough that the Tar Heels are having a really good basketball season?  Or, is it only truly successful if they are not only good, but better than Wake Forest?  Or N.C. State?  Or especially Duke?  Competition is admired in sports and it should be.  I want my favorite team to be highly competitive.  What I am asking us to consider is how this cooperation-competition dynamic spills over into life and into our thoughts about God and our own identity in Christ. 
          In the campaign of 2016, Donald Trump gave a specific compliment to Ted Cruz.  He said of Cruz, “He’s fighter.”  Later, Trump said the same thing of Hilary Clinton.  “I know this about her,” he said, “She’s a fighter.”  In both cases, he said it with admiration.  He appreciates that tough, competitive spirit.  So did Barak Obama.  So do most Americans.  Toughness; competitiveness; we see these as admirable qualities, except when we are dealing with holiness.
          Holiness is a title reserved for the pope.  To be extra reverent, we say ‘the holy Bible.’  But people, who are supposed to be competitive in all things, are suddenly expected to be humble and self-effacing when it comes to holiness.  The great irony is the Bible really doesn’t commend us to be great champions in sports or politics. 
From the Proverbs to the Parables, the Bible commends deference. Put others ahead of yourself.  Don’t brag.  Take the least significant place at the table.  These are paraphrases of actual teachings from scripture – the Bible we call “holy.”  In life, we are to put other ahead of ourselves.  We’re not told by God to be “winners.”  It’s strange that we say the Bible is authoritative in our lives.  But some things we highly value, toughness & competitiveness, are not Biblical values. 
But you know what is?  We just read it in the holy Bible; but not just the Bible!  This is the Torah, the law on which the rest of scripture stands.  Here at the center of Torah we read this command, Leviticus 19:2.  “You shall be holy.  For I, the Lord your God am holy.” God did not say this to the Pope.  This is not an inner-trinity conversation, Father-God speaking to God-the-Son.  This is to every one of God’s people.  This is to you and me.  We must be holy, for the Lord our God is holy. 
A quick aside: this is not a wholesale rejection of competitiveness.  In your work, you may have to compete for grants.  Compete hard!  I want the scientists who get the grants to be scientists who worship HillSong.  Compete hard in the interview for the job.  Strive excellence in the things you do in life.  Strive to be an excellent parent, an outstanding friend, the best student you can be, a quality, trustworthy employee.  Be a leader in the workforce.  If you coach a basketball team, strive to win every game.  Compete in life. 
However, when it comes to our primary calling, the Bible is directing us to view life through a cooperative prism, not a competitive one.  We don’t need others to fail for us to succeed.  In fact, the Biblical picture of holiness painted in Leviticus 19 is inherently cooperative.  It’s not something we fight for.  We join with one another in a mutually beneficial effort for the good of society. 
Leviticus 19 appears to be a re-working of the 10 commandments.  There’s the insistence on Sabbath-observance.  There the prohibitions against coveting, lying, and stealing.  There’s the rejection of idolatry.  This is a helpful way of understanding Leviticus 19, but note this.  The emphasis here is on relationships with people.  Our obedience to God’s absolute command is seen in how we relate cooperatively with people.  Samuel Ballentine writes, “the importance of how one lives in relationships with others in the human community is equal to, if not even greater than, the requirement of [faithfulness] to God.  … Ethical behavior is not merely the necessary consequence of love for God; it is the fundamental prerequisite that establishes the authenticity of that love.”[i]
In other words, we know we are striving to obey God’s command to “be holy” when we cooperate with other people for their good according to the guidelines given in the Bible.  
Let’s go through it and see this cooperation woven throughout the commandments.
Leviticus 19:3, “You shall revere your mother and father.”  We know we are striving for holiness when we honor our parents.  And honoring our parents is a matter of cooperation within the family. 
Verse 4, “Do not turn to idols.”  In ancient cultures, idol worship involved looking at a statue, endowing that statue with qualities reserved for God, and then serving and worshiping the statue.  This practice was the root cause of the destruction of society.  When we give what belongs to God – our worship and devotion – to something that is not God, then our social orientation is so off kilter the damage ripples throughout society. 
In ancient times it was statues – literal idols.  Today, our idolatry is seen when we give the loyalty and the allegiance that is exclusively God’s to someone or something else: a political party, a value like consumerism or patriotism, or a country.  “Do not turn to idols,” Leviticus says.  God should be our center and our all-in-all. 
Verses 9-10: don’t harvest everything!  This made sense for the agricultural society in which these commands were originally given.  Land-owning farmers who worked hard to maximize the productivity of the land were told point-blank not to harvest everything.  Leave some of it for hungry people.  Cooperate with those people who don’t own land and might starve without your help.
In today’s contex, this command might be worded don’t hoard.  Don’t keep everything. Why not?
Remember the overarching command in verse 2 – “Be holy.”    The only reason God gives us is “I am the Lord,” and this phrase is repeated in verse 4, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 25, 28, 30, 31, 34, & 37.  In 2017, when we read Leviticus 19:9-10, it sounds like this.  “When you receive your paycheck, don’t keep it all.  Take some of that money and share it with someone who is struggling.  No, that person with whom you share it didn’t work for it.  You did it.  So why in the world should you share it?  What the heck?  Why?”
“I am the Lord.”  It’s the only reason given. 
To say one person is holier than another, as in ‘holier than thou’ makes no sense.  It’s an absurd notion.  Holiness is not comparative at all, when we understand it Biblically.  One cannot be holy as God commands us to be holy alone.  The only way we can obey this command of God is in relationships of cooperation with others.  We have to cooperate in our worship community to exalt God and only God.  Together we reject idolatry by rejecting idols.
Together we honor our parents.  This is true in our own families but also in our church family, where we honor those who are elders among us.  We honor them for the work they do in the life of the church today.  Our elderly are as active as anyone.  Second, we honor them for the wisdom they’ve acquired over years.  It’s a cooperative effort in which we all experience blessing.
Together we honor everyone in the community by recognizing that the paychecks our hard work produces are a means of cooperation.  When seen this way, we realize we aren’t giving to charity when we share our money so others can eat, be clothed, be educated, and have housing.  The sharing of money contributes to helping everyone in the community join God in holiness.
Verse 17 couldn’t be clearer.  “You shall not hate in our heart anyone of your kin.”  Based on the life and teaching of Jesus, we know our “kin” is the human family.  We are not to hate anyone, period.  That is followed up with something that might be familiar to New Testament readers.  Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
We Christians are tempted to think of ourselves as New Testament people who no longer practice the system of worship described in Leviticus.  We don’t do animal sacrifice.  However, as New Testament people, we would readily submit to the authority of the books in the NT, including First Peter.  First Peter 2:9 says, to us, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
That verse colors our reading of Leviticus 19.  No, we don’t undertake the sacrificial system of worship prescribed in Leviticus because Jesus was the sufficient sacrifice, once and for all.  Our worship involves singing praise to the one true God.  It does not involve sacrifices.  After the cross, that’s no longer necessary.  However, the values of Leviticus, especially the holiness commanded in chapter 19, are formative for anyone who would be a God-worshiper.
Leviticus 19:17 says, “You shall not hate anyone of your kin.” How do I accomplish “holiness?” 
How can I be holy as the Lord my God is holy? Don’t hate anybody and love your neighbor.  Who is my neighbor?  The person who needs my help.  Why would I love him?  God’s answer comes at the end of verse 18.  We do it because God says to us, “I am the Lord.”
And to drive the point home, in Leviticus 19:34, God says, ‘you shall love the alien who resides among you as you love yourself.’  That’s it.  When we meet immigrants, people from other places, our first and only response to them must be as Christ-followers, people of God, a holy people.  It doesn’t matter where they are from.  It matters who we are.  Who are we?  We are a holy people (First Peter 2:9).  Because of that, what drives us is love.  We love the alien who travels to our home town.  Why?  God says, you do it because I am the Lord.
Every message this year at our church has been driven by a desire to know God.  From Leviticus 19, it is clear God wants us to know Him.  He loves us so much, he gives us guidance for every aspect of life.  God doesn’t want us confused.  God wants us to be assured of His love for us and our place in His Kingdom. 
This week, our task is to strive for holiness; not to be holier than thou, but rather to be holy alongside thou.  We do this and we will see God. 
Our starting point is love.  Who is hurting?  Who has deep need?  Who is the neighbor in our path we are called to stop and help?  There is so much noise in America right now, and most of it competitive in a damaging way that will leave us all defeated.  This week, let’s raise a different sound.  Let’s make some noise for cooperation – cooperation rooted in the holy love described in Leviticus and demonstrated in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. 
Let’s go from here as holy witnesses who use everything we have to help people find their way into the Kingdom of God.

[i] S.Ballentine (2002), Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Leviticus, John Knox Press (Louisville), p.161.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

God, the Maker of Worlds (Psalm 16)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

            In the Fantastic Four super hero comic books, one of the enemies of the Fantastic Four is Galactus, an alien so large, he travels through the universe consuming planets.  When they made the Fantastic Four into movies, in one of the films, another alien, the Silver Surfer, came to earth to warn us of Galactus’ approach and intention of eating our planet, and all of us.  The Surfer told the Fantastic Four, “It is called Galactus, ‘Destroyer of worlds.’”
            What kind of Greek trip am on that I would read Psalm 16 and think of Marvel comics and the Fantastic Four?  It’s not the first thought I had in my reading of Psalm 16.  In fact, I’ve been reading that Psalm over and over for almost a month now.  I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, what about that?  What about Psalm 16 and Galactus and the ‘Destroyer of worlds?’
It is actually something a great Bible scholar said about the Psalms and what Israel was doing when they sang the Psalms in worship and what God did through the Psalms in the heart of Israel and in us when we worship through reading, praying, singing, and most importantly believing the Psalms.  In his brief commentary Abiding Astonishment, Walter Brueggemann wrote the Psalms “intend … to unmake, deconstruct, and unmask … worlds which seduce and endanger Israel.”[i]
In this sense then, the real God, not the Marvel Comics Galactus, is the ‘Destroyer of Worlds.’  God destroys worlds – threats, ideologies, lies, false theologies, idolatries, fears, seductions.  The Psalms reiterate again and again that God is faithful and is Almighty.  No threat will come to Israel that possesses more power than God.  Foreign invaders like Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Rome will hurt Israel, but only because God permits it.  And those injuries always come in conjunction with Israel turning away from God, turning to false God, trusting in unwise alliances, and exploiting the poor.  Unfaithfulness and exploitation always, always accompany the arrival of a foreign power in Israel’s history.
God is never off the scene.  God sometimes moves to the background to allow Israel to live with the pain that comes with her sins.  But God is always present to destroy the invader and ideological and political worlds that threaten God’s order.  God is a destroyer of worlds. 
What’s true of what God does for and in Israel is also true for the rest of human society.  First through the creation mandate to scatter over the earth, then through the priestly mandate to Israel to be a Holy nation that draws lost and sinful humanity back to God, then through Israel’s prophets who imagine a future in which all kingdoms of the earth find their fulfillment in the worship of God, and finally in the Great Commission to make all of the world followers of Jesus, the words of the Psalms ring true for the church.  God is a destroyer of worlds, the forces that would seduce, threaten, and ultimately kill the church. 
What are some of those forces?  What draws our attention away from the Gospel?  What tries to tell us who we are, when we know our identities are based on who we are in Christ? 
Some voices insist we must advocate on behalf of refugees.  Their lives are fluttering in the wind and we in the wealthy west must open our hearts and our arms and homes.  It’s matter of valuing lives.  Yet, the same voices will not permit space for the unborn when the conversation switches to crisis pregnancies or unwanted pregnancies.  Then, we can’t talk about the baby’s life, only the woman’s choice.
Some voices insist that we get very specific in damning certain sins, like homosexuality.  We must declare it an evil that threatens our way of life.  And this insistence ignores completely the way Jesus welcomed people – all people, and gave extra love to those who needed most, people rejected in society.  The voices insisting this righteous condemnation ignores the truth that the Holy Spirit is leading the church to love all people and welcome all people.
Conversely, there are voices that are just as loud that demand that all relationships be affirmed by the church.  A Christian baker or photographer sees his work as a kind of ministry.  But then these voices tell him, he has to serve a same-sex wedding.  His reading of scripture tells him that’s against God’s will.  Those voices aren’t interested in his reading of scripture.  He either has to go against what he thinks God is telling him in the Bible and bake the cake for the same-sex marriage; or he has to give up the business he loves and believes is a ministry. 
What forces draw our attention away from who God tells us who we are in Christ?
Some voices insists that our primary identity involves the country of our citizenship, instead of our belief that we are subjects in an eternal kingdom.  As citizens our top concern should be for border security.  We know our calling to go out; ‘go into the all world baptizing and making disciples.’  It’s hard to remember our call when so many voices vie for our attention and compete to tell us who we are.

I’ve done a very rough run through of just some of the issues that have dominated the headlines in the past couple of years, right up to today.  I believe we have a call from God to care for all lives – refugees, the unborn, persecuted persons in other countries, disadvantaged persons in our own community.  We are called to love these individuals and help them know Jesus as their Savior and thrive as his disciples.  We are called to love and welcome people who are confused about their own sexuality or who openly claim a sexual identity that is outside the parameters of what’s allowed in scripture.  The church must be in the mercy-giving business.  If condemnation is to come, let it come directly from God to the individual.  We’re to be mercy, love, and grace-givers.  And because theology is so complicated, I think we have to create space for people to have different beliefs on issues, but still feel at home among us.
The grand issue is calling.  We are called to the cross – to confess and then leave our sins there.  We are call to receive forgiveness and new life.  All these issues and many I have not mentioned turn into idolatries that seduce and endanger us.  God is the destroyer of the worlds that would come about if we forfeited our unity in Christ for the sake of commitment to issues instead of commitment to Him as Lord.  We’re not to be an issue-driven church.  We’re to be a Kingdom-driven church.  We love refugees and speak for the unborn, and we love and welcome straight people and gay people because love is a core Kingdom value intrinsic to who we are. 
Through the Psalms, through the church, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, God destroys some worlds to make room for the world God is constructing, creating.  There’s one line that has daily drawn me back to Psalm 16.  “In your presence, there is fullness of joy.” 
I look to God and say it over and I over.  I sit down to pray and begin with silence.  I try to shut out the noise of the latest rally or protest, the latest outcry or accusation that leaps off the new website.  I get my mind as quiet as I can before God, praying for the Spirit to fill the void.  After a minute or two, I then begin filling the quiet with that phrase, “In your presence, there is fullness of joy.”  I need to remember that God is present and what it means because God is present.
Reaching for that palpable sense of God’s presence, I then proceed into prayer and Bible reading and then into the day.  This yearning for God to be present and make sense of the world that seems to be devolving toward chaos is what led me to the whole idea of the ice berg.  If you haven’t been here, I’ve proposed that our mission in worship has been to seek more and more of God the way we might see more and more of the iceberg beneath the surface of the water.
This not escapism, an attempt to pretend the world’s problems don’t exist.  They do and we Christians must be a witness in the midst of the conversation.  But whether it is the refugee crisis, the abortion question, the conversation over sexual ethics, or something else, we do not come it as people of a particular stance.  We see as if we are standing in the Kingdom already.  We see it in the light of who God is.  Saying that, I do not give an answer as to what view the church holds in any specific case.  Rather, I insist that we who are in Christ view each issue through a prism of love, grace, and mercy. 
The debates over each of these issues that have produced such division turns the issues themselves into idolatries, but we will not be seduced into walking to our own destruction.  We are followers of Jesus who know God is present and thus we keep our attention on him.  We look to the Holy Spirit to know how to think, act, and speak.  And we keep looking back to the Spirit knowing the Spirit is dynamic, always on the move, leading us onto new paths. 
The Psalm itself gives markers both of God’s presence and of who we are because God is present.  In these markers we see the worlds God destroys.  We also see what God makes – a world of beautiful relationships; a world run by love.
The first marker is verse 2 – “I say to the Lord, you are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”  A few weeks ago, I came across a quote that is going to be part of my self-understanding going forward.  My life makes no sense apart from God.  Either I do good and help people because I yield to God love in me and allow God to direct my life, or I rebel against God’s love and thus I live selfishly.  Either way, the only way to understand a Christ-follower is in terms of his or her relationship with God.  Similarly, the only good in our lives is the good God brings into our lives.  Other pleasures will turn out to be relatively harmless forgeries or life-destroying seductions.  We are aligned with God when we can truly say the good in our lives comes from him.
The second marker is verse 5 – “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.”  Originally this may have be sung by Levites or referred to Levites.  In ancient Israel they were the one group not allotted land.  They were assigned to oversee worship, so their food and their provision was mandated in the commandments.  When society was obedient, they provided; thus, God was their portion.
The verse speaks to us to remind us that in addition to giving us all that is good in our lives, God meets our needs.  It’s basic to the Lord’s Prayer.  “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  Through the disappointments and triumphs, life’s wins and losses, God is always present.  God works in our pleasure and our pain, always making us new and preparing us for the eternal Kingdom.
That leads to the third marker of God’s world-making in Psalm 16 and it comes in verses 10-11.  “You, O God, do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.  You show me the path of life.  In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  God gives us good things and our lives make no sense apart from him.  God is our portion, provider of all we need.  And, God’s future for us is rescue from death; rescue to eternal life.
The word Sheol and the concept of the pit are both Old Testament descriptions of death and separation from God.  The idea I’ve been trying to present is that God rescues us by destroying divisions and temptations that separate us from Him.  God destroys those worlds without him in our lives that would arise as we follow those temptations.  Where verse 10 says God does not let His faithful one fall into the Pit, we see a Messianic prediction.  God will rescue the Messiah and we believe that rescue comes when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is resurrected.
First Corinthians 15 says Jesus is the “last Adam,” the “life-giving Spirit.”  As he was resurrected, so will we be.  As his disciples, we have resurrection and eternal life ahead of us.  It’s all promised in this Psalm: all the good in our lives, all our needs met, and rescue from death.  “In God’s presence, there truly is fullness of joy.”
So, we unite in God.  Plenty of ideas and movements, forces of evil afoot and on the move, are jockeying to divide us and destroy us.  The Holy Spirit is drawing us together in Christ because that’s what God does.  We’ve talked about how God is big and relational.  We’ve talked about how God goes out His way for poor and downtrodden people.  We’ve talked about God loves riches and powerful people and they can see that when they see their own brokenness.  Today we see that God is a maker of worlds.  God prepare us for life in a world where love what drives relationships.  We can be active in this world, helping people, participating in causes, and raising our voices.  But whatever we do, our eyes are on God and we step out at God’s prompting, as God clears the path ahead.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1991), Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History, Westminster/John Knox Press (Louisville), p.26.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Compassion of God (Luke 8:40-56

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A leader of the synagogue; that’s how Luke introduces us, his readers, to this man Jairus, who approaches Jesus.  Following Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus, we know that in chapter 1, Mary was told she was to be the mother of Jesus.  In response, she broke into a song inspired by a woman of the Old Testament, Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.  In her song praising God, Mary sings, “[God] has brought the powerful down from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and the sent the rich away empty,” (1:52-53).
Following Luke’s story further, we come to chapter 6 where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; … woe to you who are rich, for you have [already] received your consolation” (6:21, 24).  Luke has told of Jesus engaged in public debate with the Bible experts, the Pharisees.  They accused Jesus of doing things only God can do – forgive sins.  And Jesus did not deny it or distance himself.  He continued forgiving sins and butting heads with them.  Luke showed Jesus doing what only God can do – driving demons out; 1000 demons in one man, and they were powerless before Jesus (8:31).  Jesus rebuked a storm that raged over the Sea of Galilee, threatening the disciples with death.  The wind stopped and waves fell to a silent calm at his word. 
As simple as it might sound the conflicts in the life of Jesus – with nature, with the demonic, with earthly power structures – all these conflicts are manifestations of the battle between God’s good and malevolent forces of evil that try to oppose God by hurting us.  In Ephesians 6 we read, “Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, [and] against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).  What does that mean?
It means there is more going on that meets the eye.  In your life, in mine, the course of history of nations, more is happening than is reported in the news and recorded in the history book.  It means there is a battle taking place we can only understand through faith.  To be on the winning side in that battle, to avoid being utterly consumed by Satan’s evil and death’s final end, we have to know God, worship God, love God, and follow God.  To know, worship, love and follow God, we need Jesus. 
What does this spiritual battle look like?  It looks like an angel telling a young, betrothed virgin she will be the mother of Jesus.  It looks like a storm that threatens lives to obediently cease at God’s command.  It looks like those who suffer being helped to their feet, fed a warm meal, loved, and empowered to live blessed lives in the love of God and the community.  And the battle against the cosmic powers of this present darkness sometimes looks like what we read last week and today in Luke 8.
 It begins with the leader, a person with some measure of power, coming to Jesus.  His power, his position, his authority has been reduced to nothing by an incurable, fatal disease that threatens to take his daughter from him.  Forget all the run-ins Jesus and authorities have had up to now in Luke.  Jairus doesn’t care.  Pain and fear have given him singular focus.  Only one thing matters: saving his girl. 
Jairus comes to Jesus and falls at his feet.  Everyone in the community knows who Jairus is.  Everyone knows his position.  Everyone knows the running controversy – Jesus or the Pharisees?  Whom do we trust?  Who do we follow?  Now here is the main man at the synagogue, the local house of worship.  Here is a man they’ve afforded much respect.  Here he is groveling.  I guess we know where he stands.
But Jairus doesn’t care.  He doesn’t see them watching him.  He only sees Jesus and he sees Jesus through fear-tinted lenses.  And that’s how we must see him.  We must see Jesus as our only hope. 
Word association!  I am going to say a word.  When I say this word, I want you think of a person, a person in the real world – not a fictional character.  When I speak this word, capture in your mind’s eye an image of this person.  Oh, also it has to be someone living.  Not someone from history.  Not someone from the Bible.  Not God or Jesus.  Think of someone today.  See that person.  Concentrate on that image.  Think about that person.  Are you ready?  I will say the word and you fix in your thought the image of the first person that comes to you mind.  Here’s word:  Power.
OK, do you have the image of a person in mind?  Think about that person that jumped to your mind when I said the word ‘power.’  Why this person?  Is this person physically imposing?  Does he or she possess tremendous riches, able to buy any and everything?  Is he or she the CEO of an enormous company?  Or a top military leader?  Or someone with political clout?  Center in on the person who to you embodies power.  
Whomever jumped to your mind is likely someone very aware of the power he or she possesses.  This person undoubtedly feels powerful and self-reliant.  Thus, this person will have trouble acknowledging he or she needs anything, including God.  I think this is why Luke so frequently highlights the idea that those exalted in human institutions, the power-hoarders among us, will be brought low.  They cannot be overcomers in that battle with cosmic evil until they truly understand their own powerlessness in the face of Satan and death.  Only when someone knows he is completely lost and broken can he then rely on God for salvation.  It is hard for power possessors to see their own weakness and dependence.  That’s why it is so hard for the rich to be saved.  They don’t realize they need.
Jairus did.  I don’t believe God inflicted his daughter with a deadly disease.  In ancient times a lot of people died of incurable ailments, including children.  With all the advances in medical science, today, a lot of people still die of diseases, even rich people.  I don’t think God imposes heart failure or cancer or diabetes.  Those evils aren’t from God.  But, I do think God speaks in those moments.  When Jairus the synagogue leader saw his daughter dying before his eyes, he was broken, dropped to his knees.  He was ready to be dependent on God. 
Jesus went with him.  Without a word, Jairus came, asked for help, and Jesus went.  Jesus never brought up the conflicts with leaders.  He didn’t refer to his past accomplishments or use the opportunity to pontificate his own virtue.  I find it significant that Luke doesn’t record a verbal response from Jesus at all.  The next phrase Luke writes ending verse 42 is “as he went.”  God is always as ready to help and to save the wealthy as He is to help and save the poor.  God does not love downtrodden people more than wealthy people.  But it looks that way because those who are down and out are more ready to receive God’s love because they are more aware of their desperate situation.  God loves everyone abundantly.  We miss the good God gives when we are caught up in ourselves.
As Jesus went with Jairus, a woman who had suffered for 12 years came behind him in the crowd.  She had a perpetual menstrual bleeding.  Upon surreptitiously touching Jesus, she was instantly healed.  Her utter poverty and desperation, her unending suffering gave her clear vision.  She could see that God was in Jesus.  She knew He was her only hope.
For Jesus’ part, it was not enough to heal her.  He also had to name her.  He had to look into her eyes.  This is where we ended in this story last week.  A desperate woman is healed as Jesus walks along.  He didn’t even need to stop walking or even be aware of what was happening.  Like a skilled pickpocket, she stole the blessing.  But we cannot steal from God.  He stopped to give a greater blessing.  He called her out.  Trembling, she came.  He named her.  “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Is that was faith is, desperation?  Sometimes.  He sent her away in peace.
And there is desperate Jairus, just waiting.  Has he waited too long?  Luke writes, “Someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer’” (8:49).  That messenger was stuck in the way the world, a world fallen in sin, operates.  We think that when the doctor says, “It’s over,” then it is over.  We accept the limits imposed by human wisdom.  Jesus plays a different game, one in which God sets the limits and exceeds them when God so pleases.
Jesus doesn’t mind that Jairus’ anxiety grows as he stopped to help a woman.  For Jesus nothing mattered more than restoring her life.  For God nothing matters more than a broken person coming for healing, for forgiveness, for hope.  However, Jesus won’t let this messenger’s word of finality crush Jairus’ spirit.  How many times do we surrender to inevitability when we could look to God and to the possibility that God might write an entirely different chapter in our stories?  A better chapter?  A more hopeful one?
Jesus says the words he and angel say throughout scripture to people who are overwhelmed when they meet God.  “Fear not.”  Jairus burned with anxiety when Jesus stopped and gave way to despair when he got the message he’d been dreading, but Jesus will not let that sit for even a minute.  “Do not fear. Only believe and she will be saved” (8:50). 
They arrive at the house and the professional mourners have already begun their dirges.  This sorrow has be done properly.  It’s not just anyone who has died, but the daughter of the synagogue leader.  And underneath the breath of those weeping their showy tears are the whispers.  What sin did Jairus commit that God would punish him by taking his daughter?  No one’s saying it.  Everyone’s thinking it.  Actual compassion is in short supply.
Jesus quiets the nonsense.  “Do not weep for her; for she is not dead but sleeping” (v.52).  The mourners in the story laugh a mocking laugh at Jesus, and in fact, the girl was dead in the sense that her heart had stopped, she wasn’t breathing, and disease had ravaged her body.  But I believe Luke has in mind several layers of meaning at this point.
Sleep and death are an odd dynamic in the New Testament.  Jesus says she is not dead, but is only sleeping.  She was actually, in a physical sense, dead.  In 1 Thessalonians 5, the word “asleep” is a euphemism for Christ followers who have died. They have resurrection to look forward to.  I think Luke embeds the same idea in his storytelling here.  His gospel would have been completed and first read in churches in the 80’s.  Many Christ followers had died.  His framing of this story reminds believers that the ultimate enemy, death, is no match for the power and the love of God.  It is as simple as Jesus walking in and saying, “Child, get up” (12:54).
Luke writes that her spirit returned to her.  It had departed but now came back.  That can happen when Jesus speaks because Jesus is God in the flesh.  And God is uninterested in the victories death claims.  God is a God of the living.  “Child, get up.”  And she gets up and her parents feed her because Jesus tells them to do so. 
The confused crowd had cried fake tears and laughed a mocking laugh.  Now they stood mouths agape.  Crowds want a show from Jesus, but he’s no showman.  When the power of God is on full display, it leave us in awe and afraid.  We are profoundly aware of how powerless we are and how unworthy we are.  The same crowds that clamored to see more and more miracle later on in the story clamor to see Jesus nailed to a cross.  Too much God overwhelms us and we need to maintain control.  In a sense, that’s what the crucifixion was.  Different groups – the priests, the Romans, the crowds – were all aware of how powerless they were before God but instead of bowing in grateful worship and receiving the salvation they desperately needed, they tried to pry control away from Him. 
As Jairus hugged his daughter, he was thankful he made the decision to fall at Jesus feet, acknowledge his desperation, and rely completely on God’s power.  When we come to God as Jairus did, God shows us His power through compassionate acts of salvation.  God does it in God’s own way, in God’s own time.  Sometimes there will be delays and accepting that is part of living in dependence on God.  God’s ways are higher than ours, and God’s timings is more perfect than ours. 
Saying this is not submission to fatalism.  We reach to God as both Jairus and the bleeding woman did.  We beg, we grab, we reach, we pray.  And God, in his power, reaches to us in compassionate love that never runs out.  I do wonder if Jairus continued in his role as a synagogue leader after that day Jesus healed his daughter.  If he did, he was a very different man of religion.  If the crowd couldn’t tolerate his presence and the presence of his daughter, a reminder of how far they were from God, and thus ran him off, I don’t think he minded. 
I pray that this week you will be aware of your own desperation and utter weakness before God.  When you are, then I pray you will see the power of God and it will scare you to the point of silence, mouth agape, eyes big as saucers, heart beating out of your chest, and mind totally blown.  I pray that happens to you this week.  I pray we will all see our own frailty and in our profane smallness, we will then see the holiness of God and scared out of our wits.
When that happens, fall on your face before God in complete dependence, full bodied worship, and absolute surrender.  God will pour out compassion on your until you are soaked in his love because that’s what God does.  God drenches us with blessings and makes us new.


Developing Our God Receptors

            We have sensory receptors.  Our eyes transduce light, our ears sound, and so on.  When it comes to processing the information that light, sound, touch, and the other senses convey to us, our experiences, our temperament, our IQ, our personality style, and our world view all influence how we process the words our eyes read or ears hear.  So then, how do we see or hear God in it?
            At our church, we are spending 2017 trying to see and hear more of God, and even taste and see that God is good (Psalm 34:8).  We want to feel God’s Spirit fill us and wash over us.  This talk of the senses in relation to knowing God is intended to fully awaken us for the sake of knowing more of God than we now know.  It is both metaphor and literal knowing. 
            One of the points I have tried to emphasize is that God is present, is speaking, and is active – right here, right now.  If we can’t hear and see God, it might be because we are too distracted.  We’re paying attention to other things and God in God’s freedom chooses to allow us to choose to ignore him.  Living in America in 2017, there is plenty of noise vying for our attention.  TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter, streaming news, streaming video, You Tube; it all competes for our minds.  With our eyes drawn to all this media, how do we ever focus and see and hear and know the God who loves us?
            We need to develop our brains and then get our brains in tune with our sense receptors so that we are ready to see and hear God amidst the noise.  The first thing to do is to block it all out (temporarily).  This mostly happens in daily devotions.  Get up early when the world is still relatively quiet.  Pray and read the Bible, but before doing that, sit in silence.  Ask God, ‘O Lord, what do you want for me today?’  Then sit in silence and await God’s reply.
            As you do this, you’ll notice a million things that creep into your mind; the grocery list; last night’s football game; an argument with a friend; an important meeting at work; scene from the Netflix show you are binge-watching.  When we try to quiet our minds, even for five minutes, these things and countless others try to jump in. 
One way I have combatted these distraction in my own devotions is to close my eyes and imagine myself sitting on the bank of a gently flowing river.  I am quietly waiting for God to speak.  As I do, last night’s argument with my son parks itself right in the middle of my thoughts.  I do not try to forcefully eject that thought from my mindsight.  It’s there.  So I gently nudge it to the river, and when that distracting thought is in the water, I watch it float down the river, eventually right out of my mind.  Then I am quiet again, listening to God.  Sometimes, my quiet meditation is completely eaten up sending distractions afloat down the river.  Other days, I am able to achieve quiet before the Lord and thus listen. 
After time spent in silence (some days 2-5 minutes, other days a bit longer), then I move into confession, thanksgiving, and pray for things (‘God please help my daughter do well in school today;’ ‘God, my friend’s marriage is falling apart, please help him;’ etc.).  Finally, I spend time reading the Bible.  That initial period of silence before the Lord is the first step in developing my God receptor.  I block out the noise and listen to the Spirit in my spirit.
After blocking out the noise, I then put the colors on the canvass.  Lately I’ve been watching old videos of the bushy-haired painter, Bob Ross.  I don’t actually want to paint, but I find it relaxing to watch him paint and talk about painting.   Bob Ross always begins by painting the canvass with liquid white.  It gets the canvass wet and ready to receive the other colors he will affix to it.  How do we get the canvass that is our mind/spirit ready so that God’s messages will be received and will stick throughout the day?
We prepare our canvass (mind/spirit).  We don’t go into the day with a blank slate.  We color our minds so that when we receive stimuli, it comes through a specific filter, a Holy Spirit-tinted filter.  The coloring of the canvass begins on Sunday morning when the people of the church gather together in worship.  We pray together.  We sing together.  We hear the sermon.  Maybe the sermon is helpful; maybe it sparks push back from you.  Either way, it should stimulate your brain not only to hear the scripture read, but also to think deeply about how the scripture’s message speaks to your life today. 
After Sunday worship, throughout the week, we color the palette by the reading the Bible.  You can read in chunks, several chapters from different books in one sitting.  Or you can reading one passage and spend time reflecting on what it says.  Either way, you’re covering your brain with a layer of the Bible story; that in turn will affect how you take in stimuli that comes throughout the day. 
For example, you hear someone promise to do something.  Trust me!  He says.   This is serious, and I swear on the Bible you can count on me.  You hear that, and somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you remember that last week you read Matthew 5:35-37.  Jesus said, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven or by the earth … let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.”  Maybe you remember specifically that these words come from the Sermon on the Mount.  Maybe you don’t.  But these words of Jesus are on your canvass and in this moment come into play when your friend swears on the Bible and then crosses his heart and hopes to die.
This is a simple ‘for instance’ of how coloring your palette works.  We set our brains by consistently reading scripture.  We come to prayer and to the Bible moldable, allowing the Word of God to shape us.
First we spend time blocking out the noise.  Second we prepare the palette of our brains (our mindsight) through engaged reading of scripture.  A third way we develop our God receptors is intentional looking.  We head into the day constantly telling ourselves, “I am seeking God in this,” whatever “this” might be.  It takes practice. 
Maybe you have a conference with a professor who is making life hard for you as a student.  When you had your devotions in the morning, you reminded yourself to “seek God in this, whatever ‘this’ is.”  As you drove to campus, you again reminded yourself.  But then, in the professor’s office, fighting to not be intimidated while stating your case to the person who controls your final grade, you get nervous.  You are a mixture of anger, fear, and frustration.  You forget all about “seeking God in this.”  Afterward, on top of being frustrated by the meeting, you’re frustrated that it feels like you handled the way anyone would not the way a disciple of Jesus should.  In the pressure of the moment, you totally forgot to ‘seek God in this.’
That happens!  All the time!  Failures are moments where we are more oriented toward the world than toward the eternal Kingdom, but God is a giver of unending grace.  God doesn’t hold our failure against us and we don’t need to dwell on it.  God encourages us to keep stepping toward Him.  Continue, day after day, reminding yourself to “seek God in this.”  The first time you really do it, you’ll be surprised.  You look back at some interaction or experience and realize, “Wow!  I was actually conscious of the Spirit’s presence, and now I can see how God was at work.”

There is much, much more to seeing, hearing, and knowing God.  However, when we begin by daily blocking out the noise, preparing the palette of our mind/spirit, and seeking God in every encounter, we discover just how differently the world is.  When we see live with sensitive, heightened God receptors active, we realize God is at work in the world and we are in the process of aligning ourselves with God.  After a month of consistent, committed execution of the three steps identified here, we see more of God and we’ll see the world differently.  We’ll begin to see from a Kingdom perspective.   

Monday, January 23, 2017

The God Who Stops (Luke 8:43-48)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

          In the sermons, we are in the midst of seeking to see and know more of God.  God is like an ice berg; all we see of God is what is above the surface of the water.  There is immeasurably more of God that is beyond our vision just as the iceberg is bigger beneath the surface.
          So, we have set out on a quest.  We’re on a journey into the unknown – the depths of who God is.  We are invited by God to step onto this path.  To step toward God.  God calls us to seek Him and know Him.
This morning, our quest takes a different turn.  Last week with Job, we pondered the vastness of God.  However, lest we be overwhelmed, we landed at a spot where we saw that God made each of us with intention.

We are created for relationship!  We, humans, are created with a specific purpose.  We exist to be in relationship with God.  There is more to be said about each of us as individuals.  We have each our particular tastes and talents, appetites and aptitudes.  We each have our own stories.  But the link that holds us together no matter who we are, where we are from, or what our story has been is the ‘why.’  The primary reason for your existence and for my existence is relationship with God.  Everything in our lives eventually comes to an end except that relationship.  Our eternity is lived out in terms of how we relate to God, either adopted by him as we received his salvation in this life, or eternally apart from him as we rejected him as Lord in this life.  Either way, our eternal existence is defined by our relationship or lack thereof with the Almighty God.
          This morning we will try to understand this God that calls us into relationship.  There are many kinds of relationships and not all are good ones.  In the movie Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Dufresne first arrives as an inmate at Shawshank prison in the state of Maine, Warden Norton welcomes Dufresne and the other new prisoners.  The warden says, “Your soul belongs to God; your butt belongs to me.”  There is a relationship between the warden and the prisoners.  In that relationship, the warden, through his guards, abuses the prisoners violently.  The prisoners cower before the warden. The warden gives commands.  The prisoners shine the warden’s shoes, clean his office, and do whatever else he orders.  The warden is so all-powerful that even when evidence comes to light that would exonerate Andy Dufresne, the warden steps in. Through murder and lies, he keeps an innocent man in prison so that the innocent man will continue to live as his slave. 
          God, infinitely more powerful than Warden Norton, could have that kind of relationship with us.  I sometimes hear theologians insist that in order for God to be God, God must be good.  That’s a fallacy.  God could be God and be cruel.  We would have no power to resist.  What signs are there that the relationship God created us for is a good thing – good for us?  How do we know God is good?  To get at this, over the next two weeks we are going to look at Jesus, God in human flesh.  How he relates gives us an indication of the kind of relationship God created us to be in.  By looking at Jesus, we will see how God relates to us.

          The account we’ll follow is found in Luke 8:40-56.
Luke 8:40-56
40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.
As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians,[a] no one could cure her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter[b] said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
49 While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” 50 When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” 51 When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” 55 Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. 56 Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened

          Assume that Jairus was a very important man within his community.  At this point in his telling of Jesus’ story, Luke has already shown us a lot.  Jesus had exalted the poor and downtrodden while casting foreboding clouds of judgment over the horizon of the rich and powerful.  He has clarified for John the Baptist that he – Jesus – is the one.  The evidence?  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).  Jesus’s next statement is “blessed are anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Then, Luke proceeds to show how those in power, even with a little power, are offended when Jesus raises up those who at the very bottom, the absolutely powerless. 
This theme never leaves in Luke.  Jesus is the one from God and on God’s side.  We know God by watching what Jesus does and hearing how Jesus speaks.  Consistently, Jesus is for the outsider, the downtrodden, the weak and the defeated.  Jesus opposes the powerful.  As a guest of a Pharisee, he commends the street woman who comes in and washes his feet with her tears and anoints his head with oil.  In doing so, he shames the host who even with his resources did not show such generosity. 
He travels outside of Jewish territory to the Garasene region where he and the disciples encounter a man who is crazed with demonic possession.  A 1000 demons have wrecked this poor soul’s life.  He is relegated to a haunted existence, living naked and wild in a graveyard.  Jesus approaches this man ritually clean Jews shun and superstitious gentile fear.  Jesus casts out the demons and gives him new life.  In the flow of these events Luke shows us how Jesus redefines life.  He tackles prejudice and fear by replacing hatred and avoidance with compassion and hope.  The dead need not stay dead.  Those in power don’t have real power – not the power of God.  Those on the outside are loved by God too.
This all leads up to the return from the country of Garasenes.  No sooner does Jesus get off the boat when the crowd welcomes him, the Pharisees fold their arms and furrow their brows, and Jairus approaches.  He probably wasn’t a Pharisee or a Sadducee.  Luke likely would have described him as such if he were either of those.  What Luke does tell us is he was a synagogue leader.  Following Luke’s narrative, we know Jesus had frequent tension with leaders.
Then the surprise.  This leader falls to the ground before Jesus and begs for a miracle.  He wants his dying daughter to be healed and believes Jesus is his only hope.  Jesus says nothing.  In fact, Luke doesn’t even say much, only the phrase “as he went.”
As Jesus and his entourage of disciples follows this distraught man rendered powerless by disease, the gawking crowd presses in.  There was paparazzi before the invention of the camera. 
A desperate woman presses into the crowd.  No one sees her because everyone is thrilled Jesus is here.  Everyone is driven to get a glimpse, maybe a touch.  In this case desperation is more powerful than drive. The woman worms her way through the crowd and steals a touch, a handful of the fringe of Jesus’ robe. 
For her sake, it is good that the crowd provides anonymity because she’s not really supposed to be in the crowd at all.  She has a blood flow that has not stopped for 12 years.  When it began, she may have been a woman of means.  Luke says she spent all she had on physicians but none could cure her (v.43).  She had money, but it was all gone.  So now, she is a bleeding woman, thus ritually unclean.  She is a social outcast.  And she is poor.  It’s a miracle she had lasted 12 years.  Somehow she’s managed to avoid starvation, but she’s been reduced to a Hell of an existence.  Hated by society, friendless, dirt poor, and in unending discomfort – that’s Hell.  And she wants to get out of Hell.  So, she sneaks through the crowd and grabs Jesus’ robe. Instantly, the blood stops.  She knows it.  She is healed.
Jesus stops in his tracks! “Who touched me?” 
Peter is flabbergasted.  “Who touched you?  People haven’t stopped touching you since we stepped off the boat.  You couldn’t even get two steps onto the shore.  Back you leeches!  Who touched you?  Everyone is touching you!  Back!”
“Peter, chill.  This is different.  I felt power go out of me.”
Now, all the while, remember a couple of things.  Jairus, a very important man whose desperation reduced him to begging is standing there waiting.  The crowds have been clawing at Jesus.  In the midst of that, Jesus stops for someone who needs him but is also afraid. 
Jesus tells Peter with the ravenous crowd listening in, “I felt the power go out of me.” It’s like when you’re listening to a speaker and the speaker into the crowd and says, “You.”  You think the speaker is just addressing the entire crowd, but then he steps toward and you realize, no, he’s talking to me specifically.  You want to turn invisible.  The reason you’re in the crowd is you don’t want to be on the stage.  You want to stay among the faces.  It’s exposing when that speaker singles you out.  There’s nowhere to hide.
The woman comes trembling before Jesus and explains the whole thing, including her healing.  He looks at this rejected, broken, poor, healed woman and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (8:48).  Yes, he healed her, but he also redefined her.  She was untouchable.  Now, she is daughter – daughter of God.  She was alone.  She is now in a family – the eternal family.  Her life was misery.  He sends her on in peace.  And when Jesus says, “Go in peace,” it is more than just a nicety.  He defines her future.  She is one with God and is blessed.
The God who strode with a very important man on the way to heal that man’s daughter as a throng pushed in on him stopped for a woman no one else cared about.  That God made it clear that in that moment, nothing was more important to him than meeting her need, healing her hurt, restoring her humanity, and elevating her life so that she left the encounter knowing she was God’s precious child.  That is what Jesus shows us about God. 
Luke drives this home a few chapters late when in 15 he compares the Father to a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in safety to venture into the perilous wastelands to find the one lost sheep.  That God that seeks to save the lost is seeking you.  That God that stops in the midst of an important mission in order to help one forgotten and to declare her a daughter of God knows your pain.  That God sees you and stops for you, whatever you might be struggling with today. 
Some I talked with this week recommended that I add in a bit about the importance of the fact that the woman risked everything to force her way into the crowd in order to touch Jesus.  What she did is commendable and on blog this past week, I posted a couple of messages I had given in years ago about that woman who made her way to Jesus.  But this morning, our focus is on God.  We’re doing what she did.  We’re forcing our way, reaching, trying to touch God’s robe that he might bless us.
Do we want to see more of God and know God more deeply?  Know this.  The God we seek sees us – sees you.  The God we long for loves us, stops for us, and declares us, in our brokenness healed.  And in our healing he looks and calls us “Daughter; son.”  He sends us with his peace.  That’s God.  Of course there is more, but that is enough for today.
But what about that important man, the synagogue leader?  He’s numb, panic-stricken, desperate, hoping against hope that Jesus can heal his little girl.  He’s just standing there waiting while Jesus stops.  What about him?  We’ll get to him next week.