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Monday, December 5, 2011

Great Expectations (Psalm 85:7-8)

Sunday, December 4, 2011 - 2nd Sunday of Advent

I came up to the home. A serious task was before me. We Christ-followers walk along side one another. We don’t bail out when things get messy in someone’s life. We step into the messes. The person who owned the home I was entering was helping someone make it through a difficult time. I was there to help, to represent the church, and to pray.

Upon entering, I almost forgot why I had come. The home was beautiful. Thinking about it now and thinking about the reality that I live in a home where three children are constantly spilling things and getting things out and not putting things back, and I realize I am extremely impressed by cleanliness. I love my own home more than any other, but I can easily be wowed by something as a simple as an uncluttered room.

But this was more than tidiness. This home was clean, neat, and artfully decorated for the season. The reds, the greens, the thematic Christmas tree; it was beautiful and inviting. I was there because the homeowner and I were joining with someone to help her through painful times. I wish I could have gone back because that home just sung come on in, sit down, and relax a while.

Thinking about brought to mind other welcoming spaces. I recalled recently driving by a showroom and seeing through the enormous windows the large leather chairs. I thought, “What a nice room. I want to go in there and lounge.” Of course the people who arranged that room wanted me to do just that. And if I gave into that impulse and entered, what would they discuss with me as I relaxed in there comfortable space? They would try to get me to buy a car. It is a show room.

I’ve also been impressed with the welcoming, warm environment I have experienced in certain banks. Come on in. Sit a while. And let us hold your money. We’ll pay you, a small bit of interest. Or, if you need some money, you can borrow it. You’ll end up paying us a lot of interest.

Of course not all welcome spaces are intended to sell us a product or a service. Sure, the car showroom wants to sell cars and the bank wants to lend money – nothing wrong there. It’s ok and even pleasing if they create an atmosphere as they go about their business. But, the decorative homeowner is not trying to sell or convince. She’s inviting us. With her painstaking attention to detail in her home’s d├ęcor, with her bright smile, and with her offer of hot coffee and cookies, she’s saying, “Come in and experience our family and let us experience you.”

On Sunday mornings, we strive to create welcome space. From our greeters at the door to the friendliness people have at the coffee pot to the way our elders and members embrace one another and welcome new comers, we are saying “Welcome.” With our welcome comes something very specific.

We don’t sell anything. At the offering time, you can give money. That’s between you and God. I think a person’s life is blessed when he or she gives because he’s acknowledging that God is master of everything – even the checkbook. But, no one who comes is required to give. We’re happy you are here and not paying attention to what you do at the offering time. We aren’t here to sell.

We are not here to have you experience us. You will experience HillSong, but the glorification of HillSong is not our purpose. Nor is fellowship our purpose. Coming, especially on a day when we take communion and share a meal, you’ll have plenty of wonderful fellowship. But fellowship is not why we are here.

No, we create this welcome space so that people might come together in the name of Jesus Christ and pray to God and worship God. That’s why we are here. So come.

Come and worship. Come and pray. Within this house, come to the very specific welcome spot, the Lord’s Supper table. Come with your sin and leave it here. Come to receive – receive forgiveness and salvation and new life. Come.

This is probably easier said than done. We’re too accustomed to people trying to sell us things or trying to get us do thing or join things or pledge our loyalty or our time. From volunteers to sales persons to the government collecting taxes to political parties seeking votes – for forever and a day people come to us to get something from us. Is it truly possible that we can come to church and there are no strings attached? Nothing is required of us?

Is it really possible for us to believe that when we pray something might actually happen? Life is too bumpy, too full of users who want to use us, and too uncertain. Our age is too empirical, too scientific; no, we can’t trust in prayer or in the God who is the object of prayer. Can we?

Clearly church goers do – at some level. Thousands and millions would not come in each Sunday, would not get baptized, would not take the bread and cup if we didn’t think there was something to it. Somewhere deep inside, we believe or at least give mental assent to the idea that in this welcome place, we can pray, God does hear, and God acts in response to us.

Faith becomes vibrant and God is actually seen and known when that deep, latent, sleeping faith awakens and claws its way out from deep inside. It fights its way to the surface. The faith that believes that God is real and answers prayer becomes a more powerful force the bombardment of materialistic advertising noise the hits with blitzkrieg force throughout the year and intensifies from November to year’s end. Our belief in God rises above the noise, and we dare believe that God is going to do the amazing among us here and now.

Craig Broyles, a professor of religious studies, sees a conversion taking place in Psalm 85.[i] It’s odd to think of it that way because the Psalm comes from the Jews who were the Chosen People. Conversion typically means a radical change, like a democrat becoming a republican, or an Israeli embracing Islam. If someone is already a Jew, what kind of conversion would he undergo? In the first three verses, the singer in the Psalm tells of times past when God restored his favorable people through forgiveness and mercy. God has already shown the willingness to do this. The next four verses though, beg God to do it again. “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us” (v.4).

The conversion is the change from an assumed faith to a chosen, claimed faith. One is chosen because she’s Jewish. Broyles suggests that this Psalm calls for one who is of the chosen people by birth to actually make the life commitment to follow God, worship God, and put all their trust in God. Verse 8, “The Lord God will … speak peace … to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

The same conversion is needed by people who have spoken the language of Christianity and even experienced earlier seasons of life-changing faith, but now only hear the noise; the noise of bad news; the noise of purchase, buy, put on layaway, buy on credit; the noise of instant gratification. We are Christians who need to convert so that we become pray-ers who believe in prayer and rely on it; and Christ-followers who follow wherever He leads.

We’ve talked about welcoming space and said that church is a welcoming space that invites us to pray. This leads to an observation from Dennis Tucker of Truett Theological Seminary.[ii] He sees Psalm 85 create pastoral space for us so we can inhabit the second Sunday of Advent. I see it too. The singer of the Psalm goes through a progression. Following his lead, we go through this progression, and the noise starts to fade and our faith starts to rise. Because of what have believed, however weak our belief might have been at the beginning and weaker still in hard times, and because of who God is, the noise recedes and we come to trust that we can truly pray with great expectations.

Already we’ve seen the Psalmist acknowledge God’s past mercy, and then beg for more mercy. He does what we are here to do. In the midst of worship, he prays. Verse 7 – “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” He absolutely, without doubt and without shrinking his faith so it will fit his culture’s dictated worldview, he prays and then expects that he will see God’s salvation. “Show us.”

So, we pray, “God, show us.”

Then, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak” (v.8a). This is Advent. We read the word together, as a community of faith. We believe it. We pray it. We wait, expecting God to act, and we know He will. Jesus was born in a manger. Jesus did rise from death. The Holy Spirit did come. The prophet Habakkuk, “I will stand at my watchpost. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me” (Hab. 2:1). That’s us. We believe God when he says, “My word [will go out] from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish its purpose” (Isaiah 55:11).

We pray, God show us your steadfast love. We wait saying expectantly, “Lord, let us hear what you, Lord God, will say.”

Finally, in our waiting, we know as the singer of the Psalm, God will respond. Even in Advent, we are Easter morning children, resurrection people. We no that no matter how bleak life might look, the Son has risen. Jesus is alive and in him we have life. We can pray the Psalmist’s words, only we have knowledge the Psalmist did not have.

“O God show us.”

“Let us wait and hear.”

Verse 8, second stanza, “For he will speak peace to his people; to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

We come into this welcome space, roughed up by life. Here, prompted by the Psalmist who sung the song of Psalm 85, we are invited to inhabit Advent, the time when we wait believing God will truly come in the person of Jesus. Our waiting is full of great expectations simply because we know who God is and what God has done. There may be wars about in the world and turmoil in the hearts of many who come to church for worship. But together, as we pray together, we experience conversion that leads us to see God as the true bringer of peace who can be trusted. “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him” (v.85a).

I know there are listeners here who feel a shout of AMEN in their spirits at hearing this. This family of believers includes many who have followed Jesus and prayed with expectation for a long time, most of their lives. Others here, might not be so sure. You know the Christian story and you’ve had good feelings in church before. Still, that conversion hasn’t happened, not to the point that you can hear the Holy Spirit. There’s still too much noise of the world in your hears and you think maybe everything said this morning is just spiritual bluster without foundation or true substance. I commend your hesitancy, your skepticism.

This is a welcome place and you are invited. In a moment, Heather will lead us in the Lord’s Supper. As we worship in song, as we take the bread and cup, enter into prayer, even if you are full of doubt. Even if you think I am full of baloney and just kidding myself. Don’t trust me. Look at Psalm 85. Make verses 7-8 your very own.

Come, pray.

In your own heart, straining to hear God above the noise, say, “Show me your Love, O Lord. I will wait. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak.”


[i] C. Broyles (1999), New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Vol 11), Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, p.345.

[ii] D. Tucker, commentary on the working preacher website,

Monday, November 28, 2011

1st Sunday of Advent - 2011

1st Sunday of Advent

Psalm 80
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

7Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The deficit-reduction supercommittee, stuck in a partisan deadlock, faces an almost certain collapse—raising the threat of disruptive military spending cuts and a resurgent public anger at Congress as it struggles with the basic tasks of governance. Barring an unlikely, last-second breakthrough, the committee is expected to announce Monday that it failed to reach its mandated goal of writing a bipartisan bill to reduce deficits over the next 10 years by at least $1.2 trillion. That expected failure injects a greater uncertainty into the nation's political and economic landscape heading into a volatile election year.
That’s from the Wall Street Journal’s online edition, and I only vaguely understand it. I am a citizen and a voter. The Congress talked about in the article is comprised of senators and representatives who serve because enough of us voted them in. Yet, they cannot agree that it is bad that our nation is in debt and has deficits that are unfathomable – $1.2 trillion. Do you know how many zeroes that is?
What I don’t get is the connection; how does the deficit touch me personally, my spending, my bills, my work …
I don’t understand that, but there is someone I do understand. I understand the guy who is up at night, kept awake by questions. He made ‘X income’ in 2008. And it was enough. He and his wife and their preschooler went on a nice beach vacation. They bought Christmas presents for extended family members. They saved for retirement. They paid all their bills. They did not miss a meal. They did not have to dig into savings to do all they wanted to do. They did not have to talk about his wife going back to work just to make ends meet.
The next year, insurance went up. His town added a local tax. Rising fuel costs made every purchase more expensive – heat, gasoline, groceries. And his wife got pregnant. His income stayed the same.
The next year it all repeated. The baby was healthy, thank you God. But, he needed major surgery. So added the story were some medical costs and missed work time. And the income stayed the same. They did save money by skipping the beach and toning it down on the Christmas shopping.
Now it’s 2011, and the income this year is the same – rising expenses, same income. He’s got additional medical issues. His wife is pregnant again. And he wonders … Life is so much more expensive now, and more tiring. We do not have more money. He wonders … last year, we had to dig into savings, just a bit. What’s next?
Author-pastor Eugene Peterson knows the church response to this man. There is only one answer to be found when the people of God gather in the name of Jesus Christ. Sure we do financial management classes. Yes, we have the Helping Hands ministry that gives out money to help when it is needed and we have the money to give. Yes, these ministries and others have their place. But for the man sitting awake at 2 in the morning, wondering, there is but one answer from church. Other places offer other solutions, and church gives more than just this answer, but everything church stands for stands on this one answer. We pray. [i]
We are praying people. The man and the family I described are not suffering – they have not missed a meal or went a week without heat or sold a car and got on with just one. But, he lays awake wondering if significant economic change is just around the corner for his family. And he wonders, if that change is coming, what will it mean? He doesn’t know it, but his forlorn, uncertain, silent heart’s whisper what’s next is a prayer; an Advent prayer.
I feel this pray as I read Psalm 80, a Psalm which does all Psalms do – give us words for prayer. We pray the Psalm no matter what we’re going through. So our friend with the wife and the two young kids sits and wonders and we ponder the circumstances of our lives, and we sit and wonder.
What’s next?
1Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
3Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Restore us? What does restoration look like in my life or in yours? Does the man finally get a raise so that he has more money for the higher insurance and the rising cost of live and the mounting medical bills? Maybe that happens, but that’s not the prayer. From what’s next to Restore us O God – this is not about money or creature comforts. We don’t understand this prayer if we think it is answered because we can afford that beach vacation this year.
Restore us, O God. An Advent prayer. Why? When this prayer is answered, we know it is well in our lives and we see God’s face shining. We know we are saved. Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
I can know the guy who has to stretch his dollar because he has the same amount as always, but prices have gone up. He’s not suffering, but his life style is affected. Anxiety gnaws at the edges of his soul.
I hurt for the person sitting across the aisle from him, the one who has been hit harder. She’s lost her job. That was two years ago. One hundred resume submissions, 90 ignored, 5 rejections by email, 5 after a brief interview, and she can see the bottom of her checking account. It’s not completely empty. A little money is left. But she can see the bottom and she’s scared. I hurt for her acknowledging that I don’t know what it is like to be her.
She comes to church and hears calls for offerings and mission trips to other countries and fundraisers for the youth group. Wait a minute, now! She has so much to offer – time, talent, love. Two years ago, she would have been first to sign up. Two years ago she would have paid the way for a teenager to go to Mission Serve. She is as alive in the church and in the Spirit as ever, but does it mean she has to be less involved.
And how does her pain injure her, but also us. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.
She used to love this season. Now, she turns on November radio and after hearing the latest pop star sing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” she hears the reminder of all the sales at the mall. She’s got a list of people she loves, people’s she’d like to surprise on Christmas morning. Does this mean she can’t participate in Christmas, not like before?
I don’t think it means that, but right this second, we aren’t talking about Christmas as much as we are talking about worship and church, God and pain and people in pain. What is there for this dear woman, this saint of God, who’s been cut off at the knees by unemployment she didn’t deserve and did not see coming?
From time to time, we offer personal finance coaching. Generous folks here will help people when help is needed. These and other ministries are good, but lots of places not called “church” do the same thing. We are called to pray and we turn to the Psalms so we can know what to say when we pray.
The man we’ve been talking about, who is us, prayed Psalm 80. This unemployed woman we are talking about – she is us. What do we do? What do we pray? She needs to go deeper in Psalm 80. She needs a little more and the prayer is there and the answer that worked for him works for her.
7Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
He cried out to God, she to God, the God of hosts. In the Message this is rendered God of the Angel Armies. In the NIV, God, the Almighty. For him it’s anxiety, for her fear, and so she needs more of God. The Psalmist’s prayer which is hers and yours and mine, is reminder that this God is not just any god, but the Almighty before whom all beings in the heavens will bow down. What are the specifics of the salvation God of hosts gives to her? I don’t know! But we trust that it is enough that his face shines and we see it.
Until 2008, I had not seen it, not like this. Any pastor who has more then one month on the job has taken the phone call. Someone is in terrible difficult financial straights, and he swallows his dignity and pride, and he calls. Can the church help with this month’s light bill? He’s a hard working man, ashamed that it’s come to this. What else can he do? To whom else can he turn? We do as much as we can for as many we can while still functioning as the church we believe God has called us to be.
But in 2008, that type of call, which previously might have come in 3 times a month shot up in number. We’ve received 5 times and 6 times as many, so many that we now have a standard, much-practiced procedure for responding. Again, we pray with the callers; we offer as much compassion as we can; we invite everyone to church – people coming for help; people coming to the church to sell us office products; students who rent parking spaces. Through the wise oversight of our helping hands team, we give money to help people.
Every pastor I’ve talked to, and I am pretty tight with 20-30 pastors in North Carolina/Virginia/South Caroline, has experienced the same uptick in this type of activity. In a down economy, those already in poverty have a rough go, and many who were just barely above the classification “poor” find themselves further and further behind. They sink into financial crisis. I have never been in that situation. I don’t know what it is like. I do know God calls – the body of Christ, the church - to respond with the love Jesus shows.
There are many things we can do. We can protect the dignity of all who come through our doors recognizing and declaring that we are all sinners made new by Jesus. We can, as we spend time out and about in town, treat people with great respect and approach others with a posture of humility and love and grace and deference. We can open our doors and open our hearts, and we must.
Ultimately, we are the church and the church prays. I can’t tell the my friend who battles the burden of poverty how to pray. I can’t say what will happen when he prays. What we do is come together, walk to the Psalms together, join arms with one another, pray together, and pray expectantly, truly believing God is going to do something.
The man with the shrinking income prayed Psalm 80, praying to God. The unemployed woman went deeper in Psalm 80. She needs more of God, and she discovered that the deeper into our hearts that we go and the deeper into the Psalms that we pray, the more of God is found. She prayed to God, the Lord of Hosts, the Almighty. Now, the poor need more still and so they go to the well prayer and go deeper, again with Psalm 80 providing the words for the What’s next prayer.
17But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
We pray to God, the God who is over the angels, the heavenly host; he is also Lord, master of all creation. We pray desperate prayers for the brother or sister in Christ who is sinking in poverty. Will the shining face of God be enough? We can’t say until we have prayed Psalms from the depths of our being.
We do know one thing, as we worship together on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of expectation, waiting on the coming of God. We do know this. The Psalmist prayed without have any idea of the specifics of God’s salvation. The Psalmist said, “Restore us, O Lord God.” God came, a baby in a manger, a carpenter in Nazareth, a prophet killed on a cross, God in human flesh. For all people, to all people, out of love for all people, God came.
For better or for worse, hopeful with much joy and not too much pain, we’ll participate in American Christmas this year. We’ll participate in church Christmas. Now though, today, as God’s gathered people, we pray. “O God, restore us.” “O God of hosts, restore us.” “O Lord God of hosts, restores us.” We pray not knowing exactly what restoration looks like. But even not knowing, we pray, and we put arms around one another, and we pray together. And we do know that the God who hears our prayers came and will come again.

[i] E. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI, 1992), chapter 3, p.73-115.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Seeking the Best Thing” (Matthew 26:59-66)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christian author Eugene Peterson has written many books and is perhaps best known for his translation/interpretation of the entire Bible. His work is extremely popular and many of you use it. It is called The Message.

As tremendously talented as he is at Greek and Hebrew and at the craft of writing, Peterson started out as a pastor, and still views himself primarily as a pastor. In the 1960’s his denomination, the Presbyterians, sent him to start up a new church in Maryland. What was then farm country is now DC-Baltimore urban sprawl. The denomination demonstrated vision in predicting a population boom. That boom happened, and Peterson’s church grew to be a strong, thriving, lasting congregation.

But the process of building it was spiritually draining on Eugene Peterson. He longed to help people know God and walk with God throughout their lives. The longer he was at the work of church planting, the less appealing church growth was for Peterson, because church growth involved numbers – number of baptisms, number of new members, number of dollars tithed. He celebrated when a person was born again, truly saved in a new found faith in Jesus Christ. He sensed though that his denomination was more interested in the numbers saved than the individual stories of actual people meeting God. He felt that this work of Church-planting and church growth was reflective of business models and success was determined the way businesses determine success. He wanted to be someone who cared for and grew souls. He felt the denomination wanted him to grow the Presbyterian brand of American Christianity.

He also thought the denomination did not care how he was doing personally. Part of his work was to file a report every month. The first page was statistics. How many calls had he made (this was church planting and he needed to bring people together to form a new congregation)? What was the worship attendance? The second page was to be devoted to Peterson’s personal, spiritual journey as he planted this church. He came to believe that the denominational leaders were only looking for measurable results. So they only read the first page of his report and ignored the subsequent which were much more personal and to Peterson more important.

To test his theory, that he was being ignored, Peterson got creative. In the next report, he filled out the numbers as he did each month. But on the personal reporting page, he wrote in detail about a long, slow slide into depression. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t pray, and had no zeal for his calling. He thought maybe he should consider quitting. Could they recommend a counselor? No response. Of course, this wasn’t true, but he wanted to test the leaders, and they failed the test.

So, he took it up a notch. The next month, he turned the reporting as usual, and then wrote on the second page his personal report. Again imagined, he developed a drinking problem. The congregation graciously ignored it, but one Sunday, one of the elders actually had to complete the sermon. So he felt he needed treatment. What did the denomination recommend? No response.

The next month, he fell into an affair. He was counseling a woman in an abusive marriage, but they ended up together, in one of the church pews. They were discovered by the ladies who came into arrange the flowers for Sunday morning. He thought that was it, but apparently in that community, swingers were admired. The next Sunday, attendance doubled.

It got to be great fun for Peterson and his wife, imagining new shocking things to write that his overseers never read because all they wanted was to see that the church was growing, people were being baptized, money was tithed, and the numbers were up. He wrote in another report that one very unorthodox scholar believed there was a psychedelic mushroom cult in 1st Palestine and Jesus was a part of it and He, Peterson, was going to introduce this drug-use as a part of the church’s worship. And he was changing the liturgy to fit the sex-crazed, drug-addicted culture in which he ministered. Never did he get any response.

The time came to meet with the denominational leaders in New York City. The church plant was successful and the church would now be on its own. The council thanked Peterson for his good work and faithful reporting. He thanked them for all the resources they provided including his paycheck. Then he asked why they had never read any of the personal reports. They assured him they had, but they were caught. He asked why they never sent recommendations when he was in trouble with alcohol. He asked why they didn’t recommend a therapist when he was depressed. On and on, and they had no answer, and they were shocked upon first hearing of the stories of sex and shrooms. Peterson writes, “Their faces were blank, and then confused – followed by a splendid vaudeville slapstick of buck-passing and excuse-making.”[i]

The leaders of the denomination got what they sought – a successful church in a growing area. Were they seeking the right thing? They completely missed a human being, a story, albeit a fictional story. Were they looking for the right thing? Are we?

I always say 30 was the most important birthday of my life because I stopped trying to be “cool,” and realized I never was “cool,” and never would be. It wasn’t really about my coolness one was or another. I started really liking myself, not in a arrogant or narcissistic way, but in a healthy way.

However, at 10 years old, I got it into my mind that I wanted to be cool and that meant I had to be friends with certain people. My real best friends, Michael and Doug, were too familiar to be cool enough. I don’t know why, but I thought Earl was the coolest kid in our class. So when we had sprinting races in gym class, Earl asked me to let him keep pace. I was about the fastest sprinter in that class, which, when you think about it is pretty cool. But I couldn’t see that through my Earl-envy. Earl asked me to ease up and I did because, it’s Earl. I finished in fourth place, not first. The phys-ed teacher chewed me out. He knew I was fast and he knew I was placating my “cool friend.” He didn’t like me jeopardizing my potential for the sake of popularity.

Later, Doug, my real friend, was coming for a sleepover. I convinced him and my mom that we had to invite Earl. So, Doug and I went with Earl to Earl’s house so he could get his sleeping bag. My mom was crystal clear. Earl lived on the other side of Rochester Road. She said, “Don’t cross that road. Wait at the road for Earl to get his stuff and then the three of you walk back.”

As soon as were out of sight of my house, I said, “Hey, we’re going to Earl’s.” Doug said, “Your mom said not to cross Rochester.” But Earl lived on the other side and Earl was cool and I wanted to be cool. That’s what I was looking for! My mom certainly wasn’t cool. And Doug’s coolness factor was in doubt because he wanted to listen to my mom, not Earl.

So we broke the rules and went to Earl’s house and starting walking back and everything was fine until, just on the wrong side of Rochester, we were surrounded by Larry Padget’s gang. Larry was going to have some fun, bullying me around and there wasn’t much I could do about it. Larry took his time in this cruel tormenting game. Right about the time he was going to move from petty taunting to the rearrangement of my face, my dad rode up on bike to see why were taking so long.

He ran Larry’s gang off. Then he told me I had to go confess my disobedience. I wish he had just killed me on the spot. I swear when my mom got that yard stick, it sounded like a light saber being opened. And I learned that Earl wasn’t so “cool,” and being “cool” wasn’t so great.

It took another 20 years before I finally understood – I had been seeking the wrong thing. I didn’t like myself because I tried to live up to false ideal, idols I had created. I was a mostly happy person, but I didn’t find deep inner joy, joy that comes in good and bad times, until I stopped trying to advance myself and started looking to something else as the deepest longing of my life.

I’ll get to that, but I don’t want to jump ahead. What is it we long for? What do we seek? Success that can be measured and show me to be more successful than my cousin or my Father or the guy who was my nemesis in high school? Does my own joy depend on me being better than someone else? What do we seek? To be the best church around – not just a community of faith, but one that is better in some measurable way than other communities of faith? What are we looking for, longing for?

Jesus miraculously cured a man on the Sabbath day, and as he did, he declared himself to be greater than the temple (Mt. 12:6). Upon hearing this “the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, how they might destroy him” (12:14). Later, after entering Jerusalem, with Jesus’ popularity at a fever pitch, the leaders in the temple cannot stand it. “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Him to death, because they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:2). And finally, with Jesus arrested, betrayed by Judas and dragged in chains to the home of the high priest, “The chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus” (Mt. 22:59).

The group that condemned Jesus the night of his arrest, the night before the crucifixion was a diverse bunch. Pharisees on the council concerned themselves with the pure practice of Torah religion. Men of the book and of the law, they could not believe God would send a Messiah who did the things Jesus did, befriending tax collectors, violating the intricacies of Sabbath law for the sake of blessing wounded people, and showing mercy to Gentiles. The Sadducees on the council clashed with Jesus over the theology of resurrection. They also chafed at Jesus’ unapologetic critique of their hypocritical approach to religious leadership. And the chief priest himself, contended with Jesus because Jesus claimed authority over the temple and thus over the interpretation of and practice of faith in Israel. Furthermore, the chief priests and temple elders feared Jesus’ bold preaching would eventually rile up the Roman overlords and perhaps Rome would react against all Jews, not just those of the Jesus sect. For these reasons and many, many more, these disparate groups who were usually at odds with one another all came together seeking the same thing – the death of Jesus.

Normally these religious leaders weren’t murderers. How could their inner longings become so distorted that they actually felt this solution, one that is ultimate and unchangeable, was the right one? They most certainly would have depicted themselves as the heroes if they had written the history of Jerusalem in 30AD. How do good people become villains?

How does righteousness become corrupted to the point that we who consider ourselves faithful come to produce evil? Doesn’t it start when we long for something less than the very best thing?

The Presbyterians weren’t wrong to want to have a thriving, growing church in Western Maryland. But at the cost of neglecting the souls who were transformed in those churches and neglecting the lives of the pastors they sent to oversee those churches …

I wasn’t wrong to want to be friends with Earl. I was wrong to use Earl to make think of myself as cool. It’s a mistake I repeated too many times in my teenage years and into my 20’s.

Religious leaders aren’t wrong to seek out the pure practice of faith in worship and daily living. Religion scholars are not in the wrong when they strive mightily for the right understanding of scripture. But when preachers and priests and theologians and scholars get so caught up in their own rightness that they miss the presence of God when they are the very ones who ought to be pointing out the presence of God …

What are we longing for?

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Mt. 2:1). These were Magi from Persia, and they knew Judaism well. In 6th century BC, many Jews were forced into slavery in Babylon (modern day Iraq) and Persia (modern day Iran). When Cyrus permitted Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem, thousands of Jews returned, but just as many remained for they had lives there. They lived in harmony with the Persians. The Magi took a special interest in these Hebrews.

In this era, unlike today, science and religious knowledge worked hand-in-hand to discover truth. These Magi studied the stars as well as the prophecies of many ancient religions. So when God spoke the birth of Jesus through natural phenomenon, a star, they were the ones to notice. They knew this was of God – the God of the Jews.

Assuming the King of the Jews would want to see prophecy fulfilled as much they, gentiles, they went to Herod “asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” (2:2). We have come to pay him homage.

They came to worship. They longed to bow before the God who produced this wondrous star. I believe these Iranians – that what Persians are – unique people in history discovered in themselves the longing God puts in all of us, the longing to worship Him. Many people replace that longing by seeking popularity, success, power, knowledge, satisfaction in romantic love or career or relationships; we cannot be fulfilled until those things are all set beneath this one thing – the deep desire the pay homage to God.

Departing from Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, the Magi

set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


[i] E. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI, 1992), p.79.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is Jesus who We Want Him to Be? (Matthew 26:47-50; John 3:25-30)

Is Jesus who We Want Him to Be? (Matthew 26:47-50; John 3:25-30)

Matthew 26:47-50

47While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

Why did Judas Iscariot do that? He was paid 30 coins to hand Jesus over to the chief priests. Thirty coins, a paltry sum! Why, did he really betray Jesus?

Each gospel was written at least 30 years after the resurrection. The story was burned into the memory of the core members of the early church before it was written and circulated, and in that story, Judas was the betrayer and nothing more. Whatever good he did in his life was forgotten. This is clear in the way the Gospel writers portray him. He’s always listed as Judas who betrayed Jesus. Didn’t they all flee? Didn’t Peter deny? Didn’t Thomas doubt? Judas is singled out by Gospel writers for special blame, cast as one of the villains of the story by the storytellers. Are they being fair?

There’s always more to the story. Matthew 10 says Jesus sent out his 12 disciples in pairs and he gave them the power to cast out demons and miraculously heal diseases. Jesus endowed the disciples with the power of the Spirit – all 12 of them. That includes Judas. Knowing Judas as he did, Jesus still blessed him and trusted him as he did the others on this miracle-working mission. Along with the other disciples, Judas was able, on that specific mission, to do the very things that Jesus did. It would have been appropriate to refer to him as the Apostle Judas.

We don’t ever see him that way, though, do we? He’s the betrayer, not the apostle. Apostle Peter, Apostle Paul, Apostle John – it just rolls off the tongue. But Apostle Judas? No, that’s not how he’s remembered.

Judas Iscariot – he’s the crook among the disciples. On top of all the gospel authors telling their stories with him as a turncoat from the very first mention of his name, John’s gospel adds to the negative light cast on this unfortunate person. A woman came and anointed Jesus with costly perfume. All the gospel writers report that the disciples criticized the woman and criticized Jesus for receiving her lavish, impractical offering. Only in John’s Gospel is Judas specified as the vocal critic who is all too willing to challenge Jesus.

From John 12

4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9

The narrator’s editorial comments make it clear that Judas is a hopelessly fallen character from the outset and throughout in the story of Jesus. We’re all sinners. Each New Testament book and especially the Gospels make that clear. Each human being, each reader, each one of us, has sin sticking to us, and our only hope is forgiveness and salvation that we receive as a free gift of God given in the person of his Son, God in the flesh, Jesus, the Messiah. That’s crystal clear. What is equally clear is we have hope because of Jesus. But somehow, because of his specific sin, Judas did not.

So, we can distance ourselves from Judas. I commit my sins and you commit yours, but we weren’t the ones who betrayed Christ. We aren’t that bad, are we?

I have to go back to that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas led a band of armed ruffians. He called out the title of highest respect, ‘Rabbi,’ and gave the display of honor so appreciated in the Middle East, the kiss. Why? Why did Judas betray Jesus?

Maybe it really was for 30 pieces of silver. John’s Gospel says he was greedy and had his hand in the till. He wouldn’t be the first person involved in a revival movement that was stained with greed and financial corruption. Sadly, the pages of Christianity Today magazine and other media outlets are often reporting on Christian leaders who fall from grace because they cheated the church, took money that wasn’t theirs. And there are many who don’t steal money, but are simply paid exorbitant salaries and after some time come to think they worth the six figure incomes they receive. At 22 years old, when I first said I wanted to go into vocational ministry and believed I was being called to be a pastor; two different pastors gave the same advice, not knowing what the other had said. Watch out for women and money. I thought it was strange, unspiritual advice, definitely not what I expected. Now, 20 years later, I know why they said it. Sexual temptation and greed are things that destroy followers of Jesus Christ. Maybe we try to read too much Judas’ motives for betrayal. Maybe it was a simple a case of old fashioned greed – 30 coins for the life of Jesus.

Maybe it was more than that. Maybe Judas believed what the Gospel of John tells us he said. Maybe he was, sort of, concerned about the needy. Maybe Judas was a pragmatist who saw 300 denarii worth of coins wasted on perfume that was poured over Jesus, and the excess truly irritated him. He might have stolen some of that money, but he also might have truly given a lot of it to help poorer people. Human beings are that twisted and torn. Made in the image of God, we can show great compassion. And in the next moment, fallen sinners in the heritage of Adam and Eve, we turn around and hurt others. Maybe Judas, blind to his own sin and also blind to who Jesus really was, was annoyed at the generous worship shown by the woman who anointed Jesus.

We could speculate further. In Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out his 12 on the mission of miraculous healing and exorcism, Judas is paired with Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a revolutionary group that wanted to take up arms and drive Rome out of Israel with military force. Maybe Judas was also a Zealot or at least sympathetic to their cause. Maybe he turned Jesus into the authorities because he thought his action would provoke a violent uprising. I am certain Judas did not know Jesus would be crucified. I am positive that in his own mind, he wasn’t sending Jesus to death. I am not clear on Judas’ motive, but I am sure he was surprised by how things turned out.

Whatever his motive, Jesus wasn’t who Judas wanted him to be. Judas did not truly see Jesus as master worthy of complete respect and loyalty, or else he would not have stolen from him. Judas did not accept Jesus as Lord, or else he would not have objected to worship of him and in fact he would have joined in the adoration of Jesus as Peter and the women disciples expressed at different times. Judas did not trust Jesus as leader or trust that Jesus knew what was best, or else he would not have betrayed him. He would not have tried to force Jesus’ hand. Whatever drove Judas; Jesus was not who Judas wanted him to be.

Who do we want Jesus to be? Personal Lord and Savior! No, Jesus is not my personal Lord. Jesus is not mine at all, or yours. I am his. He is the possessor and we the possessions. He is the master and we the servants. Jesus is not our personal god to turn to when we need him. He’s Lord of the universe and our story must conform to His. He is not to be fit into our lives where it works for us. We are to be fully committed to Him.

Who do we want Jesus to be? The one who answers our prayers? Yes, but also no. Yes, we are to pray without ceasing, in all circumstances. Yes, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are interested in the most intimate and small details of our lives. Yes, Jesus answers our prayers. Yes, we are to take all things to him in prayer. Yes! Yes! Yes! However, Jesus is not the divine wish-come-true, the one who gives whatever we want. Jesus is not a catalogue. In prayer, we seek God’s will. There has to be more to our prayer life than simply asking for things. And when we ask for things, we have to be prepared for what God gives. When we ask to have the thorn removed from our side, we have to be prepared to hear as Paul did, “My grace is sufficient.” And we have to accept that, as Paul did, thorn and all. When we ask that this cup be taken from us, we have to be prepared to drink it as Jesus did. He didn’t want to be crucified, and he asked God for a way out. But he finished that prayer saying, “Not my will be yours be done.”

Who do we want Jesus to be? The one who makes us right and others wrong? We’re with Jesus and the world isn’t or “they” aren’t. Is that how we see it? The Muslims, the Communists, the Fascists, the Liberals, the Occupiers, the Tea Partiers … who would we “they” are? Jesus is for us, and against them. Jesus is the one who justifies us as we live for ourselves. Is that how we see it? Be careful! Bible scholars universally identify Pharisees as the conservatives and the scripture experts. In the world of the New Testament, the Pharisees were the Biblical fundamentalists, and Jesus was constantly refuting them, challenging them, and offering an alternative to the way they said one should live. Yes, it is true, Jesus justifies us, but on his terms not ours. Too many Christians create their own picture of the good life and then slap Jesus’ name on it like a bumper sticker. With the “Jesus tag,” they justify a materialistic, self-serving, hypocritical life. If that’s how we see Jesus, we need to go back again and read the depictions of judgment in the New Testament and also the conditions for which one falls under judgment. Matthew 25 and Luke 16 are good starting points.

Who do we want Jesus to be? Personal Savior? Buddy? Prayer answerer? Label to justify the lives we’ve decided to live? Whatever else we might say about Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, we can know this. Jesus wasn’t who Judas wanted him to be because Jesus doesn’t conform to man’s expectations. Not Judas’ expectations or the Pharisees’. Not your expectations or mine. He won’t be who the world says he should be or who the church says he should be. I think the issue with Judas has to do with conformity. We might not each do what Judas did, but do we conform to Jesus’ ways or do we want Jesus to conform to our expectations?

In another New Testament person, John the Baptist, we find another posture to be taken toward Jesus. It comes up in a conversation between John and his disciples, who perceived that Jesus was competing with John for followers. Note how John sees it when his most faithful followers show concern over Jesus’ rising popularity.

From the Gospel of John, 3:26-30

26They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In what situation would we say that our own decrease actually makes us happy, fulfilled? In America today, the most popular sport, by far, is professional football. And the most admired people in the NFL are those who seen as ultra-competitive. Commentators speak in admiring tones when the describe the coach or player is so pathologically competitive that he wants to win at any and everything – checkers, ping pong, everything! He wants to win at all costs. He’s obsessed with winning. We love our NFL and we put on a pedestal the greatest winners.

Now here comes John the Baptist saying Jesus must increase, but I must decrease. John doesn’t care if the Lions beat the Bears next week. John is happy with his own decline for the sake of Jesus’ exaltation. Put more simply, John wants people to forget about him and turn to Jesus. He couldn’t be any clearer about that.

John gets what he wants. His life comes to an end when, after languishing in Herod’s prison, he is beheaded. Everyone who puts Jesus first and dies to self in order to glorify does not die a martyr’s death, but everyone who claims to be a passionately devoted follower of Jesus has to be ready to do just that.

It is a matter of how we approach Jesus. Do we come to him hoping he will be who we want him to be? Or do we come as broken sinners? Do we come seeing him as a loving God who welcomes us with open arms and offers complete forgiveness? In approaching that way, do we have the humility to die to self that we might be made new? Not “a new, improved, better me” that we hear about on diet ads and in self-help books; do we come with such complete surrender that Jesus takes over our lives and we are made new?

Judas died a horrible, lonely death. He was forgotten by all except to be remembered as a betrayer. At the judgment, he will, to his own horror, see openly what he failed to see in his time with Jesus. John also died a horrible, lonely death, but before he did, in this life, he saw the ascension of Jesus, and his joy was made complete. At the final judgment, he will come and see what he already testified to in his life – the love and the reign of Jesus. Then, John will hear these words. “Well done good and faithful one. Enter into the joy of your master.”

May we let go of roles we’d like Jesus to fulfill. May we instead be given eyes to see who Jesus is and when we see Him, may we give ourselves to Him in total surrender.