Total Pageviews

Monday, November 25, 2019

“The Heartbeat of My Story” (Jeremiah 23:1-6)

Image result for Proper 29c

Sunday, November 24, 2019

          Driving around town, I’ve been listening to a book on CD in my car, My Reading Life.  Pat Conroy tells his life story through the lens of the great books that have shaped him.  He begins with Gone with the Wind.  I am not from the South.  I never read that book or saw the movie. 
Have I just spoken a sacrilege?  Why was this book formative for Conroy?  His mother prided herself as a southern woman, a southern lady.  Gone with the Wind was her story.  Writer Margaret Mitchell she did not have Peggy Conroy in mind.  She didn’t know who Peggy Conroy was. 
Once the book came to life, Gone with the Wind no longer belonged to Margaret Mitchell.  It became the setting for all who entered.  Pat Conroy’s mom found herself in this story.  She inhabited it. 
When we read the Bible, we need to enter and inhabit it.  Jeremiah wrote his prophecy at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 6th centuries BC.  God was going to punish Judah for her sins by allowing her to be completely overrun by the powerful Babylonians.  Jeremiah had to say this even though his countrymen didn’t listen, and, in fact, punished him for saying it.
Jeremiah wasn’t thinking about you or me when he wrote.  But, we can find ourselves in his story.  He wasn’t speaking to or for us, but through him, God speaks to us.  Inhabit the story.  Find out what God has to say to you. 
 “[You shepherds of Israel] have scattered my flock, and driven them away.  You have not attended to them.  So I will attend to you.” Attend.  The leaders fail to care for the people the Lord told them to watch.  The Lord, will watch those negligent leaders.  The Lord sees their evil.  When we fail to care for those God entrusts to our care, that is evil and the Lord sees it. 
Jeremiah describes a coming calamity – exile!  But, that’s not all he says.  In chapter 23, God promises a reversal.  God will undo the damage of the wicked, self-serving shepherds.
“I myself with gather the remnant,” God says in verse 3.  “I will bring them back.”  Exile is going to end with the negligent rulers wallowing in poverty in Babylon and the scattered sheep brought back home to God.  God gathers hurting, broken people into a divine embrace. 
“I will bring them back; … they shall be fruitful and multiply.”  God gathers and frees us up to live out His purpose for us.  “Fruitful and multiply;” hear the echo of Eden?  Genesis 1:28, the very highpoint of creation.  God creates human beings in God’s image and gives them their life’s mission.  “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”  Human beings obeyed God and then disobeyed so massively that God started over. God washed all the sin out of the world with the flood and began again, because the plan had not changed. 
Noah is just off the ark, the ground still muddy.  God sees our propensity to sin, yet again declare humans to be His image bearers (Genesis 9:6).  Nothing in all of creation matters to God the way humans do.  After the flood, God repeats the command because the plan has not changed. “You be fruitful and multiply.  Abound on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 6:7). 
God stays committed to His own vision. In Jeremiah 23, God goes right back to it.  “I will bring them back and they shall be fruitful and multiply.”  Adam and Eve in Eden; Noah and his family after the flood; the returning exiles foreseen in Jeremiah 23; be fruitful and multiply.  Human beings, the pinnacle of creation, fill the earth with God’s goodness. 
Now, consider Jesus speaking to his disciples after the resurrection in Acts 1:8.  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v.8b).   Do you hear the command?  Be fruitful.  Grow in Christ and grow the church by leading the people of the world to follow Christ.  We are to fill the earth with the knowledge of God by drawing the world to Jesus. 
After noticing the evil shepherds, in Jeremiah 23:4 God promises new, better shepherds, true leaders, and the people “will not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”  Surely Jesus was thinking of this promise of God from Jeremiah when, in the opening verses of Luke 15, he told the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to seek out and save the one that is lost.   Under the protection of the Good Shepherd, our Lord, none are lost.
Finally, God promises, “I will raise up … a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness” (v.5).  In God’s earth made new, the Righteous Branch, King Jesus, executes justice, but then, He exceeds the demands of justice.  With justice everyone is treated fairly.  Righteousness means everyone gets what he or she needs in order to thrive.
When we inhabit the story, it gets in us.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, we follow our master.  We work for justice and then reach beyond to strive for righteousness.   As we stand in the middle of the layers of moral decay coating society’s walls, we insist on and fight for justice and then take the next step.  Following our righteous Lord, we work for equity and inclusion so that everyone in the flock of the Good Shepherd, every person Jesus died for has the opportunity to thrive.    
Inhabiting the story, we give ourselves to working for God’s righteousness just as Jesus did.  He leaves the 99 to find the one who is lost even when it is that one’s fault that he’s lost. For love’s sake, we do the same. 
We’re sitting in Jeremiah seeing our own story told in the words and story of a Jewish prophet in ancient Israel.  Our lives make sense as we learn who we are through Jeremiah’s words.  As Christians we enter this story through one door – the cross.  Jesus is the heartbeat of this story written 600 years before his birth.  Jesus is the heartbeat of my story, and yours. 
Jeremiah’s story comes as one of this week’s lectionary readings.  The lectionary is a schedule of readings on a three-year cycle.  Each Sunday usually includes an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, Gospel reading, and a New Testament reading.  Jeremiah, whether he fully knew it or now, anticipated the coming of Christ when he wrote God’s promise.  “I will raise up … a Righteous Branch.”  He anticipated Christ at a distance.  In our story, with great longing we wait for the new thing God will do.
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 46, like a blockbuster movie trailer, whets our appetite.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  … We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam” (46:1-3a).  Because God is raising a Righteous Branch, we will not fear. 
The distant anticipation grows closer in the Gospel reading, Luke 1, the speech of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  This is the new trailer, out just a few weeks before the show’s big release.  “Blessed be the Lord God. … He has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a might savior for us in the house of David as he spoke through the prophets of old” (v.68-70).  Rescued as we are, we are freed to serve God. 
Every promise Jeremiah spoke, every great blessing the Psalm sings, every truth Zechariah sees points to the coming of Jesus.  And Colossians 1, the New Testament reading, fills out the picture with bigger colors, a cosmic backdrop.  Jesus, the baby born in a manger, is God in the flesh. 
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all thing in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and before him and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

          We, Jesus’ church, beat with Jesus’ heart.  Working through us, he executes justice, brings righteousness – peace and thriving for all – and defines who we are.  When we point the world to his cross, his resurrection, and to life lived following him, we know we that we have inhabited the story and are living the story.  When we work for good in the world, the story of the Psalm, of Jeremiah, of Luke, or Colossians, and of Hillside is all one story.
          That’s the church at work in the world.  Narrow the focus.  Zoom in so closely, it’s you, staring into the mirror of your soul.  What do you see?  In the very depths of my own heart, I see a sinner who can be petty and short tempered and selfish.  The worst victims of my relational crimes are the people I love most, my wife and my three kids.  And I am the victim of their sins against God. 
          That’s not all I see.  I also see Jesus – right there in the deepest parts of me.  It’s not because my faith is perfect, so mature and developed.  It’s because God is love, the good shepherd who repeatedly goes out to find me when I wander and brings me back.  It’s because when I am at my very best, in those moments, God is actually speaking through me.  So people look at me and see Him. 
          In my best moments, in my worst moments, and in my banal, boring, non-descript-Tuesday-in-February moments; in all the frozen seconds of time of my life, my life only makes sense when seen in light of who Jesus.  All who find themselves in Him would say what I must say.  He is the heartbeat of my story.

Monday, November 18, 2019

"Completed Beauty" (Isaiah 65:17-25)

Image result for Isaiah 65:17-25

Sunday, November 17, 2019

          “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord in Isaiah 65.  A new heaven?  A new, better, cleaner, earth that’s more just?  Who wouldn’t want that?
          I’ll tell you who would want and want it right now: you, the people of our church family.  Last week, the sermon was about resurrection.  At the back door as people were leaving, one worshiper stopped to tell me there were times she felt “homesick for heaven.”  Anyone who’s read Philippians knows Paul felt the same way.  Then midweek, I was talking with another church member who said to me, “I would love it if Jesus came, the sooner, the better.”
          Life can be a real struggle.  That’s why so many of us long to be close to Jesus and relieved of the daily pressures that make it hard for us to thrive.  God’s Isaiah 65 promise to make all things new in some ways is a return to the ideal of Eden before Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  New creation is this fallen world remade, made new.
          In his book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey paints a picture of struggle as he observes giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs on the beach in Costa Rica. 
The turtle reached down in the soft sand, one muscular flipper at a time, to scoop out and then fling the sand behind her.  As she worked her way down, each scoop required more and more effort.  The sand got wet and heavy, and she had to fling it above the rim of the hole she was digging.  Eventually she reached a depth of three feet, her body fully submerged in the sand.  Now, each fling of sand thrust her whole body to the side, and despite her best efforts much of the sand still fell back in the trench.  She scooped it up again and flung it toward the surface. 
Finally, after an hour’s hard labor, the trench satisfied her and she began to drop shiny white eggs the size of billiard balls. 
Her task completed, the leatherback clambered slowly out of the nest and began a forty-five minute process of filling it in with sand.  … Exhausted, she lumbered off, dragging herself toward the sea.  She would never see the result of her efforts.  When the 60 or so eggs hatch, the baby turtles burrow to the surface and make a mad dash to the sea, with only a third surviving the onslaught of coyotes, raccoons, and sea gulls.[i]

          Predators.  Two steps back for every three steps forward.  Limited success.  Fruit for which we labor but never actually get to touch or taste.  Talking about turtles, we could be talking about the myriad speedbumps and roadblocks that make life hard.  Should life be this hard? 
          Life is hard because of sin – my sins, yours; the sins of other people; our ancestors’ sins.  Humanity’s collective cruelty, jealousy, selfishness, and greed shows up in your life and mine in small ways, in our little cruelties, jealousies, selfish words and thoughts, and greedy deeds.  God can see that life is tough and promises something better for us. 
          I don’t know if in the new earth God promises giant leatherback turtles will struggle so mightily just to lay eggs.  I don’t know if there will be giant leatherback turtles in the new earth.  I hope there are.  Our daily struggles and pains won’t be a part of the new earth.  Walter Brueggemann writes “this promised action of [God] [in Isaiah 65] is clearly designed to overcome all that is amiss, whether what is amiss is caused by [God’s] anger, by [our disobedience], or other untamed forces of death.”[ii]  This is how God makes things right.
          Imagine the conditions to which God is responding in this vision.  Jerusalem, having been utterly defeated by the Babylonians, was a pile of rubble.  The city walls were torn down, and the temple was burned and smashed; completely destroyed.  Picture a city like Beirut after a bombing campaign or the trash-strewn underbelly of the poorest sections of the world’s most densely populated cities.  To this wretched condition God says, “I am about to create Jerusalem – the city – as a joy, and its people as a delight. … No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” (Is. 65:18b, 19b).
          Because of disease, poverty, lack of education, and lack of access to healthcare, many places in the world have high infant mortality rates.  This is intolerable and God is more offended and heartsick by this than we are.  So, in the new earth he says, “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days” (v.20a).  In fact all babies in new creation grow up healthy and life spans will be long.  “One who dies at a hundred” will be considered a youth.  Recall the crazy old ages of the patriarchs mentioned in the early chapters of Genesis.  Isaiah reaches back to that era. 
          Also think of places and times when people, perhaps indentured servants or coal miners or migrant pickers and farmers, work but see little to no fruit for their labor.  In unjust systems, the wealthy grow fat off the backbreaking labor of powerless peasants.  Not in the new earth.  “They shall build homes and inhabit them.  They shall plant vineyards and eat the fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit.  They shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall be the days of my people, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (v.21-22).
          The new heaven and new earth is a reversal of the pains plaguing humanity.  God hears every prayer.  Even the natural violence between predators and pray will cease.  “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together. …They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain” (v.25). 
          Philip Yancey talks about living in Colorado compared to the time he spent living in Chicago.  First he describes his wilderness home where he routinely sees all manner of animals and birds outside his window.  He has a front row seat to the pristine purity of nature.  Then he writes,
In downtown Chicago, my day proceeded very differently.  Most mornings began with a run through the park.  I saw few animals, other than squirrels and pigeons. … I saw instead winos and homeless people sleeping under newspapers and smelly blankets; prostitutes sleeping in doorways next to discarded condoms; well-dressed yuppies standing in neat lines at bus stops; foreign-born nannies pushing the carriages of those yuppies’ children; garbage collectors, janitors, street sweepers, sewer workers, and others who perform the undesirable jobs that keep a city running.[iii]

          Aesthetically, the Colorado wilderness holds more appeal than the grimy inner city streets.  But the image of God is not in the red squirrels, gray foxes, and brown bears Yancey admired from his warm home.  The image of God resides in the yuppies, nannies, prostitutes, and sewer workers.  God created nature’s most spectacular beauty to be enjoyed and admired by each of those millions of city dwellers, his image-bearers. 
          We know that out of His great, grace-filled love for us, God will eventually restore the world.  The wretched underclass will enjoy creation’s splendor.  That new creation will come at the end of history when Jesus returns and we join him in resurrection.  How does God begin now the work of ushering in His eternal kingdom?  God works through His body, the church. 
          We are the tellers of the redemption story - God in human flesh, Jesus; his tragic but necessary death on the cross, and his spring morning victory at the empty tomb; Easter!  We are God’s story-tellers.
          We are the inviters.  In Isaiah 60:3 God declares that the nations will come to Israel’s light.  The world will be drawn to the gathering of the people of God, which in our day is the church.  But for the world to know that God can be worshiped and loved and know, we need to invite. We need to tell God’s story and actively, energetically, invite people to hear our telling of it.
          We are the point of contact where a lost and dying world meets the Savior God.  Jesus’ final command to the disciples and continuing commission to us is “go and tell.”  Obeying this command, we help people see beyond the temporary world as it is to the eternal world of God’s blessing so many are currently unaware of even when they get little glimpses.  We are where the lost world meets the Savior God.
          New Testament scholar N.T. Wright thinks of it this way.  In an attic, a collector finds a faded manuscript of music written for piano.  He contacts a dealer who sees it and then contacts another expert.  They all put their heads together pondering this score, sure that what they’ve found is a previously unknown work by none other than Mozart. 
          How wonderful!  A new work by greatest composer ever.  Yet, as they study it, they realize it seems incomplete.  There are long periods of rest, and it dawns on the collectors and dealers that what they have is indeed by Mozart, but it is written for more than one instrument.  They only have the piano part.  What’s the other instrument or instruments? Cello?  Violin?  Flute?  “If those other parts could be found they would make sense of the incomplete beauty contained in the faded scribble of genius now before them.”[iv]
          When God finishes re-making the world, his earth and his heaven made new and brought together, we, his image bearers, his church, the body of Christ, will become His completed beauty.  Until that day comes, we lean toward it, pray for it, anticipate it, and invite each other and those outside the church to imagine it and find hope in it. 
          Until that day comes, we work for justice and help one another with the struggles of our day.  They are real but so too is God’s promised new creation.  It makes sense that we would long for it.  God placed that longing in us.  That longing drives us to look to God constantly and reflect his hope to the world.

[i] P. Yancey (2003).  Rumors of Another World: What on Earth are we Missing?  Zondervan (Grand Rapids), p.47-48.
[ii] W. Brueggemann ((1997).  Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.549.
[iii] Yancy, p.53.
[iv] N.T. Wright (2006).  Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.  HarperOne (New York), p.39-40.

Monday, November 11, 2019

We Share Hope (Luke 20:27-40)

Image result for Luke 20:27-40

Sunday, November 10, 2019

          His name was Wendell.  Everyone called him ‘Rip.’  Rip  was in the same church for over 40 years.  I was the under 30 pastor of just a couple of years. 

          Be patient with pastors under 30.  They’re full of energy and excitement.  They want to win the world for Jesus.  Let their energy energize you.  But, they don’t know much.  So, give them a lot of grace.  One guy in the church affectionately called me their “boy” pastor. 

          Ninety-year-old Rip was much healthier than a lot of the octogenarians and septuagenarians in the church.  His beloved wife Elizabeth, 87, was not in good shape.  Shortly after her funeral, Rip, clearly, shaken, came to ask me, his “boy” pastor a theological question.  “Rob,” his trembling voice said, “Do you think in Heaven we’ll get to see the people who died before us?” 

          I don’t remember how I answered.  I could see that Rip was trying to cope with the deep sadness he felt in burying his bride of more than 60 years.  The question is one that’s been asked since the beginning of time.  Once this life is over, will we see our loved ones again.?  In his song “When I Get Where I’m Going,” Brad Paisley sings, “I’m Gonna walk with my Grandaddy.  And he’ll match me step for step. And I’ll tell him how I’ve missed him every minute since he left.  And then I’ll hug his neck.”  It’s something we all want.

          Five weeks from today, we relaunch our congregation as Hillside Church.  What will this new thing be all about?  It’s about what we say and do.  At Hillside, we follow Jesus, love others, and share hope.  Zoom on that last word – “hope.”  What is the substance of the hope we claim to have and share?

          Will I get to see my loved ones when I get where I’m going?  Will Rip still be Elizabeth’s husband?  Can I play catch with my great-grandfather, the only Detroit Tiger fan I know who watched Ty Cobb play?  Paul addressed this concern directly in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.  He assures believers we will reunite with those who have preceded us in death.  Jesus does not deal with this question in his confrontation with the Sadducees in Luke 20.  However, when we read a story like this, the question of afterlife comes to mind..

          Several things happen at the end of Luke 19 and into chapter 20 that set the course of the story leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  He weeps as he enters Jerusalem because God’s people fail to see what God is doing to save them from sin and death.  Next, Jesus enters the temple and violently evicts the moneychangers.  That week he daily taught in the temple court.  As he did, chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the people looked for the opportunity to kills Jesus, but were thwarted because he was so popular with crowds that were spellbound by his teaching.  

          Included in this leadership group opposed to Jesus were two political parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  They generally hated each other.  The Sadducees were a wealthy, elite class and held most of the power.  There were more Pharisees.  They held greater influence in the countryside and outlying villages.  For all the confrontations Jesus had with Pharisees, he was much closer in thought to them than to the Sadducees. 

          The Sadducees only accepted Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the Torah.  They did not consider the Psalms or the prophets to be scripture.  Resurrection is not mentioned in the Torah, so the Sadducees had no place for it in their theology.

          By Luke 20:27, temple leaders have challenged Jesus’ authority and he has rejected theirs, calling them hypocrites and seeing them as opposing what God was trying to do.  The Sadducees wade into the arena.

          In Deuteronomy 25:5-10, a passage the Sadducees would have revered, it is decreed that if a man dies his wife shall marry his brother.  She is required to do this.  Any children the wife has with the brother will be credited to the man.  That man’s name would be remembered in Israel by his offspring.

          Marriage was not the result of romantic love.  Marriage was for procreation.  The woman probably had not chosen her first husband.  She was probably given to him by her father.  However she ended up marrying him, if he died, she had no choice.  Her duty was to marry his brother and have children with that brother so the original husband’s name lived on.  Marriage was for procreation.  The woman had no choice.  And the way one’s name lived on was in his offspring.

          Based on that law, the Sadducees came up with a hypothetical situation.  The oldest of seven brothers gets married, but dies childless.  The next brother does his duty and marries the woman, but also dies childless.  This continues until all seven and the woman are dead. 

          The Sadducees are so smart.  They’ve come up with a real doozy that will knock Jesus off his perch and will quiet their rivals, the Pharisees, who very much believed in resurrection just as Jesus did. 

          So, who does the woman belong to in the resurrection?  Jesus upends the Sadducees and their challenge by explaining that the age of resurrection is different than the present age, the age of death. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, sin has been in the world, causing corruption and degradation of all living things, and bringing death.  This is a theological understanding of the world, not to be understood in place of the scientific explanations for the origin of the earth, the theory of evolution, or the way biology understands life cycles.  Read theologically, we see in Genesis the origin of sin and the way sin brings death.

          The present age lasts from the day Adam and Eve sinned to the end of history, the final resurrection, and the full inauguration of the eternal Kingdom of God.  The point Jesus makes in responding to the Sadducees is that the age of resurrection is fundamentally different than this age.  How?

          In this age we get married.  In Jesus’ day, marriage was for procreation and in ancient Israel it was to carry on a man’s name through his children.  Why?  In this age, the man would die.  In the age of resurrection Jesus says that man will not die.  No one does.  So marriage is irrelevant.  Procreation is not needed to carry on someone’s name. 

          One other fundamental difference: the woman will not be given in marriage by her father.  She will not be a possession of a husband required to do his bidding.  She will live freely as a child of God.  Jesus says she will be like the angels in this sense: she will not die. 

          Jesus was not saying she would become an angel. In Christ, we are sons and daughters of God, made in the image of God.  Angels are God’s servants, but are not God’s image bearers.  When we die, we do not go to heaven and become angels.  Hebrews chapter 1 is quite clear on this, and it is evident in the book of Revelation and other places.  We human beings fundamentally are different than angels.  In resurrection, we become more human – more of what God intended when creating humans in the first place. 

          That’s the hope on which we stand.  In Christ, we know that resurrection comes after death.  In resurrection, our physical bodies rise, take on flesh, are recognizable but also different.  We can be touched, but also can pass through locked doors as Jesus did after he rose in resurrection. 

The Bible does not promise that we go to Heaven when we die.  The Bible doesn’t tell us much about what happens to the soul at a person’s death.  From a few passages we can glean the after death our experience is in Jesus’ care and is peaceful and without suffering.  At funerals a grieving person will say of his lost loved one, “Well, she’s in a better place.”  I don’t know if it can be described as a “place.” All I can say with confidence is that our beloved dead are in the care of Jesus.  And that’s enough.

The Bible promises at the end, after this age is over, we rise as Jesus rose.  Our resurrected bodies cannot die, a point Jesus makes to the Sadducees.  We are free to live in joyful relationship with God and with each other.  Will Rip and Elizabeth again be husband and wife in the resurrection?  Jesus says no.  But, as Paul indicates in 1 Thessalonians, they will be together along with all of us who follow Jesus.  The reunion will be more joyful than relationships we have in these age, even our closest ones.  

Following Jesus and loving others, resurrection is the centerpiece of the hope we share.  It means freedom –oppressed people in this life will be liberated.  It means complete health as our bodies cannot be injured or killed; we are eternal. 

As we live here and now, awaiting that glorious day, the materialistic values of this age hold no sway over us.  As we live here in Christ we are already getting glimpses of resurrection joy that will be ours eternally and those glimpses of God shape who we are in the present.  We have a mission to glorify God and draw others to him that they might know the salvation he gives.  When we get hurt, and we will, or we meet others in pain and they’re all around us, we comfort each other, share with one another the love of Christ, and help each other see the promised eternity before us. 

We feel sadness.  We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We have eternal hope for ourselves and those whom we love.  At Hillside Church, we share that hope with a dying world that badly needs it.