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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Keep Your Eyes on Jesus

Luke 19 Commentary | Precept Austin

            Do you remember the spiritual disciplines you committed to practice at the beginning of Lent this year, way back in late February?  With all that’s happened with the coronavirus, it seems like a lifetime ago!
            My commitment was to renounce worry.  Through worship, Bible reading, and a constant focus on the Holy Spirit, I would rest confident in who I am in Christ and edge worry out of my life.  After I made that commitment, I found out I would need ankle and foot surgery that would leave me disabled for over a month.  Would I have made such a commitment knowing that was coming?
            And then, the virus came.  The world has been blanketed by this virus that seems like nothing we have ever seen.  We are living in a time none of us, none of us, could have imagined.  We don’t know when “social distancing” will end and stay-at-home orders will be relaxed.  We don’t know what life will be like when this crisis passes.  The unbearable uncertainty leaves us isolated, speechless, and frustrated to name just a few of the feelings.
            Renounce worry? 
            Now put yourself with Jesus and the disciples.  As you turn the page to Matthew 21:1, put yourself in the story.  He knew the cross lay ahead of him.  He had forecast his death numerous times (Matt. 16:21; 17:22; 20:17-19).  The disciples had no idea.  They could sense, I am sure, something was coming.  But I am equally convinced they had no idea what, and did not know if it would be good or terrible.
            For his part, Jesus moves forward with purpose.  His certainty may not inspire confidence in his disciples, but they follow his instructions without hesitation.  “Go into the village ahead of you … you will find a donkey and a colt … bring them to me” (21:2).  They do exactly as he directs, and events proceed exactly as he says they will. 
            Jesus’s stoic posture does not mean he was emotionless.  His fury in the temple (21:12-13) and anguish in the garden (21:38) indicate how deeply he felt and how heavily he carried the burdens of the world on his shoulders.  His death, the need for it, the disciples’ misunderstanding, the crowd’s rejection – it all mattered to him more than we can comprehend.  If anyone ever had cause to worry to the point of madness, Jesus did.  But, he didn’t.
            Thus, is the conclusion that in order to practice the discipline I committed to, renouncing worry, I must just find in myself the resolve Jesus demonstrated?  Not at all.  That would be impossible.  The fierce focus of Jesus isn’t in me.  I cannot will myself to it.  The disciples couldn’t.  No one can.   Uncertainty drives us to disillusion, panic, and despair.  Then how do we proceed?  In the face of life’s horrors, including the current pandemic pounding fear into the hearts of people the world over, how do we step into the future?
            The disciples could not have answered that question.  They did the only thing they could do.  They kept their eyes on Jesus.  They only fell completely apart when he was arrested, taken from them in the Garden of Gethsemane.  When they lost sight of him, they scattered.  They came back together after the resurrection, when they again were able to see him.
            That story now moves into our story.  He has risen; he has risen indeed!  This truth enables us to inhabit the story of the “triumphal” entry, the “cleansing” of the temple, the Gethsemane abandonment, and sorrow of the cross.  We live each chapter of the story, eyes fixed on Jesus, knowing that the cross can’t keep him down because he is life. 
Thus, in our story, when stepping forward is terrifying because the ground might crumble beneath our feet and the earth might swallow us, we set our eyes on Jesus.  Are we scared?  Of course. Is it tempting to curl into the fetal position or, paralyzed in defeat, simply await the final catastrophe?  Sometimes.  But we don’t do that.  We do not withdraw from life.  We do not give into fear.  We do not obey dread as if it were our master.  We already have a master.  With all our insecurities and, yes, worries, we step forward with our eyes on him because he is life. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

From Darkness to Light (Ephesians 5:8-14)

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Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Lent 4 – Sunday, March 22, 2020
*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            Jesus did not practice good “social distancing” at all!  He spits and then, with some mud, rubs it right in the guy’s eyes!  How many times in the midst of this Corona Virus crisis have we been told to maintain a safe 6-foot distance between ourselves and others?  How many times have we been told not to touch our eyes?  Jesus rubs his own spit in another guy’s eyes!
            Ephesians 5 could not be clearer.  Verse 1, “be imitators of God.”  Verse 8, “Live as children of the light.”  What do we do?  Imitate Jesus, or listen to public health officials?  Ephesians 5:6 says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words.”  Are the empty words from everyone worried about COVID-19?  Is it as simple as trusting in the Lord?
            Of course we must trust in the Lord with all our hearts.  Of course we must not rely on our own understanding.  The Lord will make straight our paths.  We must also practice our faith with wisdom and discernment.  I’ll tell you what would be deceptive, empty speech.  The person who says, “Jesus spat in the blind man’s face, so we can too!  Don’t worry about this Corona nonsense.  God’s got this.”  The person saying that is a liar and deceiver. 
Yes, God has the world in His hands.  Yes, God is bigger than the Corona Virus.  Yes, Jesus performed miraculous healings.  We don’t know why in one case, he spits on the ground and rubs mud in the blind man’s eye, and in another in another story he heals a royal official’s son who lays dying an entire city away.  More than just appropriate social distance, in that case Jesus heals over a significant distance.  Why can he do that, but then with this blind guy, he needs to rub spit and mud in his eyes?  We don’t know.  There’s no science to miracles, only faith.  So, we shouldn’t try to repeat miracles the way scientists repeat experiments in the lab.
Rather than try to itemize lessons we glean from Jesus’ actions, might we grow more if we enter the story and allow the stories of Jesus to fill the stories of our lives?  He loved this blind man who had been rejected from community worship and blamed for his blindness.  Who around us is rejected?  Who do we know who has been blamed, rightly or unjustifiably?  How can we, like our Lord, welcome the one who’s been rejected?
One of the core teachings through out Ephesians is the movement from darkness to light.  Sin leads us to satisfy our own cravings without regard for the wellbeing of those around us.  I will satiate my lusts, at your expense.  If I need sex, I’ll use you for it without any care for your soul or your humanity.  If I fear going hungry, I’ll hoard food, watch you starve, and feel happy that I am full. 
That’s living in darkness.  I am driven by my greed.  If I realize that sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer will become an essential item for people’s health, I’ll buy it all up and then sell it at 100 times its worth. I’ll do the same with toilet paper and any other essential item.  People need these things, so they’ll pay whatever I charge.  If they can’t, no problem for me.  I’ll sell to the few rich who can.  And then I’ll be rich myself!
If I need to get my party on, I’m going to the bar with all my friends.  I don’t care that the CDC has urged that places where the public gathers be shut down.  I am not in one of the high-risk groups.  I could even get the virus and I probably wouldn’t get very sick.  Besides, I think the (insert the political party you hate here); I think the ____ party is just hyping this anyway. 
Where Ephesians 5:8 says, “once you were in darkness,” this is what is meant by ‘darkness.’  At the end of John 9, the conclusion of the episode of Jesus and the blind man, he says, “I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Those who do see, as he describes them, are those who think they have it altogether.  In John 9, it was Pharisees who thought they already had a handle on who God is and what God requires.  They could never receive grace because in their sense of their own rightness, they couldn’t see that they needed it.  So, they remained in darkness.
When we fail to see how desperately we need the grace God gives in Jesus, we too remain in darkness.   Hoarding of essential goods or ignoring warnings from public health experts are examples from the current crisis of people willfully staying in the dark.  When this crisis passes, people will just as willfully ignore their need for God.  But the world won’t pay attention because the world is dying in sin, determined to shut God out.  The COVID-19 crisis does heighten the darkness of the world, but really, the world is always in darkness.  Confession and repentance are Lenten practices we undergo every year because we need to.  Confession and repentance are normal parts of the lives of Christ-followers, because sin constantly tempts in order to lock us all in a deadly vice grip.
Look again, however, at what Ephesians 5:8 says.  Once we were in darkness.  But what has happened?  In Jesus, God has walked the dusty pathways and highways of the earth; God in human flesh.  Through his words, actions, and relationship, Jesus teaches us how to live, how to love.  In his death, Jesus takes on himself the darkness.  The sins of the toilet paper hoarder and the hand sanitizer hoarder are nailed to the cross.  The sinful words you hurled at your family members as cabin fever has driven you to madness are nailed to the cross.  On the cross, Jesus takes our darkness on himself and defeats it.  In resurrection, he shines the light of eternal life.  Once we were in darkness, but, says Ephesians 5:8, “now in the Lord, [we] are in the light.”
The change has happened.   We are born again, new creations, adopted sons and daughters of God.  Verse 8 goes on to say, “Live as children of the light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” From the time we give our hearts to Jesus and commit to living under His lordship, the resurrection is our story.
How does the resurrection play out in a Coronavirus America?
I urge that we use the technology available to share God’s love.  Spread love on Facebook.  Don’t use Facebook?  Spread God’s love on Instagram.  Are you like me and don’t use Instagram much?  Spread God’s love on Twitter?  Or through emails.  Or through texts.
And call people.  Social distancing prevents in-person contact, but we can still hear each other’s voices.  I urge every Hillside Church member and attendee to call at least two people you know from church.  If we all do that everyone will have two conversations with their brothers and sisters in Christ today.  It doesn’t have to be long.   Call someone and ask, “How are you doing?”  “How can I pray for you?”  That’s enough to let them know you care for them and to inform your prayers for them.  If we all do this, no one will go untouched.
If you need numbers or contact info, let me know.  I’ll help connect you with your church family so we can be actively praying for one another.  Ephesians 5:10 says “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”  I guarantee you the Lord is pleased when we express love for one another and when we pray for each other and encourage each other.  And because we live in an age of countless ways of connecting, social distancing does not need to mean isolation. 
Another way we can live in the light as resurrection people in the age of the Corona Virus is volunteering.  Observing correct social distancing protocols, you can volunteer either with our church food pantry or with one of the sites that provide daily lunches for Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools students who rely on school lunches.  COVID-19 does not need to mean people go hungry.  You can help us get food to people who need it.  Contact me or my wife Candy or our ministry assistant Dina for ways you can give of your time to these ministries. 
Finally, our stories are marked by prayer.  Call someone and pray for them over the phone.  Set aside time every day to pray – prayers in which you praise God; prayers of confession and repentance; prayers in which you pray for our community and our world, and prayers of thanks for the ways God has blessed you.  Join our Thursday night prayer group on the Zoom calls, every Thursday night at 7PM.  Contact Beth Roberts or Hong Zhou for more information on how to join those calls.  If you don’t know how to get in touch with Beth or Hong, contact me and I’ll get you their information.
By the way, I’ve several times in the closing of this message invited you to contact me.  My number is 919-357-0211.  If you text, me, identify yourself in case I don’t have your number in my phone.  My email address is
The story of our time is the way the Corona Virus has hit the entire world.  But, we are no longer in darkness.  Because Jesus has come, we walk in the light.  We live out the Corona Virus story as children of God, resurrection people.  The story then becomes what all stories are for us: a story in which we stand in the light of Christ.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Food and Word - We Need Both

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“Give them Something to Eat …” –
Lent and food (3-2-2020)
            In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, theologian Stanely Hauerwas reads the feeding miracles and writes, “food and scripture are inseparable” (p.139).  Does this mean we need to keep a bowl of peanuts handy for whenever we read the Bible?  Not necessarily.  Rather, what’s important is to be God-aware all the time, including when we eat. 
            We don’t have to think about eating.  Instinct tells us to do it.  Hunger drives us to open our mouths, chew what goes in, and swallow.  During Lent, some Christians might include fasting as a spiritual discipline.  In this act we go against our nature.  For the sake of clarifying our focus on our need for God, we go without the food our body craves for periods of time.  Does doing this really help us grow in faith? 
            Jesus fasts as a spiritual discipline.  His effort is almost superhuman, going 40 days without eating (Matthew 4:2).  The devil tempts Jesus to quit the fast by miraculously producing food for himself, but Jesus responds, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  Inseparable indeed; Jesus believes God’s word is more essential than food for life.
            In Matthew 14 & 15, he is teaching large, large crowds, gathered in the wilderness, away from settlements.  No time limits govern him, and he expounds upon life and God’s word and faithful living, speaking up to and through the time of the meal.  He feels that what he teaches is as important for people as the food the crowd needs to eat.  Then, demonstrating the power of God and the importance of staying attuned to God’s word, he blesses five small loaves (picture circles of pita bread) and two fish.  Thousands are fed to the point of being full, and there are baskets of leftovers. The goodness from God will never run out. 
            The idea of endless provision is one take-way from the miracle feeding stories in Matthew.  Another takeaway is the high value Jesus places (and we should place) on the word of God.  Tying food and word together, Jesus demonstrates that there is no separation between body and soul.  In Christ, we are embodied.  Our bodies are not shells to be shed, but parts of ourselves.  In resurrection, our bodies are redeemed and made ready for the eternal kingdom of God. 
            So, fast sometimes and feast at other times.  In times of fasting and times of feasting and times in between, be awake to God’s presence.  Be attuned to who you are in Christ.  The normalcy of life is bathed in our faith when we give ourselves to Jesus.  No place or activity is truly profane when the Holy God is always with us. 

Allows these stories of Jesus from Matthew to awaken you to His presence in your life.  

"Hillside Trust" (Matthew 4:1-11)

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Sunday, March 1, 2020 – Lent 1

            “Then the devil left him, and angels came and waited on him.”  That’s the end of the story.  Put yourself way out in the desert in Jesus’ shoes.  Instead of it being Jesus, it’s the same story, but you’re the one who’s out there. 
You’ve fasted to the point of being utterly famished, no food for 40 days.  The devil comes when you are at your weakest.  What’s God doing to help you through this impossibly hard trial?  You gut it out.  You stay faithful to God.  You stay true.  Finally,  the devil gives up for the time being and departs.  And then the angels come with assistance.  If it were me in Jesus’ place, I would have wanted help much earlier.
            Following Matthew’s story, we have just seen Jesus raised up out of the waters of the Jordan river.  Dripping wet from his baptism, he then saw the Heavens opened, the Holy Spirit came down, and a voice from Heaven, God the Father, said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). 
This did not happen when I got baptized.  Do you remember your baptism?  Mine came in summer of 1981, and in my memory, it has a mystical quality, but nothing like what we see in Matthew 3.  The Holy Spirit and the voice of God the Father combine to validate the arrival of God the son.  It’s a trinitarian moment and an incarnational moment all in one!
            But then, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  No navy SEAL training can compare with the ordeal Jesus had to endure in preparation for his ministry.  Forty days of fasting left him famished.  Add to that that he was way out in the wastelands.  Out there, you need sustenance so you have the energy to make the grueling hike back to civilization.  He didn’t soften the edges of his life to make the extreme fast more bearable.  He didn’t situate himself in comfortable surroundings.  He fasted to the point of collapse while desert walking.  At his weakest, that’s the point the devil showed up.
            The devil’s temptations of Jesus recall the serpent’s visit to Eve in Eden, found in Genesis chapter 3. 
            The serpent asked Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’” (3:1)?  From that very minute she was in trouble because of what she didn’t do.  She did not say, “Hey, God, help me here.  I don’t know this serpent and He’s calling your promises into question. What do I do?”  She didn’t do that.  She looked at that serpent and she thought, “I got this.”
            She explained to the serpent that God gave plenty of fruit trees and that they were only to avoid the one in the center of the garden for if they ate from that one, they would die.  The serpent said, “You will not die.”  Again, Eve didn’t say, “Hey, God, help me.  This thing just told me something different than what you promised.”  She didn’t do that.  Instead, she started thinking about the serpent’s ideas.  “Your eyes will be opened.  You will be like God.  You will have knowledge of good and evil.” 
            On her own, apart from God, Eve decided to deal with the serpent’s temptation.  Before long, she was thinking the serpent’s thoughts.  She didn’t tell him how things were in the garden and in the world.  She saw how good that fruit looked and she took a bite.  As the juice ran down her chin, she discovered what people have discovered ever since.  In temptation, there’s some truth.  Her eyes and Adam’s eyes were opened, just as the serpent said they would be.  However, the man and the woman gained their new knowledge apart from God.  They immediately saw each other in new ways.  In communion with God, they saw one another as beautiful creations there to be loved.  Acting apart from God, they saw in each other a nakedness that needed to be covered up, hidden.  Then, they tried to hide from God.  They had never felt the need to do that before.
            That serpent didn’t do anything special.  He just told half-truths that lured the first humans away from God’s full truth.  Their own lack of trust in God did the rest.  Eve, didn’t trust God’s word enough to resist the lie embedded in the temptation.
            Adam and Eve were living in paradise, Eden, when they fell.  Jesus, ravaged by unbearable hunger, found himself in desert wastelands.  He would later on say these words to his disciples in Matthew 7, “Is there any among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish will give a snake?  If then, you who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (v.9-11).  He trusted that God would provide him what he needed.
            The devil’s first temptation is “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v.3).  We just heart at the baptism which happens right before this hungry desert sojourn that a voice from Heaven declared him to be God’s Son.  The devil calls that into question and then tells Jesus to do what Eve did: act apart from God.  He didn’t tell Jesus to ask God for food.  He told him to command the stones to become bread. Jesus trusted that his father would give good things.  He declares he needed the word of God for life as much as he needed food in his belly.
            Next, Jesus allows himself to be led.  The Holy Spirit had led him out to be tempted.  So, Jesus faces the temptation.  The devil leads him to the highest point in the Jerusalem, the hilltop where the temple sits.  Jesus is told to fling himself off the pinnacle of the temple, a suicide jump.  Quoting Psalm 91, the devil tells Jesus angels will save him.  It’s not a complete a lie.  As we already read, at the end of this story, angels do come to help him.  But not yet! 
            The devil is using scripture for his own means, something we do all the time.  In political arguments or in church conflicts, we see our opponents as God’s opponents.  It’s “them” vs. “us,” and we always cast our side as the side of scripture.  We totally ignore the fact that our opponent uses the same Bible to defend a position opposite ours.  We’re not supposed to use the Bible.  The devil did that with this second temptation.  We are to submit to the God we meet in the pages of the Bible.  The Bible is not here to support our positions.  The Bible is to be a way the Spirit forms us in the image of Christ.  Jesus knew he was in the desert to be tested.  He wasn’t there to test God.  He trusted God and resisted the devil.
            In his third effort, the nefarious tempter brought Jesus to the top of a high mountain and from there gave him a vision of all the great kingdoms of the earth.  If Jesus bowed in worship before the devil, all these kingdoms would be given to him.  Whether the devil could deliver on such an absurd offer is beside the point.  Jesus knew the first commandment: we shall have no other gods before the Lord our God.  We worship him alone.  There’s nothing the evil one could offer that would deter Jesus from his singular devotion to glorify God.  He trusted that worshiping God is better than possessing power.
            Note too, God had given Jesus a mission – to die for the sins of the world.  Jesus would eventually be recognized as king of kings and lord of lords.  But first, he had to save the world.  The devil had him skipping the cross and going straight to the throne.  Jesus rejected this deception trusting that God’s story is the better story.
            Finally, the devil left the scene, and then the angels came to take care of all Jesus’ needs.  As I said, were I in Jesus’ shoes, I would have been just as happy to have the angels show up at the very beginning.  Jesus modeled confidence and faith in God’s plan even when trust appeared to be difficult. 
            In baptism, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God, and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us.  Do we believe this?  If we say we do, then do we also believe this is for the best?  Do we trust this story for our lives is true and do we trust that it is best life we can have?
            In the desert, on the hillside, Jesus put all his trust in the heavenly father.  We might think, ‘well he, he’s Jesus.  We’re not.’  That’s true.  But we have this advantage.  We know where the story leads.  He defeated the devil and resisted temptation.  Later on, the night that he knows he will be arrested, the devil tempts him again.  Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, in human flesh.  Being fully human, the abandonment by his disciples broke his heart.  The coming trial and crucifixion scared him.  The devil played on this and in anguished prayer, Jesus asked for another way.  We know God did not offer another way, and so Jesus went to the cross to take our death on himself. 
            We also know a few days, later, resurrected, he walked out of tomb.  On the cross he defeated Satan and sin.  In resurrection, he defeated death.  Just as he took our death on himself, he shares his resurrection with us.  We can be strengthened by this promise when the devil comes to tempt us, if we believe the story and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us. 
            That’s where the trust Jesus demonstrated transfers to us.  In this crazy political season, Democrats and Republicans are trying to sell a number of different narratives to the American public.  Advertisers sell narratives which put the product or experience they’re selling at the center of the story.  All these peddlers of stories want you to believe that the story they tell is the one you need to be in.  You need to adjust your life to live out that story. 
            What I’m suggesting is that Jesus, even flattened by hunger as he was, rejected the devil because he rejected the devil’s narrative.   He did that because he trusted that God’s story is the better story.  As we close, I invite you to think about this. For your life, is God’s story the better story?  Do you believe your hope for a happy, blessed life will be found walking the pathway of Jesus?  One thing is clear.  It can’t be both.  We cannot walk the way of the politician or the way of the propagandist or the way of the advertiser and walk the way of Jesus?  We have to decide which narrative we’ll embody. 
Don’t come and say all the ways the way of Jesus is opposite of the politician you oppose.  Notice all the ways the way of Jesus opposes the politician you’re voting for.  Then you’ve really cast your lot with the Savior.  You can still vote for whomever.  As citizens, we should participate in our democracy.  We do it remembering our eternal destiny is to live as subjects in the eternal kingdom of God under the merciful, just rule of King Jesus.  That story defines us and determines how we live. 
Decide which narrative is yours, the story will you live into.  Take this time to pray, asking God to help you trust the story he has for you.