"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

25 January 2009

Sunday sermon (moved)

I forget where I started with this sermon. Due to winter weather, you know I almost didn't make it to church to give the sermon... I tried again at the very last possible moment and came scooting into the church just in time to do the work the Lord had given me to do. I started the sermon somehow with further reflections I was making on the long snowy drive to the church... and somehow got around to bench-warming as an illustration (my unofficial place on my elementary school basketball team and the only position I was skilled for).

When we meet the boy Samuel in today’s readings, he’s a bench warmer. He doesn’t know the Lord, God’s word has not yet been revealed to him. That may seem shocking to you, after all, he lives in the Temple. Some of you may say "I’m in church every time the doors are open" but this boy Samuel is there even when the doors aren’t open! You may remember his story, how his mother, Hannah, prayed for a child but was infertile, how she went into the temple and prayed with such energy and emotion that the priest thought she was drunk. How she bargained with God, if you will just give me a son, I won’t even keep him for myself, I’ll give him back to you. She didn’t want a son for an insurance policy, as most women of that era wanted sons, to care for her in her old age. She didn’t want a future for herself, she just wanted a son to love. And God gave her Samuel.
And Hannah fulfilled her vow. When the boy was no longer nursing, she brought him to the temple and gave him over to the priest to raise in God’s presence. And now Samuel is in the temple, it’s night time, the lamps are burning before the altar as they did every night. It’s a pretty routine scene. But in the middle of this routine, God gives Samuel a message for Eli, and the words are difficult ones to hear.
This is clearly the first time Samuel hears a literal word from the Lord. The technical term for such an experience is a locution, when you audibly hear God. I get a kick out of that old joke, when you talk to God, it’s prayer. When God talks to you its schizophrenia. We can laugh about it, but anyone who takes Scripture seriously has to understand that God does sometimes choose to communicate with us in this way. The message God has for Eli is that the punishment God promised would take place was going to come to pass, that God "would judge his family forever because of the sin Eli knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, 'The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering. " To give you the background story, Eli’s sons were said to have no regard for God. The were of a priestly family, but instead of taking a priest’s portion of the sacrifices, they took the best and the first portions, similar to practices that we hear of later in the prophetic writings as "robbing God." The way the Bible tells it, here are Eli’s sons who Eli should have been raising up to be priests after him, but he’s turning a blind eye while the boys run wild and show contempt for God. But immediately we see the contrasting character of little Samuel, the boy in the Temple. Eli’s sons will be cast down, and we would eventually see that Samuel would be raised up as a great prophet who would anoint the kings themselves.
This story is the big moment when Samuel goes from being a little boy in the temple, set apart for God’s service, but sitting on the sidelines, to being a front line believer who will help raise up kings, and proclaim God’s word all over the land. Eli gives good advice, to listen, to be open to God’s leading; but the words Samuel hears are not a message he wants to deliver. Can you imagine poor Samuel, sweating it out through the remainder of the night as he wonders how to give Eli the message with which he has been entrusted? Eli very harshly commands that Samuel obey God and deliver the message, but really, the message is given because God loves Eli enough to give him a warning and Samuel must now love Eli enough to deliver it.
Part of what we have to do, in the days and weeks ahead, will involve the hard words and actions that love requires. We’ve heard a lot in our culture that tells us that love is about feelings, sex, or warm fuzzies and then defines "God is love in those cultural love terms." But in fact, the self serving images of modern American love are not love at all. Is action, self-sacrifice, and does not withhold the truth, even when the truth may involved hard words. This is why the church has come to the point of the vote we have taken this week. One group sees love as not withholding the truth of God’s hard but important commands, while the other sees those commands and truths as "hate speech." But the cold hard fact is that sometimes love is agonizing, and withholding God’s word is never love.
There are other things love requires which may seem uncomfortable. The key question which we must ask ourselves is whose interest is at the heart of our actions. If we are walking outside our comfort zone, taking risks to bring a neighbor, a friend, or a stranger closer to Jesus, if we are the ones willing to be hurt in all of this, that is love. Again I think of Samuel and this awkward moment he experienced with Eli, but in the end, he had to do what was required of him.
He kind of reminded me of my son Isaac, my eleven year old… Isaac likes to play dodge ball at the study center he attends. And one day he told me "Mom! I was fantastic today! I never got out!" I asked him did he get anyone else out. No. Well, did you take any risks that might have gotten you out? No. So you didn’t get out, you didn’t get anyone else out, and you didn’t take any risks… why did you play? My son realized that sometimes it was worth risking being "out" in order to be effective.
And when I consider a congregation that will now be faced with the question, where do we go from here? I realized that that is what we need to understand… where we go, no matter what the vote turns out to be, is that we go out to take some risks, to deliver God’s message to the world. We can’t control one another’s actions, but if we’re going to be sideline Christians, we may as well not bother playing. Instead, let’s take the risks to be front-line Christians. It won’t be easy, but sometimes we have to take a risk in order to succeed.

19 January 2009

"Once they see the beauty of Islam, they will have no choice but to accept it, because they will understand that it is their nature."

This, I heard on a YouTube video of a very militant American Muslim protester, a very unbeautiful scene. It's a great quote, because he nailed the nature of Islam. He really believes that his religion (which had him out there on the street shouting "Israel go to hell" with the mob) is so beautiful and peaceful that its irresistable.

I do not agree with his line of reasoning, but I do agree with what he said. It is in our nature.

As a Christian, I know what's in my nature. My nature is sin, evil, rebellion, self-serving. It's ugly, broken. My nature is angry and harsh, loveless. It is all the things I saw from these protesters. This Islam that they have shown the world, it is in our nature.

Praise be to Jesus that we are saved from our nature. By the mercy of God I have turned my back on this natural state, and I am NOT going back. By God's blessing, we are NOT forced to accept what is in our nature. God's mercy snatches out out of our natural state and gives us a promise of something more glorious, not through our works, our prayers, our charity, our pilgrimages, our struggles, but by his grace, through faith, and that's it. Nothing more. We are called to be obedient to him, but his grace covers our failings. We are called to beauty, but his grace covers and reforms our ugliness. He fills us with his Spirit, to enable us to obey, to be beautiful, but this also does not come by merit but by his mercy.

Never before in my life have I seen the "beauty" of human sin so clearly. That is the nature of sin, to call evil beautiful, to call abuse love. Truth becomes hate speech. Gospel is called oppression. It's not about "grey areas" it's about calling black white and the other way around. That's what it means to turn around, to repent. It means setting your own world upside down, inside out and backwards... or so it feels when the previously upside down, inside out, backwards world is put to rights.

05 January 2009

Sermon 2nd Sunday of Christmas (moved)

*I began with a story of a girl I knew in seventh grade being told, in front of our whole seventh grade science class that she had to be adopted because genetically her blue eyed parents could never produce a brown eyed child and we talked about what a nightmare for a seventh grader that experience must have been.*

As an adoptive parent, I see that word "adoption" a little differently, now. It might have been the worst nightmare for a seventh grader to have that seed of doubt sown in her mind, but what a joy and a delight it is to turn that word, adopted, upside-down and celebrate. "You’re adopted!" Praise God! Shout it from the roof-tops, you’re adopted!
Think about it. Adoption is the opposite of abandonment. It is the opposite of rejection. It is the opposite of orphans. Paul knows that. And in Paul’s own cultural context, adoption is the opposite of slavery. And so we hinge on that word for a minute, it is on the idea of being adopted that the entire message to the Ephesians hinges… Paul hints at the entire story of how it happened, but let me tell it to you again. It is about you, this is your story, your history.
Before the foundations of the world were laid, God desired you. Yes, you, personally. There was a time when you did not exist, but even then, as God is all-knowing, he fore-saw and desired you. When the time was right, God knew that he would create you and call you to be his own.
Before the foundations of the world were laid, God knew that you would become a sinner. When Adam and Eve introduced sin into this world, the entire fabric of the universe was changed and all people were brought into bondage. You could not escape the sin which bound you. You could not make yourself acceptable to the God who created and desired you. You were unholy and unfit for God’s presence. You had only one destiny, only one place where you were fit to go, you were utterly worthless and damned. You were, by your own bondage, a slave and a son of the Evil One. It’s the nature of a fallen world that your natural parent is the Devil. No one chooses to be born to unfit parents, it just happens.
The Evil One is indeed an unfit parent. His promises are not fulfilled, his provisions come up short. There is no good in your bondage, no inheritance from your natural parent except death. The Devil who held you was destined to abandon you. He is slated for his own destruction. Your natural state is therefore that of an orphan. The one who remains in the bondage of sin will inherit destruction, his deeds will be paid in wages of sin, which Paul correctly identifies as death.
It’s a pretty hopeless lot. And really, like the poor baby of an abusive parent, there is nothing which you can do about it. You cannot rescue yourself from this bondage.
What I’ve just laid out for you should depress you. It’s a pretty bleak picture. But you must understand these things if you are to understand exactly what the Good News of Jesus Christ actually is.
The church in Ephesus understood these things. Paul himself had laid the foundation for this church while on an all-too brief visit during his travels. He had to hurry on to Jerusalem, but the people there had begun to understand the desperate nature of their situation. They understood that they had a very real need for someone to change their hopeless lot. They understood that they could not go on, as they had before. The leaders of the synagogue in Ephesus begged Paul to stay with them, and Paul indeed left behind a number of prominent Christians to preach and teach the people there. He returned later, in about 54 AD, and stayed for three years. By then the church had a good foundation, and Paul truly loved the Ephesian church. Loving them as he did, it should not surprise us that he wrote to them later, a couple of years after he had left them.
This time, he writes as a prisoner in Rome, but he rejoices! Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing . Paul can be joyful from prison because he, and the church to whom he writes, understands that "God chose us… before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him." This is a remarkable thing right there! We who were unholy by our sin, we who were fit only for damnation, are now made holy and blameless, fit for relationship with him. How can this be?
Through no merit of ours, we are adopted, no longer orphans, no longer abandoned, no longer slaves. God certainly didn’t owe us this. We made ourselves strangers from him, and yet he has adopted us as sons. (It is important, ladies, that we claim adoption as sons, for in Paul’s language the sons are the heirs. We, men and women, are adopted as sons of God!)
And through no merit of our own, based solely on the merit of our adoption, we are indeed all sons of God and therefore heirs. If, as we know, sons of the Devil are set to inherit destruction and death, how wonderful it is to be adopted out of that unfit home and made heirs of life and eternity. By Roman law (and by US law too) an adopted son is a full heir to the father’s estate, just as if he were part of the family by birth.
That is God’s abundant blessing! Not only does God create us, knowing we’d estrange ourselves from him anyway, and send us a redeemer, a messiah to teach us God’s ways, to live among us and die for us, to be raised again because death cannot hold him, but God adopts us as sons so that we, too, will gain the same inheritance as that messiah, God’s only begotten son. Jesus is raised so that we can see that this is our inheritance too. He ascended into heaven to rule, and there we also will be a royal people. By Jesus’ work on the cross, you are fit for adoption as sons, and through your adoption you will receive exactly the opposite of what you, by your merit, deserve.
This is reason enough to give God praise.
It is the nature of God to change the destiny of humankind. One individual at a time, God comes in and changes the entire course of events. The Hebrew word in the Old Testament, which we often translate "to visit" means so much more than to simply be present. My Hebrew professor said "It’s not just a visit for tea" instead the word means "to change the destiny." This is the whole point of the incarnation. God visits us. He is present, not distant. He is active, not passive. Jesus leaves the glories of heaven, abandons comfort, lets go of power, to be born as a helpless baby, to walk among us, and eventually to die. Jesus, at the moment of his conception, has left the glory of heaven and accepted our bondage. He’s never a true son of the Evil One, let us be clear, for he is without sin himself. But his hands are as shackled to death as ours are, from the very moment of his conception. He took this on voluntarily, so that we might be freed.
Paul doesn’t offer much challenge to the Ephesians. Unlike most of the letters we have from him, he’s not writing to correct error. Instead, he is writing to revel in the glories of God’s mercy, to remind the people what they already know: that God has changed their destiny. And so, I shall not offer a challenge to you, only the comfort of Paul’s message. As we approach next Sunday’s vote, know that you are a people whose destiny has been changed. You are sons and heirs. And the church itself is the bride of Christ. God not abandon you nor will Christ forsake his bride. Rest in Jesus. Have faith and confidence. Whatever the outcome, be faithful to Christ and trust in God’s mercy.
In the words of one of my favorite hymns the church can joyfully proclaim: "Alleluia, not as orphans are we left in sorrow now. Alleluia, he is with us, faith believes nor questions how! Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er, shall our hearts forget his promises… I am with thee evermore."
To God be the glory now and forever.