FEELING OVERWHELMED?

Second Sunday in Easter

TEXT: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20:19-25)

Have you ever felt overwhelmed? I’m sure we all have. We know that feeling of being bowled over by the sheer immensity or complexity of something. You can’t comprehend it. You can’t get it figured out. You cannot organize it or bring it under control. You’re overwhelmed in a way that makes you feel small, weak, and inadequate.

I think that probably describes the way the disciples were feeling three days after Jesus died. Really, how much worse could things get? There they were, hiding behind locked doors, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher—Jesus, whom they had thought was the invincible Messiah—had been executed like a common criminal. He was gone—dead and buried (or so they thought). Into the tomb with Jesus went all their hope, all their vision, all their sense of direction and purpose in life.

Now, all they had was an overwhelming sense of failure and loss and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need.

And I have to wonder: were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves—or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to wrap your head around that kind of disappointment, to organize the feeling of that kind of loss, to bring under control that depth of shame. Of course they must have felt small, and weak, and inadequate!

But now, one of the women—Mary Magdalene—was saying things that didn’t make any sense: that she had actually seen Jesus and had talked with him. She claimed that Jesus was alive, that he had risen from the dead just as he had promised. Could this be true? How could it be true?

They did not believe Mary’s words, of course. After all, what she was telling them seemed impossible. So they did not rush out to look for the risen Christ. No. They stayed put, behind locked doors, and waited to see what would happen next.

And then, suddenly—astonishingly, quietly—there he was. Jesus was right there, in their midst, before their very eyes. It was true. Jesus was alive!

Now, I wonder whether at least some of the disciples might have been a little bit worried—afraid that Jesus might be angry with them for abandoning him (and, in Peter’s case, for even denying him three times). It’s frightening enough to think about seeing someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he has every reason to say: “Where were you when I needed you? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?”

But that’s not what happened. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment. There was not even any venting of disappointment and hurt. No. The first words Jesus offered were: “Peace be with you.”

He knew what was in their hearts. He knew why they had barred the door. He knew they weren’t re-grouping, getting it together and deciding on their next move. He knew they were terrified and confused. He knew they were hiding out. And suddenly, in the midst of their fear and confusion, there he was—not with angels, trumpets, and legions of the heavenly host … but quietly, gently … only Jesus, all by himself. And with him he brought no hint of anger, no accusations, no trouble or turmoil—only peace.

Then, the very next thing, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit—doesn’t just give it to them, but breathes the Spirit into them. It’s kind of like Pentecost, except here the Spirit comes not with wind and flame but with Jesus’ own breath—the life-force of one raised from the dead who tells them to go out and demonstrate peace and forgiveness and love in the world. Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends them into the world that God loves so dearly.

Doesn’t it sort of remind you of Creation, when God breathed life into Adam? Here, Jesus re-creates this sorry crew of defeated men, giving them the gift of new life—the gift of grace—and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, these weak and overwhelmed disciples become Jesus’ gift to the world.

Then he talks about something that’s more difficult to speak of in the church than sex or politics or even money. He talks about forgiveness. This gives us some sense of what’s uppermost in Jesus’ mind, doesn’t it? Forgiveness.

Right away, though, the story shifts to Thomas, who must have been out running errands. When he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he understandably wanted to have the same experience himself.

Now consider this: all he was asking for was the same assurance the other disciples had received. Thomas was no more a doubter than they were, before they saw the risen Christ. He just wanted to experience the Resurrection for himself, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus’ suffering and feel for himself that this incredible news was really true. His faith was no less. Thomas was just that one little sheep that the Good Shepherd (sure enough) would come back for, to tie up this one loose end.

You know, I think John included this story—about Thomas wanting to see for himself—because he sought to encourage the believers in his own community, a generation or so after the events occurred. Their faith was based not on what they had seen with their own eyes, but on what they had heard. Jesus is really talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

Even better blessings. That would be the promise to you and me today, a week after Easter morning, when we’re back to life as usual. Back to our lives with their own “overwhelmings”—with an economy which either is or is not recovering—depending on which news report you hear (but which, in any case, still leaves many of us underemployed). Back to a pandemic which still isn’t over, more than two years in. Back to a world full of wars and refugees and famine.

Yeah. Back to life as usual. Back to our own private griefs and burdens—health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us … so much to run away from, so much to fear. What’s an overwhelmed Christian supposed to do?

William Sloane Coffin, one of my favourite prophets of the past century, once said:

As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight … You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart’s a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts—either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.*

All of us disciples—when our hearts fill with a fear we can’t organize or wrap our heads around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate—all of us disciples are offered that same gift of grace and forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds. It also melts our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love. That’s why Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God’s children. Isn’t that why we are the church?

Whatever overwhelms us, Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever doubts churn in our minds; whatever sins trouble our consciences; whatever pain and sorrow bind us up; whatever walls we have erected or doors we have locked securely … Jesus comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, Jesus feeds us well with living bread, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, to be salt and light, to be hope for the world.

We can do it, you know. You can do it!

We can do it because we, ourselves, have been overwhelmed by the love of God.

As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us—on this day. This very day.

____________________________

* William Sloane Coffin, A Passion for the Possible: a Message to U.S. Churches, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 2.

 

“GOD WITH SKIN ON”

EASTER SUNDAY

TEXTS: John 20:1-18; 1 John 1:1-3

… [Mary Magdalene] turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (John 20:14-15)

It’s a glorious day, isn’t it? There’s no holier day—and, for me, anyway—no more exciting, no more joyful day in the church year, than Easter Sunday.

I want to begin with a story …

A little boy, frightened by a violent thunderstorm, called out one dark night, “Daddy, come here. I’m scared!”

“Son,” his father replied, “God loves you, and he’ll take care of you.”

“I know God loves me,” the boy answered, “but right now I want somebody who has skin on!”

That’s a perfect description of Jesus. He was “God with skin on.”

Many of us wish we could have walked the dusty streets of Jerusalem with Jesus while he ministered on this earth, or sat at the table with him when he broke bread and blessed it. But we can’t. Or can we?

The apostle John, who personally walked and talked with Jesus, says that we can know him. No, we cannot reach out and touch him right now, but he is here just as powerfully as he was with his disciples some 2,000 years ago. He wants to speak to us, guide us, protect us, and develop a close friendship with us.

In the First Letter of John, chapter one, the apostle writes: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).

According to a commentary I looked at, the phrase translated “seen with our eyes” could more literally be rendered “to view attentively, to contemplate, to gaze upon as a spectacle.” Imagine what it must have been like to see God in human form. Imagine what it would be like to hear his voice with our own ears!

People often ask, “What did Jesus look like?” But you know, the apostle John—who spent several years with him—never mentions his appearance; not once, even in passing. Yes, John spent hours gazing at Jesus, but evidently not because of the Lord’s striking physical appearance. It seems that Jesus was rather ordinary in the way he looked.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus took the resurrected Christ to be an ordinary man. At the empty tomb—as we read in the 20th chapter of John’s gospel—Mary mistook him for the gardener. Certainly, no Bible passage tells us he wore a permanent halo. Judas told the enemies of Jesus that they could identify the Master when he would kiss him on the cheek. Now, if the Lord looked as striking as we might imagine him to look, he would have been easily identified—without a kiss from his betrayer. “He’s the guy who looks like a king,” Judas could have said. But he didn’t.

Why doesn’t Scripture give us a physical description of Jesus? Because it is not important. Though he looked ordinary in his outward appearance, John and the others had never met anyone like him. The disciples spent practically every waking hour in the presence of Jesus, enthralled—and sometimes unnerved.

Scripture tells us that John would often lean his head on the chest of Jesus so as not to miss anything (see John 13:23); that way, he could hear even a whisper. All of the disciples watched Jesus carefully, hung on his every word, and scrutinized his every move. And John says that this Jesus can be known today!

We might not be able to walk and talk and eat with Jesus in person as the disciples did, but we can have fellowship with him nonetheless. Jesus himself said, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).

That, my friends, is a big part of the message of Easter. This Jesus whom we worship as God, whom we revere as Saviour and Lord, really is alive today—and he really does want you to know him, and have a relationship with him.

Are you ready to walk with the Saviour? Are you hungry for the food he has prepared for you? Are you anxious to spend some quality time with him, listening to his counsel and committing yourself to his plan for you? Then I invite you—in the days ahead—to get acquainted with him.

How can you do that? Well, reading the Bible is one very good way to start. Oh, I don’t mean you have to read the whole thing from cover to cover (not right away, anyhow). But you could begin by reading the first four books of the New Testament. After all, the gospels were written so that we might come to know Jesus through the eyes of the disciples who lived and ministered with him.

Another good way to get to know Jesus is by devoting some time every day to prayer and meditation—to both speaking to God and listening to God. By all means, tell the Lord what’s on your mind. Ask him for the things you need. Pour out your heart to him. You’re even allowed to complain, if you want to! But then—and too many of us forget about this part—remember to take time to listen for the Lord’s response.

And a third thing I would suggest to you is this: Don’t be a stranger in God’s house! The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that it’s important for believers to spend time together. In chapter 10, he says: “… let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another …” (Heb. 10:24-25a). Scripture tells us that we should expect to meet the living Christ in our midst—and in one another.

So there, my friends, is my very short Easter blog. Short—but, hopefully, to the point. If you want to get to know Jesus personally, there are three important things you should do to start with: read the Bible; pray; and come to church.

Actually, don’t just come to church on Sunday mornings, but make time for fellowship with other believers during the rest of the week, as well. Maybe it could be at a Bible study. Maybe it could be at a church supper or bazaar or movie night. But it could also be in somebody’s living room, or at Tim Horton’s, over a cup of coffee—or even on the telephone.

That’s how it works. If you want to get to know Jesus, come join his family! And I guarantee that you will find him there—not just on Easter Sunday, but every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

KING FOR A DAY … OR EVERY DAY?

Palm Sunday

TEXTS: Zechariah 9:9-10, 16-17 and Luke 19:28b-40

Do any of you remember an old TV game show called, “Queen for a Day”? I don’t remember it at all. Apparently, the show ran on American television from 1948 until 1964 … going off the air when I was 10 years old. So maybe I should remember it … or perhaps it was never broadcast in Canada.

The only reason I know about “Queen for a Day” is because someone texted me a link to some archival footage, saying: “Watch this. It’s hilarious. LOL” 1

When I followed the link, I found a very old black-and-white episode, which began with a voice-over that went like this:

Once again, from Hollywood’s great Moulin Rouge Theater Restaurant, Pan-American Coffee Bureau, who says, “Want it great?  Make it coffee, make it often, make it right!”; Ex-Lax, the laxative that helps restore your normal regularity gently overnight; and Hartz Mountain, the best products for happier, healthier pets; proudly presents, “Queen for a Day,” the Cinderella show starring the one and only king of “Queen for a Day,” Mister Jack Bailey!

By all accounts, “Queen for a Day” was very popular in its time. Maybe not very good—but very popular! In fact, the NBC television network increased the show’s running time from 30 to 45 minutes in order to sell more commercials, at a then-premium rate of $4,000 per minute.

The program centered around finding a woman living in difficult circumstances and making her “Queen for a Day.” After she was selected for this honour, she would be picked up by a chauffeur-driven limousine and taken to a Beverly Hills salon, where she was given a complete makeover.

Then she would be outfitted with a new wardrobe and taken to a high-end restaurant, escorted by some Hollywood celebrities. That night, she would stay in a luxury hotel. Of course, in the morning she would be taken back to her actual residence—and back to her real life. She had been Queen … for a day.

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday—which recounts the story we refer to as the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus—could easily be re-titled “King for a Day.” I think it demonstrates—vividly—the fickle nature of those who would follow Jesus. Here’s the story as Luke reports it—and as Eugene Peterson renders it in his paraphrase, called The Message:

… Jesus headed straight up to Jerusalem. When he got near Bethphage and Bethany at the mountain called Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says anything, asks, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘His Master needs him.’”

The two left and found it just as he said. As they were untying the colt, its owners said, “What are you doing untying the colt?”

They said, “His Master needs him.”

They brought the colt to Jesus. Then, throwing their coats on its back, they helped Jesus get on. As he rode, the people gave him a grand welcome, throwing their coats on the street.

Right at the crest, where Mount Olives begins its descent, the whole crowd of disciples burst into enthusiastic praise over all the mighty works they had witnessed:

                  Blessed is he who comes,

                                    the king in God’s name!

                  All’s well in heaven!

                                    Glory in the high places!

Some Pharisees from the crowd told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!”

But he said, “If they kept quiet, the stones would do it for them, shouting praise.”

That’s what the Revised Common Lectionary serves up for this day. But if we continue reading, we hear these four verses:

When the city came into view, he wept over it. “If you had only recognized this day, and everything that was good for you! But now it’s too late. In the days ahead your enemies are going to bring up their heavy artillery and surround you, pressing in from every side. They’ll smash you and your babies on the pavement. Not one stone will be left intact. All this because you didn’t recognize and welcome God’s personal visit.” 2

There were two and a half million people in Jerusalem that day. From all over the known world, they had come for the Passover Feast—and by now they had heard about Jesus of Nazareth, and all the wonders he had performed. They knew that he was at Bethany, and they knew what he could do. Now, word was spreading that Jesus was on his way into the city to drive out the Romans! Or at least, that was what many of them hoped. It was also what many of them feared.

His disciples had borrowed a donkey’s colt for his ride into Jerusalem—a donkey, not a war horse. By itself, this should have been a signal that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of peace—not any kind of military leader. Jesus proceeds into the city like a humble servant, just as the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would do:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
(Zech. 9:9)

Crowds line the streets to hail Jesus as Messiah—“the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

This is theatre—theatre on a grand scale. But the adulation will be short-lived. As the week progresses—as it becomes obvious that Jesus is not going to fit into the popular image of the Messiah—public opinion will turn against him.

On this first day of the week, a crowd cries out to Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna!” By the end of the week, another crowd will shout, “Crucify him!”

But why? Could it have been because they wanted an instant kingdom—and he offered them an eternal kingdom? Could it have been because the crowds wanted entertainment—not challenging instruction? Could it have been because—once they were confronted with the real demands of Jesus’ kingdom—they took offence and turned away?

Jesus resisted any attempt to make his message—or his ministry—into an instrument of the culture, or the government, or any religious group. He would not dance to anyone’s tune—only to his Father’s melody. As this became clear, the expectant crowds began to dissipate.

And you know, they were not much different than we are. Just like them, we spurn religious commitments that fail to support our political views—or our economic interests. Any faith that demands first place in our lives is not acceptable … is it? After all, religious faith should make my life easier … shouldn’t it?  I want Jesus to uphold my worldview and demand of me nothing at all.

We live in a day of instant everything—from instant cake mixes, to information and entertainment. We can no longer tolerate waiting for anything. A God who does not give us what we want now is of no use to us. Church services and sermons are a waste of my time if they are not immediately translatable into four useful ways to do—or not do—something on Monday morning. I pray—and I expect God to jump!

Yet, Jesus will not jump for us. He refuses to adjust his message to the popular ideas of any place or time—whether first-century Jerusalem, or 21st-century Calgary—or Ottawa, or Washington, or Moscow, or even … (fill in your hometown). Jesus calls people to life-long commitment. He wants disciples, not dabblers! There is no place in his company for religious hobbyists. Jesus wants us to be “all in” for him. But that is scary, isn’t it?

God calls us to repentance. We want to make a deal.

God says his kingdom is forever—but we only want it for as long as we can use it.

God says all things belong to him. We hold our treasures tighter.

God stretches us. He does not stroke us. I don’t believe that God is particularly concerned about our happiness—but I do think God is very concerned about our holiness. He is concerned with our commitment, and not with our pleasure.

A math teacher doesn’t much care whether her students are happy on the night before a big test; what she cares about is whether her students are committed to learning math. Jesus is like that, too. He is not interested in being “king for a day”—but he does want to be Lord of our lives.

There are some things—some really important things—that can only be known through commitment. You will not know the joy of loving and being loved unless you are committed to the one you love. You will not know the satisfaction of serious accomplishment if you have not committed yourself to the challenge of attaining it. The long-term results of investing in your children—investing time, and investing care—probably will not be known until long after they have grown up.

Christian faith is like that, too. It only works well when it is a life-long commitment—one which leads us through all those moments when we are tempted to be less than God made us to be. The Bible is firm in its assertion that commitment is the way of faith.

Holy Week invites us to look deeper at the quality of our faith. The gospel story we hear on Palm Sunday challenges us to re-examine our own understanding of Jesus’ mission—and, also, to re-examine our commitment to him. It challenges us to ask ourselves: “Are we ‘all in’ for him?”

Or, to put it another way …

Have we made him Lord of our lives? Or just … king for a day?

_______________________________________

1 http://archive.org/details/Queen_For_A_Day

2 The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

COSTLY LOVE

Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: John 12:1-8

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)

Each Sunday in Lent is carrying us closer to the horror of Good Friday. Today the Gospel reading shows us Jesus having some respite, in a kindly home at Bethany, not far from the Holy City, not long before his betrayal. The awareness of his impending suffering is constantly with him. In a sense, his final passion is already upon him.

In this setting, one deeply sensitive woman massages his feet with expensive oil, and, in a wonderful outpouring of love, wipes his feet with her hair. Some have suggested that the details of this story—the expensive oil, the massage, Mary’s unbound hair—all point to something erotic. But I’m not so sure. To me, this looks like an expression of profound agape—a deluge of selfless love.

At this point, I want to note a distinction between the intuitive understanding of this woman, and the ongoing confusion in the minds of the men who followed Jesus.

Men first. It seems to me that the male disciples where in stubborn denial of the coming arrest and death of Jesus. With a mind-set which is unfortunately common among men, they did not want to think about disaster. They refused to face the probable demise of their leader. It was as if they thought that the unpleasant truth would go away if they just ignored it.

It reminds me of a man (I’ll call him Bill) who built up from the ground his own business.

Because of recession and the increasing tendering by overseas companies, his business was facing collapse. But Bill could not face this. He flayed around looking for more bank loans—and when that failed, he borrowed money from his friends.

His wife could see what was happening. She knew that what he saw as his life’s work was irrevocably crumbling. She tried to gently but firmly help Bill face the facts. But he would not. To accept defeat was, in Bill’s eyes, the attitude of a weakling. Real men did not admit to the possibility. Right to the end, Bill stayed in denial. His wife saw what was coming; he did not.

The male disciples were like that. From the moment when Peter made his bold statement that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus had tried to make the men see that his rejection by the religious leaders was inevitable. From that time he began talking about his cross. But they stayed in denial. They did not want to know.

The only trace of acceptance among the men (the only one I see in the gospel accounts, anyway) comes from the disciple we call “doubting” Thomas.

In the preceding chapter of John—just before their departure for Bethany—Thomas openly expresses his belief that the journey to Jerusalem will end in death. “Let us also go,” he says to the others, “that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

But the others were in denial—and that had a grave consequence. Because they were hiding from their own deep fears about the possible death of their Master, they could not give Jesus the emotional support he needed in those last weeks and days. They would not allow themselves to be in tune with his soul.

When he needed them most to understand and to support him in his resolve to remain true to his mission, the men were not there for him emotionally. Jesus must have been an extremely lonely person at that time.

Thank goodness for the women! We read about them also being followers of Jesus. Some of these were financially well off, and provided for Christ’s travelling mission out of their own pockets.

I wish more information had survived about these female disciples. I’m certain they played a much larger role than is suggested by the scant references to them that survive in the gospel accounts. However, I rejoice that John chose to preserve the story we read in today’s gospel lesson. I cherish the record of that evening meal at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Mary was prepared to bear the pain of admitting to herself the tragedy that lay ahead. Jesus, the loveliest person she had ever known, was going to fall into the hands of cruel men and be butchered.

This understanding must have been breaking her heart. But she faced it. No denial here! Some social commentators claim that women are genuinely the stronger sex. Mary certainly was. She was ready to demonstrate some costly love.

Because she was not in denial, Mary was able to comfort Jesus as he rested in their house at Bethany. She did not care what the other men thought. She did not care whether Martha understood or not. She simply did what she knew she had to do. She knelt at his feet, and—with the most expensive of oils—she anointed and massaged them, then unbound her hair and wiped his feet with her long dark tresses. Jesus knew himself understood and profoundly comforted by a woman who dared to be true to what her heart was telling her.

There must have been a stunned silence in that room. Silence, at least, until Judas—upset and embarrassed about it all—blurted out that pious blabber about selling the ointment and helping the poor.

Jesus would have none of that. He and Mary knew that death was for real: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (vv. 7-8)

It would be ridiculous, of course, to use this story to categorize all men as not able to deal with sensitive emotional issues. Likewise, all women cannot be put into the category of sensitive nurturers. We find some of both genders in both camps. However, it is no secret that social pressures tend towards shaping men to hide their emotional side, while allowing women more room to express theirs. And this was even more true in Jesus’ day than in ours.

The point of my message today is not about pointing the finger of blame on only men. I put it to you—whatever your gender—that we cannot truly support one another unless we stop the denial game; unless we take the risk and make ourselves sensitive to the feelings of others and to our own feelings in response to theirs.

We must deal in emotions—and not just in ideas. We must learn to be better listeners, and to resist the temptation to speak in platitudes to conceal our own discomfort.

I think the first step is getting to know ourselves better. Know yourself, and you will be better able to know others and stand with them at the point of their need. It is costly love, agape love, other-centred love. It is high risk-love that allows both ecstatic joy and profound grief.

Allow Mary to be your tutor. While others were in denial, she was willing to identify with Jesus and give some of the comfort he desperately needed.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance …

Amen.

Getting in on the Deal

Fourth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (1 Cor. 5:18-20)

Here’s a truth about our world: it’s full of trouble spots. And we know this—don’t we?—all too well. Long-standing animosity too frequently bubbles up into provocation and retaliation. The tragic and brutal war being waged by Russia against Ukraine is but the latest and most frightening example. Most frightening, because it could so easily spiral out of control into an unbounded nuclear conflict.

Here’s another truth about our world: in most of the trouble spots upon this earth, there are dedicated people working behind the scenes—striving for concord, hammering out the details of cease-fires and peace treaties.

But, you know … even when these negotiators are successful, their diligent efforts are but rarely acknowledged. Usually, the credit goes to the respective leaders on whose behalf they have acted. And most often—to all the armchair diplomats who watch the evening news—their work seems far too slow.

That’s because, most of the time, all we get are dribs and drabs in news reports about how the peace negotiations are grinding on with a final agreement still not reached. Sometimes, their work is conducted entirely in secret, and we never hear any details whatsoever. But without these dedicated mediators, the world, I submit, would be even more tragic and dangerous than it already is.

In most cases, their task involves trying to piece together a patchwork of compromises such that each side gives up enough of what it was asking for so as to secure the end of hostilities—but not so much that they lose face; because that would leave them even more bitter and hostile.

If the peacemakers can succeed in forging such an agreement—so that both sides can accept it—then an end to the violent hostility can be secured, and the work of reconciliation can begin.

Always, some will be unhappy with what was given away. Perhaps some loss of sovereignty. Or perhaps some monster is guaranteed immunity from prosecution for grievous crimes. It’s not perfect.  However, the choice often is between compromises … or continued bloodshed.

According to the Apostle Paul, in today’s passage from his letter to the Corinthians, God has hammered out a peace agreement with the world, and has made some astonishingly big concessions in the process. Indeed, God has made exactly the sort of concessions that often cause complaining in peace agreements—most notably, offering us immunity from prosecution.

In fact, if you put the agreement God offers on the table next to some of the convoluted cease-fires and treaties that are painstakingly negotiated between hostile nations, you might start to wonder just what was in it for God.

You might be tempted to describe it as an almost complete capitulation by God. The Almighty seems to give up everythingoffer everything—and demand almost nothing in return. In particular, God promises to wipe clean the record of everything we have ever done wrong.

And as if such a complete immunity from prosecution was not enough, God also offers us high-ranking diplomatic positions.

That’s right. He wants us to be his ambassadors! God calls us to represent him in the ongoing task of promoting this one-sided agreement.

We can’t imagine any of the world’s superpowers ever making such a monumental capitulation. Something close might sometimes be extracted from a very guilty party who has been single-handedly responsible for the ongoing mess … But in the case of the reconciliation deal which God offers to the world, the one who clearly holds the moral high ground is the very one who is rolling over and conceding absolutely everything.

We are the ones who took God’s gift of a beautiful planet and set about polluting it and tearing it apart with war and hatred and injustice. We are the ones who were invited to live in peaceful communion with one another, and who instead hardened our hearts and succumbed to the demons of selfishness and greed and cynicism. We are the ones who squandered our gifts, blew our inheritance, and dragged our own names—and God’s name—through the mud.

So why is God making such big concessions to secure a peace agreement with us?

It’s hard to come up with a satisfactory answer. And yet, we witness the same scenario being played out in the story Jesus told about the prodigal son. The prodigal knows he’s got no bargaining power. He has blown his father’s trust and his father’s money. He has dragged his father’s name through the mud of the pig sty. And he is desperate. He is ready and willing to give up everything for whatever shreds of his father’s care might be forthcoming.

However, what transpires is amazing. In fact, it almost becomes a competition to see who can give up the most.

The aging father bounds down the street in a most undignified manner, throws himself on his errant son, forgives him everything, and then crowns him in glory and throws a huge welcome-home party for him.

And Jesus tells this story to illustrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. God is like that father, he says. Our God is the picture of boundless love, offering unconditional forgiveness.

What more could God give? Well actually, according to the apostle Paul, there is more. Reputation. God was in Christ, trading reputations with us. Christ, who was never implicated in any wrongdoing, accepted guilt by association with us.

Christ put his hand up and implicated himself in our callousness, injustice and hostility. He put his reputation on the table along with everything else to secure the deal. And, says the apostle, in doing so he paved the way for us to be implicated in his goodness. He made it possible for us to become—by association with him—righteous, and blameless before God.

This is the “extreme makeover” par excellence! Christ offers to be seen as ugly as we are, in order that we might become as perfectly beautiful and unblemished as him. No wonder Paul says we’d be crazy to turn our backs on this deal! It is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, but why on earth would you leave it? You’ve got everything to gain and almost nothing to lose.

The deal is completely stacked in our favour. We are offered complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, a new identity, a fresh start, mercy and healing and life and love beyond our wildest imaginings. And what are we asked in return? What do we have to put on the table to complete the deal?

Well, there’s a paradox here, because the answer is both nothing and everything. God actually demands nothing of us except our willingness to accept the deal, to sign our names on the line. Everything else is completely voluntary. God signs off on the deal regardless of our response. It is sheer gift. Nothing can break this agreement. God’s gracious acceptance of you cannot be nullified. God will be all over you like the prodigal’s father, lavishing love and generous gifts on you. And it costs you nothing at all.

And yet, like I said, there’s a paradox. Not a catch, but a paradox. And it’s this: if you give nothing in return … you will fail to appreciate—and fail to enjoy—even the lavish gifts you have been given. Then you’ll end up as sad and pathetic as the prodigal’s older brother who—even though he is now the sole heir to all his father owns—is weighed down by the burden of yesterday’s resentments.

That’s the awful truth. You can be forgiven, and yet still feel burdened. You can be accepted and still exclude yourself, refusing to join the banquet of celebration. You can be loved and still feel yourself unlovable.

In this season of Lent we are reminded again and again of the discipline and commitment required to experience the full fruits of life’s greatest gifts. They are gifts, and our response is purely voluntary, but unless we do volunteer and respond in full, the gift may again be squandered, and we may horribly short-change ourselves.

God calls us to become ambassadors for Christ, to be the ones who take the news of God’s gracious reconciliation and proclaim it and live it out so that the full dimensions of God’s gracious love might be obvious to all.

God’s offer is not dependent on our acceptance of the deal. But those of us who do not accept it …

Well, we will find that we are cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Because we will deprive ourselves of the here-and-now benefits of that gracious and healing love. Those benefits will still be there for us, but we will not take advantage of them.

What a tragedy. What a waste. What a shame.

Therefore … since God’s gift of reconciliation is so graciously free—and so extravagantly generous, let us respond to the challenge of this Lenten season by committing ourselves to the way of Christ. Let’s embrace the path of disciplined love: the path which leads all the way to the cross and beyond; the way which—in its very willingness to give up everything—opens our hearts to receive the fullness of life for which we hunger.

Perhaps that’s precisely the method in God’s madness. Perhaps that’s the secret God is enjoying and trying to let us in on: that, only in putting everything on the table—everything we are and everything we have—and then letting it go … can we enter into the fullness of life and love for which we were created.

May God’s Spirit guide our thinking as we ponder these things. Amen.

Come to the Waters

Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXTS: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7)

Journeying further along the pilgrim path of Lent, we stumble upon today’s story from the gospel of Luke, and we find it … Well, it’s a bit disconcerting, isn’t it?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Isn’t that a hopeful message for today? But there it is, a statement, an admonition, an exhortation straight from the lips of Jesus.

“Unless you repent, you will all perish.” So Jesus exhorts us all—not just once, but twice in this relatively short passage.  “Repent!”  The word hits us right between the eyes!  Whatever happened to “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? Whatever happened to “Come unto me, all you that are weary … and I will give you rest”? What about “Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”? (Matt. 11:28-30)

But no. “Repent or perish.” That’s how our gospel passage starts out. Then Luke shifts gears, and has Jesus tell a story about a fig tree and judgment and manure.  I would wager that this parable of the fig tree (or is it a parable about manure?) is less familiar to us than most of Jesus’ other teaching stories.

Sure, there are lots of parables scattered through the gospels that are about seeds and plants and trees and other things that grow and die. However, there are things that appear to set this story apart. The parable’s meaning does not seem obvious. It does not jump out at us in a clear way that makes us nod our heads in understanding. And, unfortunately, there’s no convenient part where the disciples ask Jesus to explain what it all means.

In the opening lines of our passage, somebody tells Jesus about a group of unfortunate Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.1 Most people in Jesus’ day believed that this sort of death—where life is cut short, where death is painful and shocking—was a sign of God’s judgment.

That wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion to draw from a study of the scriptures. Let’s face it: much of what we call the “Old Testament” promotes the idea that people with happy lives must be especially blessed by God. Consider Job, for example. Job was a faithful servant of God. Prior to his emergence as a cosmic bargaining chip, Job was blessed with family, land, home, livestock, and possessions of all sorts. These were supposed to be signs demonstrating his favour with God.

Perhaps we view God and God’s blessings somewhat differently today. Perhaps.

But perhaps not. When we are struggling financially, we wonder why God doesn’t bail us out. When a loved one dies tragically, we ask why God has forsaken us. And when things are going well for us, we thank God (if we remember). We see our good fortune as a sign of God’s blessings, and wonder what we’ve done wrong when things aren’t going our way.

Jesus steps up to challenge this presumption.

“Do you think,” he asks, “that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus continues with another example from a well-known engineering disaster,2 but his point is the same: The tragic death these Galileans suffered was not due to their supposed sinfulness or faithlessness. It was neither about God’s curse nor God’s blessing. Ultimately, what is called for, Jesus says, is our repentance. Unless we turn our lives around—unless we direct ourselves to God and God’s purposes for us—we are certain to perish, not in death, which finds us all, but in separation from God who loves us.

The second half of our passage seems to jump onto an entirely different track—as if we’re missing the middle chunk of the conversation. Jesus tells a parable about a man who planted a fig tree. The fig tree is a dud. It is not growing the fruit it is supposed to bear. This is annoying, because figs grow easily, under most conditions. For a fig tree to not bear fruit is a bad sign indeed. So the man is not being unreasonable when he orders his gardener to cut it down. The gardener, however, pleads for one more year. During this year, the gardener says he will pay special attention to the errant tree. After a year, if the plant still will not grow fruit, then, he will cut it down.

These passages ooze fear and dread, don’t they? In the first part, we get the idea that chaos and catastrophe can visit us at any moment, no matter what kind of lives we lead. We’re told to repent or perish. As simple as that.

As for the parable section … Well, if you’re familiar with Jesus’ parables, you’ve likely noticed that our human lives are often represented by the plants and trees in the stories he tells. In this case, we are the fig trees.

We are the fig trees? EEK! Does the Lord of the garden want to chop us down, because we’re not bearing fruit? I can hear the clock ticking, can’t you? Maybe some compassionate gardener will throw some manure on us, and buy us some extra time, but … we’ve still got to hurry and get to work bearing fruit. Or else.

Our reading from Isaiah, on the other hand, brings welcome relief from the impending doom of our gospel lesson. We read:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  (Isaiah 55:1-2)

These beautiful words conjure images of oasis in the midst of desert, refreshment in the midst of toil. And it’s all free! Now, this is a message we can get behind! What the prophet offers here is without cost to us. So, given the choice, we’d probably rather stick with this passage from Isaiah than ponder those unsettling words from Luke. But, as always, things aren’t so easy or straightforward as they seem.

We humans seem to rally behind either/or things in life. Know what I mean? We want it to be simple. We want things to be either right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, black or white. We want our choices clear and uncluttered. We want to know that if we do this or that, we are going to heaven or to hell. It’s a sin or else it’s not a sin.

Unfortunately, ours is not an either/or reality. We’re a complicated species, in a world full of all the shades of colour you can imagine—a world full of half-truths, lesser and greater evils, both/ands. The good news, though, is that living in a both/and world doesn’t have to be as bad or as confusing and uncomfortable as we might fear.

Somewhere along the path of Christian discipleship, we got it stuck in our heads that God is an either/or God. Either (1) we must keep our noses to the grindstone and earn our spot in heaven; or (2) our path is easy and God hands over grace and we don’t have to lift a finger. This second attitude is what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 3

God calls us to something more incredible: the joy of both/and. God’s grace is both totally free, and something that demands of us the hard and life-changing work of discipleship.

Turning back to the lesson from Luke, we hear Jesus calling us to repent, and reminding us that we are planted to bear fruit. But by God’s grace, Christ also bargains for us to have one more year. He promises to fertilize our lives with tender care, encouragement, and even some pruning. By God’s grace, we are called to come to the waters that Isaiah describes, and to drink deeply and freely. For, as Isaiah reminds us, God abundantly pardons us.

Here’s something to consider, though: free and easy are not the same things. Someone once said that the Christian life is like falling in love. And there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Love is something we know to be free. True love cannot be bought or sold. It is given and received as a gift. It is, indeed, free.

But easy? No one ever said love was easy, or that love did not require hard work, or care, or discipline. Love demands all these things. So it is with God’s grace. Grace is totally free. We cannot possibly earn it; if we tried, we would fail miserably. God gives grace freely. But easily? Not really.

A pastor I know—who had been present as a prayer counselor at an evangelistic rally—told me about one man who, after coming forward to receive Christ, said: “So, I’m good now, right? There’s nothing else I have to do?”

Taken aback for a moment, my friend replied, “No. You don’t have to do anything else. But you will want to!”

“You will want to.” As the Holy Spirit begins to work in your heart, you will want to do something else, something more. This is the truth about Christianity as presented in the New Testament.

We are called to repent, to be disciples, to choose the satisfying life of living water. Come to the waters, you who thirst. And drink deep of God’s free, challenging, difficult, and loving grace. Amen.

________________________

1 “Some who were present” reported to Jesus that the cruel governor Pontius Pilate had caused some Galileans to be murdered in the Temple. Their example was particularly gruesome, since at the moment the Galileans were killed, they were worshiping God by offering sacrifices according to their Jewish religious law. Those making the report were likely hoping Jesus would offer some explanation of why bad things happen to ordinary people—in this case, even in God’s house. The “sin and calamity” issue involves a presumption that an extraordinary tragedy in some way must signify extraordinary guilt. It assumes that a victim must have done something terrible for God to allow such tragedy to befall them.

2 The Tower of Siloam was a structure which fell upon 18 people, killing them. Siloam is a neighbourhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City.

3 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995 (pp. 44-45).

PROTECTING WINGS

Second Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Luke 13:31-35

Guard me as the apple of your eye. Hide me under the shadow of your wings … (Psalm 17:8)

Here’s a question for the hikers amongst you—especially those who love the mountains. And maybe it’s not going to be a real concern until a bit later on in spring, but … If you’re out hiking in the wilderness, and you come across a bear cub … or two or three bear cubs … What does that tell you?

It tells you that you need bear spray!  Because wherever the cubs are, you can be certain that their mother is nearby. And momma bear will not be happy to see you.

Female black bears give birth to two or three blind, helpless cubs in mid-winter and nurse them in the den until spring, when they all come out in search of food. The cubs will stay with their very protective mother for about two years.

Two years! That’s kind of a long time for young animals to stay with their mothers, isn’t it? It points to the fact that bear cubs take quite a while to … Well, to learn how to be bears! To learn how to be independent.

But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Far from it. They’re smart enough to know a good thing when they see it—that good thing being a 400-pound, fierce-looking creature who seems to always provide them with just exactly what they need. Why should they stray?

In some respects, bears, cats—and just about any other animal you’d care to mention—are brighter than people. The young, at least, have sense enough to stay close to momma—close to food, protection, warmth, and nurture.

You won’t find kittens turning away from the warm fur they know so well. Chicks do not wander from the protection of the hen’s wings. Such behaviour would run counter to their nature. It would go against the natural order God created.

Even the least intelligent animal offspring stay close to the one who gave them life. They cling to the one who nurtures and protects them.

But people? That’s another story. Human beings stray. All too often, we children of God exhibit the unnatural behaviour of turning away from the love and protection of the One who made us.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

In those words of Jesus, we hear the voice of God lamenting. We hear the sound of God’s heart breaking.

God loves his children with the tender, fierce love of a mother bear. And yet, says Jesus, the children have strayed: they have killed the prophets and cast stones at the Lord’s messengers. As a mother hen spreads her wings over her brood, so would God—in times of trouble—spread protective wings over his people. But—unaccountably, unnaturally, unrepentantly—his people are not willing to let him.

What chicks and kittens and bear cubs would not do—could not do—the children of God have done: they have counted the love and protection of God as nothing, choosing instead to go their own way.

How could this be? How could the children of Israel have been so foolish—so unnaturally rebellious—as to turn away from the warm, protecting wings of the Lord? Especially when those wings had brought them safe through so many difficulties. Especially when, time and time again, God had delivered them from their enemies, and blessed them so richly.

These are hard questions. But harder still is this question: How could we do such a thing? How can we be so foolish—or behave so unnaturally—as to stray from the sheltering love of God?

Yes, these hard questions turn back upon us. Because times of trouble do come. Sometimes even the strongest among us can feel desperately insecure. Perhaps most of our days are filled with anxiety. Looking up, we do not see protective wings spread over us—just a vast expanse of empty sky.

We know what that feels like, don’t we?

Who among us has never tossed and turned through a sleepless night, or felt the dread of death or of old age as it draws nearer? Who among us has not felt the fear of loneliness? Or worried about our children’s future? Or agonized over finances?

Who among us has not been ashamed to look in the mirror because of something we’ve said, or done? Who among us has never hated, or envied, or lusted, or lied? Who among us has not wandered? Wandered far, far away from God’s protective wings?

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

God’s lamenting cry rings sharply in our ears because we, too, have not been willing. We have not been willing to hear the voice of comfort. We have stopped our ears against the call of invitation. We are unwilling to bring our worries, our pain—and especially, our sin—to the One who loves us.

Instead, we scratch around through life, pecking the ground, hoping to stumble upon some crumb that will fill our stomachs, numb our minds, and make us forget how far we have wandered from God’s parental care.

The story is told about a man whose marriage was in trouble. In desperation, he sought help from his pastor.

His pastor told him, “You must learn to listen to your wife.”

The man took this advice to heart.

A month later, he returned, saying that he had indeed learned to listen to every word his wife was saying.

“Good,” said the pastor. “Now, go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”

We do not need to feel anxious because of our daily troubles—the irritations, hassles, and problems of work and school.

We do not need to come home and anesthetize our minds with food and drink, household chores and television—anything and everything to keep from thinking about the damning distance—the strange silence—of God in our daily lives.

We do not need to do this because God is speaking to us. He is speaking to us in the words he does not say, as much as he speaks to us in the words that he does say.

Listen. Hear. The words of invitation are being spoken: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Even now, the Mother Hen would gather us in the shadow of her outstretched wings—warm and secure, next to the beating heart of God. Even now, God bids us to come—to trust, to rely on his protection and nurture and guidance.

And you know, this is not the first time God has called us.

When we have prospered, he has called to us—reminding us from whence all prosperity arises; to return to him and give thanks; to share with our brothers and sisters in holiness and righteousness.

In times of joy and certainty, God has called us to acknowledge his part in it—and to share with others the gift of hope.

When we have sinned, God has urged us to repentance—calling us to return to him in the confidence that we will be forgiven.

God has called to us many times:  through the water of baptism; through the blood of Jesus; from the empty tomb. When we joined the church, we were made part of Christ’s body—and God welcomed us into his family, his flock, his holy brood. And he pledges to us the fierce devotion, love, and protection that we only see dimly mirrored in nature.

However—whereas animals can and will protect and care for their young only for a limited time—God pledges his love and his nurture for all eternity. This is true security we are being offered, my friends. This is solid protection.

Rather than some empty promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us, God’s promise assures us that—whatever happens, whatever problems may plague us, whatever fear may confront us, whatever sin may assail us—we will never find ourselves defenceless or forgotten; for we stand under the protection of God’s wings. We are shielded by God’s mercy, forgiven by God’s grace, and strengthened by the divine power with which we are fed.

Years ago, I heard a story about a woman who grew up in a farming community. On the day that the hen house burned down on her grandpa’s place, she arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As she and her grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead. Her top feathers were singed by the fire’s heat. Her neck was limp.

The granddaughter bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as she did so, she felt movement. The hen’s four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body.

They had survived because they were insulated by the shelter of their mother’s wings—protected and saved, even as she died to protect them and save them.

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …”

This very day, Jesus Christ is calling—to you, and to me.

He calls us to the shelter of his protecting wings.

He calls us to the safety of his arms stretched out for us upon the cross.

He calls us to trust him—no matter what our fears, or hurts, or troubles.

He calls us to trust that his outstretched arms are strong enough—his wings broad enough—to keep us forever safe.

In the shadow of those wings, let us find our refuge. Amen.

 

A LENTEN DISCIPLINE

First Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Luke 4:1-13

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Those are the first words out of the devil’s mouth, in today’s gospel lesson. And all the temptations that Luke tells us about were like that—during his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus had to face some tough questions about himself.

What was he supposed to do with the powers he possessed? Was he to prove himself? Should he conjure up bread—like manna in the wilderness? Should he test God to look after him? Why not? The devil asks him that, quoting Psalm 91’s promise to the Messiah:

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,

   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12)

But of course, Jesus knew that it was part of the Mosaic law not to test God (Deut. 6:16). That was something the people of Israel had learned in the desert (Psalm 95:8-11).

In a brilliant reflection on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor—who is one of the best preachers around today—writes about Jesus’ ordeal in the desert, and how he passed his test with flying colours:

“Since you’ve already heard about a million sermons on what Jesus and the devil said to each other, I thought I’d skip that part today, especially since neither of us is likely to be put to the exact same test. When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.” *

Barbara Brown Taylor is quite correct: you and I are not going to get the “Son of God test.” And thank heaven for that! But you know, we are going to get a test, if we say we’re serious about this discipleship thing. Maybe we’ll get it during Lent this year. Maybe not. Maybe it won’t happen like that. Maybe it won’t last 40 days. Maybe it’ll be less … maybe it’ll be more!

Our wilderness probably won’t look like the Judean desert. Maybe it’ll look like a hospital room. Or the face of someone we’ve hurt, with eyes that ask us, “Why?”

As Barbara Brown Taylor also said, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.”

But whatever your “wilderness test” is going to look like—and whenever you’re going to find yourself taking it—Lent is a great opportunity to cram for the examination!

The Lenten season, traditionally, is not just about starving yourself or temporarily giving up chocolate. It is a time when those who are serious about Christian discipleship are invited to undertake some kind of serious spiritual discipline—the sort of thing that will make us ask hard questions … Like: What are we going to do with the powers—the gifts, the talents, the blessings—that we have been given? Or: How can I become the kind of person God wants me to be? How can I discover God’s purpose for my life?

If you care about questions like that, I have a suggestion for you. Once upon a time, someone asked me what kind of “spiritual discipline” I would recommend for Lent. That kind of surprised me—because people almost never ask me questions like that. Usually, the questions I get asked are more like: “Why do I have to fill out a pledge card?” Or: “What’s the bare minimum I can get away with doing, in order to satisfy God that I’m a good person?”

But, what kind of spiritual discipline would I recommend? Wow. The person who asked that question had obviously noticed that “discipline” is the root word of “discipleship.” The person who asks a question like that is ready to move up in the school of Christ—up beyond kindergarten! And that’s something—because very, very few of us seem ever to want to do that.

So, today—just in case some others of you are eyeing the first grade, and wondering whether you’ve got the right stuff—I’m going to give you my recommendation. I’m going to describe to you a very simple spiritual exercise. This is something any one of you can do at home, and it will cost you almost nothing (in terms of money, anyway). It’s called a “spiritual inventory”—and all you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Or a crayon.

I recommend doing this at the end of the day—and then reviewing it in the morning. You begin by drawing a cross on your piece of paper—so you have two columns on the page. Label one column, “positive.” Label the other one, “negative.” (Or “good” and “bad,” if you like.)

Then look back over the previous 24 hours.

In the “positive” column, list all the things you can think of that have been good about the day: things that went right; temptations you resisted; problems you overcame—stuff that makes you smile when you think about it.

In the “negative” column, list all the stuff that does not make you smile: problems and temptations that overcame you; untruths you told—or truths you should have told, but didn’t; people you hurt, or treated unfairly … you get the picture!

And then, underneath the columns—beneath the cross—make a space to write “actions.” Here, you need to explain what you’re going to do about the stuff at the top of the page.

Are there blessings you need to celebrate somehow? Bow your head right away, and say “thank you” to God. And make sure you tell somebody about how good the Lord has been to you. Write down some musings about how you might go about “paying forward” the blessing you’ve received, by doing good for someone else.

And then, there’s the tough stuff …

Do you have amends to make? A lie to own up to? Someone to whom you owe an apology? Is there a debt it is now time to repay? Is there something that’s been eating away at your conscience—not just over the past 24 hours, but for days and weeks and months and years? Maybe now is the time to finally decide to face the problem, and resolve it.

Remember how I said this was a simple exercise? I never said it was easy—I just said it was simple. It’s funny, isn’t it, how many things in life are like that—especially the stuff that’s really worth doing. So if you decide to undertake this Lenten exercise—this “spiritual challenge”—I would counsel you to begin, always, with prayer. Ask God to help you face your demons—to guide you and keep you honest as you examine your heart and prepare your inventory. Do that every night, before you set pen to paper.

Then, in the morning, before you sit down to read what you’ve written the previous evening, pray again. Ask God to give you the diligence and the courage to carry out your “to do” list—both the “celebrating” part and the “making amends” part.

Do I really recommend you undertake this spiritual exercise? Yes! Yes, I absolutely do. I don’t recommend that you show your list to anybody else—because it’s a lot easier to be completely honest if you keep it private. But yes, I commend this little bit of wilderness-type reflection to you through Lent. I recommend you start right away—tonight, or tomorrow night. And I recommend you keep it up every day from now until at least the end of the Lenten season.

Why? Because if you make this inventory once or twice … well, it’ll open your eyes to some things. But if you make your inventory every day for the next month—and especially if you then act upon what you learn about yourself—I promise you: it will change your life!

And that’s what Lent is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

(Psalm 139:23-24)

 

Gracious God, as I review my day, I come before you in prayer. Grant me the willingness to see what you would have me see, in the light you would have me see it. Liberate me from morbid reflection, fear, obsessive guilt and dishonesty. I am in the dark, blind to my own selfishness and greed. I do not see my pride and defensiveness. I am anxious, but I deny even my anxiety. Reveal to me the error of my ways. Show me where I need to change. Show me where you would correct me and heal me. Help me to take inventory, leading me in the way of Jesus. Amen.

________________________

 

* https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf2002924/the_wilderness_exam

 

PAYING ATTENTION

Transfiguration Sunday

TEXTS: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29-30)

And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And then Moses and Elijah—both of them dead (or at least, gone from this earth) for hundreds of years—appeared on the mountain to have a conversation with him.

Moses, you’ll remember, was the one who heard God speaking from a burning bush; who turned the Nile River into blood; who parted the Red Sea and got water out of a rock.

Elijah—you may also remember—raised the dead, called fire down from the sky, and ascended to heaven in a blazing chariot. The Bible says Elijah never died; he just rode up into the sky in a UFO (or something like that).

There are tons and tons of miracle stories in the Bible—mysterious, awe-inspiring, wondrous accounts. They’re hard to believe—because they’re impossible to explain.

We live in an age of science. Astronomy, biology, physics and the other natural sciences have been able to answer questions that were unanswerable just a few decades ago. After the James Webb Space Telescope was launched, astronomers announced that—once the project was completed—they hoped to see far enough out in space (and thus, far enough back in time) to witness the echo of the big bang and the beginning of the universe.

Just over 20 years ago, Francis Collins* and his associates produced a map of the entire human genome sequence. As a result, medical scientists have been able to discover the causes of certain diseases, and—more importantly—to predict a time in the not-too-distant future when cures will be brought about, not by drugs or by surgery, but by repairing or replacing malformed or damaged genes.

We live in an age of science. We look to science to answer our questions, to solve our problems, to explain our world. And I, for one, am glad that we have come to look to science—and not to magic or speculation—to answer our questions about the natural world. We have all benefited from advances in science—such as the COVID vaccines which have helped ameliorate the worst effects of our ongoing pandemic (at least in the developed world). Some of us wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for medical marvels like antibiotics, insulin, transplant surgery, and cardiac pacemakers (to name just a few).

Now, if you’ve ever taken any kind of science course, you’ll know something about the scientific method. Science is based on empirical evidence. It is skeptical of all hypotheses and claims of proof. Scientists want to see all the facts, and they caution us against drawing unjustified conclusions from insufficient evidence. That’s good advice. If you follow it, you’ll be much less likely to be taken in by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

The scientist’s job is to be skeptical of any theory until all the facts are in. Science measures things, and quantifies things, and shows us how they work. A rainbow, for instance, is not the result of gods painting the sky. It is the result of light being prismatically reflected through water droplets. Science can tell us that.

Unfortunately, our dependence on science comes with a cost. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that [our ancestors had], because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”

How sad it is (at least, I think it’s sad) that, in our day, religion and science seem to be at war. Like genome scientist Francis Collins, I lament this. I think it’s tragic. Science is the best method humanity has ever devised with regard to knowing things about the physical world. Still, it is important to remember both what science does and what science cannot do.

In a sense, the job of science is to remove the magic and the mystery from the world, to come to know what can be known about things through observation and testing and measurement. But as any good scientist will tell you, that’s about all science can do. It can tell us how, but not—in the ultimate sense—why.

For example, science can explain to a great degree how the world came to be and how you and I came to be part of it. It can uncover the early aftermath of the big bang and piece together eons of human evolutionary development until we get to you and me today. But science cannot tell us why the world came to be, or why you and I are here, or why there should be something instead of nothing.

Here’s another example (though, of course, it doesn’t apply to everyone). Science can explain why most men are attracted to women and vice versa. It’s an evolutionary, biological, hard-wired need to preserve the species. It’s hormonally-based; and/or it’s a psychological predisposition; and/or it’s a result of social or cultural training.

Science can explain sexual attraction. It can explain why a handsome young man and an attractive, healthy woman of reproductive age seek each other out. Science can explain attraction—but science cannot explain love.

Science cannot explain why, 40 years later—not as healthy, not as good-looking and far beyond reproductive age—that same man sits by the hospital bed of that same woman night after night holding her hand, praying that she survives cancer. Science cannot explain why he would be willing—in the blink of an eye—to change places with her, to die himself if that would mean that she could live.

Science can measure and study and explain the need of a species to reproduce itself and survive. But science cannot explain love. Yet love is as real as reproduction. It is as real as it is unexplainable. Down through the centuries, human love has remained a mystery—a holy mystery—that lies beneath what we can evaluate and measure and see.

What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration in today’s Gospel reading was something like that, I think. Peter and James and John all knew Jesus very well. And since they had been willing to leave their livelihoods and follow Jesus, they obviously thought highly of him, and of his teaching. They considered him to be an extraordinary rabbi. They had even come to see Jesus as the promised Messiah—the one God had chosen to liberate Israel.

Even so, to Peter and James and John, Jesus was just a man. To be sure, he was a singularly inspiring teacher. He was a charismatic leader, healer, and exorcist. But still, to them, he was nothing more than a remarkable human being. Then—suddenly, on the mountain, for just a moment—they were able see beneath Jesus’ ordinary humanity. Suddenly—in this Jesus they thought they knew so well—they saw the very presence, the very holiness, the very glory of God.

This, my friends, is revelation. It is mystery. It can be neither explained nor debunked. Like true love, it is a reality that’s too deep to measure.

Again and again in the Bible—if we read it carefully—we encounter this truth: in ordinary things and ordinary people, there is a “hidden holiness.”  It exists in ordinary things like water in the baptismal font or bread and wine upon the Communion table. God has chosen to make these ordinary things holy for us. Holiness is also hidden in ordinary people like us. As we gather together to sing and pray, to speak and listen, we become—through the grace of God—the very body of Christ.

The job of science is to remove the mystery from the world. The job of faith is to show us the holy mystery which is present everywhere.

How many of you have seen the movie, The Wizard of Oz? Remember the scene where Dorothy and her companions puled back the curtain to reveal the “Magnificent Oz”? He was revealed to be a very ordinary human being—not at all a powerful and terrible wizard, but just an old man with a lot of technology at his disposal. What you see at work in that scene is science, debunking the hoax of the “great wizard.”

And yet, you’ll also remember that this pretender was in fact able to give each of the seekers exactly what he or she needed—courage for one, a heart for another, a brain for another, a return home for Dorothy. That, my friends, is faith. Faith sees the possibilities that lie beneath what looks so ordinary.

As I’m sure you know, Lent begins a few days from now, on Ash Wednesday. Someone once said that prayer is about paying attention. Perhaps that’s the work that’s cut out for us during Lent this year: to learn to pay attention! Perhaps we are being called to a particular work of prayer: to pray that our eyes might be opened to the holiness that lies behind the ordinary things around us—that, indeed, lies within each of us, ordinary though we may be.

Perhaps this is the time for us to ask the Holy Spirit to show us—as he showed Peter and James and John—just who Jesus really is, and what he means to each one of us.

If we pay attention, we might come to see that our communities are holy. We might come to know that our world is holy, that God permeates every atom of it. We might come to realize that we are holy—that God dwells not in a tabernacle or a temple or a church, but in us. That really would be transfiguring knowledge, wouldn’t it?

__________

* Francis Sellers Collins (1950-), M.D., Ph.D., is an American physician and geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time.” He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Openly Christian, Collins wrote a book about his faith (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, 2006) which spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. For a fascinating look at this man who is both scientist and believer, see his biography in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins

 

WHAT MORE IS THERE TO SAY?

TEXTS: Job 38:1-11; Luke 8:22-39

One day [Jesus] and his disciples got in a boat. “Let’s cross the lake,” he said. And off they went. It was smooth sailing, and he fell asleep. A terrific storm came up suddenly on the lake. Water poured in, and they were about to capsize. They woke Jesus: “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
Getting to his feet, he told the wind, “Silence!” and the waves, “Quiet down!” They did it. The lake became smooth as glass.
Then he said to his disciples, “Why can’t you trust me?”
They were in absolute awe, staggered and stammering, “Who is this, anyway? He calls out to the winds and sea, and they do what he tells them!”
—Luke 8:22-25, The Message *

 

Not long ago, I was sitting with a friend discussing this passage from Luke, and she said to me, “The other Jesus is much easier to take than this one.”

That puzzled me. I didn’t know what she meant. There is only one Jesus, after all.

So, she explained. “I can wrap my head around a human Jesus,” she said. “You know, the sweet, ‘let the little children come to me’ Jesus. The ‘Sermon on the Mount Jesus.’ The guy you could have a beer with, and share a few laughs.”

Then I began to understand what she meant: a down-to-earth Jesus. A rabbi Jesus with good sermons. That makes sense—but this Jesus does not!

As I thought about what she said—and read the gospel lesson once again—it struck me that my friend is a lot like those first disciples.

I mean, let’s face it—not all miracles are the same.

Maybe up to this point Peter and the others thought that Jesus was doing magic tricks!

Now, I don’t think they were unimpressed. I’m sure they realized that Jesus was working miracles when he cured someone’s leprosy or made a paralytic stand up and walk. Those are miracles, for sure! But we can imagine a doctor doing those same kinds of things.

The Jesus they had known up to this point was a guy who helped people and told great stories. So maybe, in the back of their minds, they viewed his healing miracles as being something like really cool magic tricks. But then they set out in the boat, and a storm came up, and … Well, we know the story. Jesus calmed the violent waves. He made the wind run out of breath!

How on earth do you wrap your head around this? Verse 25 captures their amazement: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”

The key word in the text is “even”—even the wind, even the waves. This Messiah is too much. He’s scary. His power is absolutely terrifying. It is easier—and way more comfortable—to keep the image of God locked up inside the temple, back in the Holy of Holies, behind a thick veil. It’s easier to offer sacrifices. It’s easier to be ceremonial.

But what do you do when God is standing right in front of you?

Now he’s in the boat with us. Now he’s telling all of Creation what to do, and it listens! It’s one thing to preach to a thousand people, but it’s quite another to command the sea and have it obey.

Our Old Testament reading—the one from the Book of Job—sets the context of Jesus’ miracle.

As chapter 38 of Job opens, the Lord has been pretty quiet—up until now. Job’s suffering has included disease, and undeserved misfortune, and even the loss of his children. His own wife is urging him to curse God so that he can just die and get this over with.

Meanwhile, Job’s friends are trying to figure it all out. Perhaps Job sinned in some unknown way. Perhaps God has abandoned him. Nobody understands the suffering that’s going on, and so they just point the finger—at Job, at circumstances, at God himself.

Just like in chapter eight of Luke, the question being asked is: “Don’t you care, God? Don’t you care that I’m about to die?”

“Master, Master, we are perishing!” We’re going to drown.

For Job, the storm is not upon the ocean, but within his own body and soul. It’s an emotional and physical storm, and it’s shaking Job to his core, undermining his faith and wrecking his life.

For 37 chapters, God takes all this finger-pointing from Job and his friends. Then, finally, in chapter 38, God speaks: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Who determined its measurements … who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk … who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? … who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” (Job 38:2, 4-8)

“Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” Now, there is the point! In Genesis and in Job, the sea is God’s child. He created it and he tells it what to do.

When Jesus demonstrates his power over the sea and the waves, he is making a statement about who he is. The disciples ask the question: “Who is this?”—but is it not obvious? He is the same one who measured out all of Creation and gave birth to the sea. Of course the sea listens to him; it’s his baby!

In the end, the Lord shows Job that he does care—just like Jesus cares for his disciples. God heals Job, and rebuilds his life, and even gives him new children. Sin, and death, and Satan himself brought a terrible storm—and profound suffering—upon poor old Job, but the second half of Job’s life was twice as good as the first (Job 42:12). And he lived another 140 years, spending his life with his children and their children to the fourth generation.

Does God care? Of course he cares! Job testifies that the grace and love of God are so immense that they swallow up even the worst of his suffering. They swallow up the sin, and the death, and even the Satanic curse that tried to destroy him. God cares.

Another story about God and the sea is found in Psalm 107. His people were crying out, looking for help, and God stilled the waters and delivered them: “the stormy wind … lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity … Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” (Psalm 107:25-29)

Yet another Scripture I could point to is Second Corinthians chapter six, verse two, where God says: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” And then Paul adds: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

Here’s the point the disciples in the boat were missing. The day of salvation is here! And it’s here with us, today! The Messiah has come not only to heal, but also to rescue, to redeem, to forgive! Salvation is here. Jesus is in control.

When the storm became violent, and the disciples were afraid, it was easy for them to point the finger at God and ask, “Don’t you care?” But you know, they didn’t understand the reason for them being in the boat. How could they? It hadn’t happened yet. However, as soon as they landed on the other shore, they discovered God’s purpose.

As Luke goes on to explain, on the other side of the lake, “they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him” (Luke 8:26-27).

Look at what’s on the other side of the water! The disciples didn’t know it, but they were heading to the region of the Gerasenes to meet a man so demon-possessed that he broke chains with his bare hands and was living in a cemetery. His suffering, his possession, was so profound that thousands of demons were living inside of him—a legion of unclean spirits, as the Bible says.

But of course, even a billion demons are no match for Jesus! He casts all of them out of the man, and restores him to “his right mind.”

That storm at sea merely foreshadowed the real battle they were about to face. They were going to step onto a spiritual combat zone. There’s nothing easy about fighting the powers of evil.

As that small boat was being tossed on the waves, Satan was making a last-ditch attempt to block what Jesus was coming to do. But the disciples didn’t know that. They could not comprehend the forces which were at work.

Perhaps that’s our problem, also. Every day, we come up against forces which are beyond our comprehension. Sin and death find a thousand ways to complicate our lives. They take people from families and destroy them with alcohol and drugs. They rip Adam from Eve and overwhelm them with guilt and shame. They turn Cain against Abel. They manufacture golden calves of false worship. They cause poverty and injustice and prejudice. They create diseases like leprosy and cancer and COVID-19.

The suffering of humanity is impossible for us to comprehend, and—when we are caught up in it—we feel like we’re on the edge of a hurricane.

Jesus cares about his disciples—but he’s not about to sail away from the storm. He wants to sail directly into it, because that’s the only way he can rescue humankind from sin, and death, and evil. As his followers, that’s our calling, as well. And it is not going to be easy, or comfortable, or neat.

It’s ugly, getting knee-deep in the mire of this world’s suffering. Helping those in need is messy. Walking with people through abuse, addiction, cancer, betrayal and divorce … that’s hard! But it’s what Jesus asks us to do.

We are called to bring the forgiveness and redemptive work of the cross to every person we meet—to love them, to remind them of God’s forgiveness, and to draw them into Christian community. The day of salvation is here.

Maybe it seems insensitive for Jesus to take a nap. Maybe it seems harsh for him to ask why the disciples are afraid and why they have so little faith. But he’s trying to make them grasp something far greater than this life. He’s trying to show them that the Kingdom of Heaven is entering into our world to crush the head of evil.

To be sure, if we answer Jesus’ call, sometimes we will feel like Job. We will be afraid in the boat, just like the disciples were. We will lose those we love. We will watch people we care about being eaten by disease and despair.

But—and this is an important “but”—Jesus says there is a difference with us.

The difference with us is that when we experience something terrible, we will fight to get rid of it—to free our world from whatever it is. The difference with us is that we never give up hope. When we are touched by Christ, he gives us the energy—and the courage—to sail straight into the storm.

What more does God need to say to us? Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and the waves, and then … the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Jesus’ love is more powerful than any storm we will encounter in this life.

“Peace! Be still, and know that I am God.”

Surely, that’s all he needs to say to us. And surely, that is enough!

_____________________________________

* The Message Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson