Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered in worship to consider the mystery of the resurrection of the body that is so central to the Christian faith.  Our texts included Job 19:23-27 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  You can read the manuscript, and you can also click on the arrow on the left of the bar just below this paragraph to hear the sermon as recorded in worship on April 2, 2017. 

If you are unable to hear the sermon by clicking on the bar above, please visit https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/sermon04-02-17.mp3  Ignore the rather confused older man speaking in the beginning of the recording.  I’m sure he means well.  He’s a nice guy, and mostly harmless.

I have a confession to make.

For a minister, I don’t talk about heaven very much. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable.

There are a few reasons for that. For starters, I’m really wary of what might be termed a “transactional faith”, in which I try to boil the entire message of the scripture to a simple exchange wherein I insist that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that I could get my sorry butt into heaven when I die. I know, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but the truth is that’s what a lot of us believe and you can visit any Christian bookstore in the world and find volumes and volumes written from that particular perspective. Jesus came to save my soul from the fires of hell. Amen. I think that there has to be more to it than that.

Another reason I don’t like to talk about heaven too much is that I find myself agreeing with famed American author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who once complained that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” You know people like that – they are so set on getting pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye that they can’t be trusted to do the shopping or clean up from the youth group meeting…

And lastly, I think I don’t often bring up heaven because I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand it all that well. Is heaven a real place? What happens to us when we die? Our bodies decompose and fade away… but what happens to the “us” that is “us”? I mean, you can send out a tweet that makes heaven sound pretty good, but the more you think about it, the more questions we face…

Detail from School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1511)

When I was a child, there was an old lithograph that hung above the sofa in the living room. We weren’t usually allowed to spend much time in that room – it was for the grownups – but I’ll always remember this image of “The School of Athens.” In it, we see Plato and his star pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle is gesturing outward, indicating his belief that what truly matters is that which is tangible and can be empirically experienced. Plato, on the other hand, points to the heavens as he indicates that ultimate reality is always and only spiritual – the things that we think we see or experience here on earth are only shadowy forms of something more real or more true in the spiritual realm.

I’m not sure why my mother chose to hang that print there. It may be that there was a give-away at the grocery store and she had a blank spot on the wall. It may be that she had a soft spot for ancient philosophy of which I was unaware. But that image captures what was the dominant western mindset at the time the Bible was written: that to be human means that we possess a body and a soul. When we die, our body rots away, but our soul is freed for eternity. The soul is limited by the reality that the physical body imposes, and once death arrives our soul is finally able to achieve the state for which it was intended.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly parting with Life, William Blake (1813)

For too many Christians, that view has received a quick baptism and has become our dominant belief. We are born into this vale of tears and suffering, and for a while we do our best. But eventually, these bodies fail us and our spirits are freed to go to heaven where the troubles of the physical existence will be forgotten.

When we think about humans as having an immortal soul, we get into trouble. For one thing, that diminishes the significance of the bodies we’ve been given. If there is no value to the human form, then why bother to help those who are suffering through famine or natural disaster? I mean, if this life is so horrible, then why not rejoice when you get to leave it and go straight to heaven? And if this physical existence is not significant, then why should I care about climate change or pollution or the health of the planet?

If my immortal soul is the only thing that matters, then who gives a hoot about what I do with my body or to yours?

But you would say, I hope, that those things do matter. That the ways we interact with each other, the things we do with and to our bodies, and the ways we relate to the cosmos that surrounds us – they all matter.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c.1512)

That is, I hope, because you’ve come to embrace the biblical truth that the notion of an immortal soul trapped in a decaying and virtueless body is simply a lie. When the Bible talks about how life came into being, we’re told that God scooped up some of the dust – which he’d already made and pronounced as “good” – and breathed into it the breath of life. When the breath of God met the dust of earth, the man was given nephesh – a life force. Neither the breath of God nor the dust of the earth is the totality of this experience of true life… our existence is the product of both these things.

Scripture is pretty clear about the value of our physical selves. Leaf through just about any book of the Bible and you’ll find laws about what God’s people should or should not eat, or wear, or do with their bodies. More than that, there are expectations as to how we treat each other and animals, too. We are even instructed to care for the earth.

All of this points to a value of the tangible, physical, corporeal self. The truth of scripture is that whatever makes you who you are is some combination of your body, your mind, and your heart.

That is to say, there is not some essential “Daveness” that can be isolated merely from the things that I think or feel. I am a white male human who has taken 56 trips around the sun. I have a lot of hair, high cholesterol, and a body mass index that is way too high according to that scary chart my doctor has hanging in his exam room. All of those things contribute to me knowing who I am. I am not, nor have I ever been, and nor will I ever be a “real” Dave that is tethered to an irrelevant bag of bones that my soul just has to cart around until I die.

The Bible teaches that the creation of all that is, seen and unseen, was beautiful and right and true… until somehow, it was not. That which was perfect became sullied and imperfect; things that were designed for life began to suffer death. But the Creator, not wanting to see the universe so twisted, began to talk of making things right. The means of this making things right is resurrection.

There is a current reality, which you and I are experiencing right now. You are aware of the hardness of your seat, the temperature of this room, and the effectiveness of your morning coffee. When this current reality has run its course, it will be replaced by a new reality that not only contains the essence of that which we know now, but fully matches the intentions of the Creator. The prophets all talked about the “new heavens and the new earth.”

Job pointed to this in the passage you heard a few moments ago. He was in the midst of pain and alienation and estrangement, and yet declared that somehow, in all of his Job-ness, he would encounter the Divine. He saw his flesh heading to destruction, but he trusted that such was not the end. There would be, in some fashion, a re-making.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, lays out a careful theology of resurrection. In chapter 15, he points to the resurrected Jesus as the indicator of that which is to come in all of creation. Using the analogy of a garden, he compares our current physical selves with seeds that undergo several transformational steps, and yet retain their full integrity at every stage.

For instance, I could show you a seed, a tree, a blossom, a piece of fruit, and a pie. If I were to ask, “What kind is this?”, the answer in every shape and form would be “apple.” The appearance and in fact the cell structure, aroma, sound – all would be different in each of these expressions of that which we call “apple”, but each of these is, undeniably, “apple.”

As a gardener and baker, I seek to be attentive to “apple” in whatever form I find it – treating each iteration of “apple” with attentiveness and respect even as I do what I can to appreciate what it is, what it has been, and what it might become. I can only be faithful with what I have in front of me at the moment and seek to create a future in which that which is now only potential might, in fact, be realized.

You and I, along with the entire created order, are, I believe, headed toward a reality in which beauty, grace, integrity, love, relationship, truth, worship, and God are all central. Those are things that matter forever. Our task, therefore, at this particular juncture of space and time, is to be attentive to those things in such a way that prepares us to experience eternal reality. We are called to practice those things in whatever way we can right now even while we wait for a fuller and richer understanding and experience of them in the future that God has prepared.

Listen: when I was in high school, I was hired to teach a young man named Billy how to play the trombone. Each week, I was given $7 to sit next to him on the piano bench in his living room. I showed him the positions of the slide, talked with him about his embouchure, and noted the importance of emptying the spit valve in appropriate places. I was a fair trombonist at the time, and the band in which I played won some renown.

That was forty years ago. I’m not sure I could find my trombone these days – but I know that it’s dusty and unused. I couldn’t tell you how spell embouchure to save my life. Yet if you were to Google my former student, you’d find that he’s a professional trombonist who has performed in many, many venues and led great musical ensembles.

Why?

Because he did what I stopped doing: he practiced. In 1977, I was a waaaaaaay better trombonist than Billy was. And yet today, he’s wearing tuxedos and blowing his horn in ways that he would not have believed then and I can only dream about now. Because he practiced.

“The trombone will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (I Cor. 15:53) I know, your translations say “trumpet”, but I’m convinced that there’s been an error in the Greek manuscripts…

The resurrection of the dead is not just some amazingly complicated mystery that preachers fall all over themselves to explain. It is where we are headed. And since it’s our future, I’d suggest that we practice resurrection living right now.

I know… we’re not very good at it all the time. We fail, and we try again. We fall, and we get back up. We sleep, and we are jolted awake. We suffer, and we look toward healing. Each of these is a mini-resurrection that is in some way preparing us for that which is to come.

In his amazingly profound book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

We are God’s people, called to practice God’s way of resurrection life. We do this all in the context of the relationships we have, using the bodies we’ve been given in the knowledge that one day our understanding and experience and our selves will be complete.

How does it work? I’m not sure, exactly.

But I want to keep practicing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

St. John the Baptist, El Greco, c. 1600

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Why Are People Good?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 14, we read the beginning of that work (Job 1:1-11) and wondered about what it means to be good, do good, and work for good.  

 

StarWarsA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

You know that story, right – at least some of it? So let me ask you: is it true? All that stuff about the rebels and the Empire and Luke and Leia and Yoda… Is it true?

Well, I guess that depends on what we mean by “true”, right? Am I asking, “Did it really happen?” Or am I asking, “Does it ever happen?”

Think about the message and content of the Star Wars saga:

  • Humans exist in a world in which good and evil are at war, and often it appears as though evil holds the upper hand.
  • There is a Force, and it is with you.
  • The old masters have a way of life and faith to which young followers are called
  • There is life beyond that which we can see

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes there is more to “truth” than simple history. I’m pretty sure that George Lucas made up the story about Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. But I’m equally certain that it’s true.

Which brings me to the scriptural text for this morning, the opening verses of the book of Job. In spite of the fact that it’s closer to the middle of the Old Testament, most scholars believe that this is the oldest book in the Bible. It is among the most ancient pieces of writing on the planet, in fact. We know this because of the style of the Hebrew in which the book is written. You know that all languages change and develop. If old William Shakespeare were writing in 2016 instead of 1592, he would not have Juliet say, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Instead, the troubled lover would say something like “O, Romeo! Why do you have to be called Romeo?” When you read Shakespeare, you know that you are reading something from an earlier age, right? It’s the same with Job. The language and expressions are all in a kind of writing we call “paleo-Hebrew”. This story of an amazingly good and upright man who is beset by all kinds of problems is very, very old.

But did the events described in this story actually happen? I don’t have a clue.

Do these things happen? Every single day.

It’s hard to imagine a person alive who is not familiar with the questions raised by Job – questions that we’ll consider throughout this Lenten season.

  • Is God really in charge?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • What do I do when someone I love is in pain?
  • Is it OK to question God?

In fact, if there is anyone here who has NOT wrestled with these questions, please speak to me immediately following the service, because I have some questions for you!

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

For now, let’s dive in to this ancient text and say hello to Job.

The first thing we learn about Job is that he is, by all accounts, an incredible guy. “The greatest man among all the people in the East,” in fact. How do we know that? What is the criteria for “greatness”?

For starters, Job is loaded. I mean, he is clearly the Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his age. Did you hear about all those camels and sheep and all the other stuff he’s got?

Moreover, he’s got ten children. Seven boys and three girls represent the Hebrew numbers of completeness. “Everybody knows” that children are a blessing from the Lord, and look at Job’s family! It’s perfect.

In addition to these tangible signs of wealth and blessedness, take a look at how Job conducts himself as a father. Right after the narrator tells us that Job is the greatest guy around, we learn that this Mr. Wonderful spends his time praying for his children. Dads, take note of this as you ascribe to greatness: pray for your children!

Job is such a great person, in fact, that he is the topic of conversation at the staff meeting between God and the angels in heaven. God points him out, and says, “Wow! What a wonderful human being! That Job is one of the best!”

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

And Satan hears God say this –

– Wait a second? Why is Satan at the board meeting in heaven? Great question. We’ll get to that one in two weeks.

– So Satan interrupts God and asks the first difficult question in the book of Job: Why is Job good? Satan does not argue with God as to whether or not Job is actually good, but rather he wants to know why this great man is so good.

Have you ever wondered that? Most of us, especially those of us who were raised in the church and who grew up believing in “the American Dream” have been taught that being “good” is important. But why?

What’s the purpose of being a good person? Why does Job – or any one of us – aspire to goodness? What’s in it for us?

Satan says to God, “Of course Job is good. You reward him for being good. Job is as good as he is because he knows that you will like him better because of it. And not only is he a little brown-noser who is just trying to impress you, you make it worse because you’ve built a wall around him. Don’t go trotting out Job’s goodness, God, as if it is something special, because it’s obvious to anyone that you’ve put him in a little box where nothing bad can happen to him.”

Well, that’s an interesting charge, Satan. Let’s take a look. Has God put a wall around Job?

The fact of the matter is, yes. Yes God has done that.

To be fair though, that’s what God does. Listen to this reading from the first (but not oldest) book in our Bible: Genesis 1:6-9 reads,

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.

There’s a word that shows up there a couple of times: “firmament”. In other translations it’s “dome” or “vault”. Here, in a description of who God is and what God does when God first starts out being God in our experience, we see that God spends God’s time bringing order out of chaos. It’s in other places throughout the Bible as well: Psalm 104:9 talks about the fact that God has set boundaries or borders for the chaos that is the sea; Isaiah 5:1-7 describes a hedge or protective border that God established around his people.

So, Satan, are you saying that God is a wall-building, hedge-planting, boundary-establishing God? That God intends protection and order and justice? You are right. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

And who is Job? Let’s look at Genesis again:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Job, like Adam and Eve, like you and me, is created in the divine image. That is to say, Job is created to be like God. As are you. As am I.

And if taking care of things, ensuring justice, shielding the vulnerable, and bringing order out of chaos is what God does, then perhaps those of us who are made to be like God are called to do them as well.

I am here to suggest that, contrary to Satan’s claim, Job does not do good in order to get God to like him any better. There is a wall around Job because it is in God’s nature to build walls around that which he loves. Nothing that Job does is going to get that wall to be any taller or thicker. And Job is good because that’s how he was made. In God’s image. We are designed for goodness; moreover, later on in the book when we hear more about Job’s goodness, one of the things that is mentioned is that he builds walls of protection around those who are poor, suffering, or vulnerable.

But wait – if God is so good, and if Job is so good, then why do really bad things happen to Job?

– Great question. We’ll get to that one in three weeks.

For today, let us hold to this truth – in some important way, Satan is correct. He says, “Does Job honor God for nothing? You’ve built a wall around him!” He’s right. Job does not fear God for no reason.

Job fears and honors God, not because he is afraid of what God will do to him if he messes up, but because of who God is and because of what God has done in the world. In other words, Job is good, not to try to get God to like him better, but because Job appreciates who God is. Job is thankful for the world God has made. Job’s goodness is a response to God’s goodness, not an attempt to appease God or to prevent God from being less than good in the future.

The oldest book in the Bible begins with a list of blessings: Job has received money, children, respect.

What are your blessings this day? In what ways has chaos been held at bay in your life? Where is the wall that is around you? Where has that wall been strong? How have you known God’s goodness and God’s protection in your life?

Can you think of ways in which God’s light has shone on your path?

Now – think very, very carefully about the answer to this next question: what did you do to deserve that blessing, that wall, that order, that protection, that light, this life? These are all gifts, and you have received them in different ways and at different times.

I would suggest that Lent is a time for us to think less about what I do or do not do to somehow deserve the love of God and more about how I choose to respond to the blessings and kindnesses and generosity that I have received.

Are there important questions ahead of us? You bet there are. But today, let us begin our Lenten walk in gratitude for what is and what has been; in thanksgiving for who God is and who God has made us to be; and in hope for the days that are to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.

 

I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Among the Tombs

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 1 came from Mark 5:1-20, the story of the Gerasene demoniac.

The first time I participated in a national gathering of church leaders was while I was in college. I had been selected as a “Youth Advisory Delegate” to the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, and I went as an optimistic, hopeful, yet determined young man. I had a deep fire in my belly to help the larger church embrace truth as I could see it. My beard was quite long in those days, and in my mind, it made me appear more prophetic and serious. I learned that first impressions can be different, however, while standing in the back of an elevator while two of the older commissioners got on. I recognized them as being men who served on the same subcommittee as did I, but before I could say anything, one of them turned to the other and said, “Wow, I’m glad that meeting is over. What a waste of time,” to which his friend replied, “You’re not kidding. I don’t know who that kid with the beard thinks he is, but I thought he’d never shut up.” Ah, first impressions…

This week, we continue our Lenten journey in which we are taking a look at people who had not only first, but second impressions of Jesus – stories from the Gospels that describe people who met that young man and were curious, angry, or desperate enough to come back to him and re-engage him in a new way.

The Sea of Galilee as seen from the cliffs along "the other side".

The Sea of Galilee as seen from the cliffs along “the other side”.

The story for today does not have an auspicious beginning. We read at the end of Mark 4 that Jesus and his followers had left the safety and familiarity of Galilee and taken a boat ride. Mark 4:35 reads, “…when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side’”. You may remember that we have spoken before about the fact that when the Bible calls this part of the region “the other side” it means at least two things. On the one hand, there is the literal meaning of simply crossing the lake. They did that. But more than that, “the other side” was meant to convey the impression that Jesus had asked his followers to leave their comfort zones and the safety of the familiar to set foot in a place where “those” people lived – those who were “other”. Those who were different. Those who are not “us”.

All right, today we read that they got to the other side. Now, follow me on this. When did they leave home? According to Mark 4, “When it was evening”. And so, if it was evening when they left, and the Sea of Galilee is about five miles across at this point, then what was it when they got to the other side? Dark. And where do they make landfall? In the graveyard.

OldTombWow, if the disciples didn’t want to go to the other side in the first place, then heading to the cemetery at night must have been the icing on the cake, eh? Three times in the first five verses, Mark wants us to remember that this action takes place among the tombs. Why?

I think that, at least in part, it was because when the disciples remembered this time, they remembered being scared out of their wits. Tombs, in addition to being thought of as haunted by ghosts and demons, were also – believe it or not – filled with dead bodies, and thus sources of uncleanness and the risk of infection. In addition to that, these caves were the homes of wild animals. And to top it all off, this particular area was home to a man who had fallen so deeply into his own personal hell that no one else even tried to bother with him any more. He was a total loser. A goner. A waste of a life – but as long as he stayed out in the graveyard, it was all right.

DemonsWhat do we learn about Jesus in this passage? Well, from the start, Mark has let us know that Jesus is intrusive – that the Kingdom he proclaims will challenge the status quo and confront the powers that be. That truth practically screams at us from these pages. When Jesus shows up in among the tombs, who wants him to be there? As we’ve already noted, the disciples would just as soon not be around. What about the others – are they eager to meet Jesus? Not the man – he yells at Jesus to stay away. Not the demons – they say, “Leave me alone, Jesus!” Not the townspeople – they can’t get rid of him quickly enough, even after the tremendous display of power. Nobody wants Jesus around.

And if that’s not intrusive enough, did you notice that Jesus performs his healing on an unwilling victim? What’s up with that, Jesus? I mean, here I am – a good, faithful kind of guy who keeps his yard clean, votes responsibly, and can be trusted with small children and to collect the church offering, jumping up and down, saying “Jesus, come over here and heal my friend, or my sister, or my son…” and it seems as if he can’t be bothered…but check him out as he crosses the Sea of Galilee and goes into a region where he’s clearly not wanted and heals a man who doesn’t ask for it. Why does Mark tell us this? I think it’s because he wants us to know that we ought to never, ever think for a second that we can either control Jesus or pretend to fully understand him. Who Jesus is, and what Jesus does, says Mark, is all about the Kingdom of God. And there are parts of that, it would seem, that we just cannot, or do not, “get” at this point.

For centuries, people have looked at this incident in the life of Jesus and thought that it was troubling because it revealed him to be a cruel and insensitive man. After all, the result of this little foray is that two thousand pigs die and several people, none of whom had anything against Jesus, are out of work. Can you imagine what the Galilean chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was saying about this? Or the local swine-herders association? Why is Jesus so destructive? No wonder people there begged Jesus to leave.

I don’t know, but I wonder if maybe we’re asking that question backwards. After all, here is a human being who has been wandering the caves, living among the tombs, lost to the world, for who knows how long – and people just accept it. “Yeah, that happens”, we say. “It’s terrible when we think about the kinds of things that people can get themselves into…”

But put a little bite into the bacon profits, and watch out! Is there something wrong when we accept the isolation and torment of a human being and shrug and say, “Well, what can you do?”, but get ourselves worked into a lather over the stock market, or what color that dress on Facebook is? I’m just saying…

So, Jesus is intrusive. And Jesus values human life even more than we do. Maybe that’s at least a part of what this passage says about Jesus. What does it say about us?

Well, for starters, let me suggest that this passage reminds us that we do love our demons. The man whom Jesus met in the graveyard at night can see Jesus coming, he is strangely drawn to the Lord – but then he says, “Stay the heck away from me!” He is face to face with the one who could heal him – but he tries to pull back. Why? Because he can’t see himself anywhere else.

I wish I could say that it’s only him, but it’s me, too. And maybe you, for all I know. If I live among the tombs long enough, I get to know and maybe even love my secret pride; I nurse my anger; I feed my addiction; I cultivate my lust. I know it’s not good for me. I know that Jesus would take it away from me. And so I’d rather not talk with Jesus about that thing…because in some odd and perverted way, I have come to love it. Can you imagine that? Does that make any sense?

Not only does this passage remind me that I love me some demons, it calls me on the fact that I don’t really want to be bothered. I think most of us would just as soon not worry about anyone else.

Don’t you think that the disciples ever snapped? “Hey, for crying out loud, Jesus, give it a rest. Can’t we have a day off? Feeding 5000 here, healing a withered hand there, now traipsing off to the graveyard and visiting the gentiles and getting booed out of town? Why are we bothering with this, Jesus? Really! Who needs it?”

It’s really, really hard to care about the man wandering in the graveyard. He’s unclean. He’s smelly. He treats me like garbage. He’s scary. But for some reason, Jesus thinks he’s worth more than two thousand pigs. Jesus heals him. And that makes a difference.

This may be among my all-time favorite photos of my daughter, taken amongst the ruins of Hippos/Susita in 2010.

This may be among my all-time favorite photos of my daughter, taken amongst the ruins of Hippos/Susita in 2010.

We know that it makes a difference because Mark tells us that it does. Mark is very precise about this healing – he says that it occurred in somewhere called “the Decapolis”. If you remember anything about your Greek, you’ll recognize that “deca” means “ten” and “polis” means “city”. Clustered around the east side of the Jordan river was a curious group of ten cities: Scythopolis, Pella, Dion, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Gadara, Rahana, Kanatha, Hippos, and Damascus all traced their founding back to the time of Alexander the Great. They were located in Syria, but they were neither Palestinian nor Arab – they were fundamentally Greek cities. They had temples to the Greek gods; there were Greek marketplaces, Greek amphitheaters, and Greek lifestyles. My daughter Ariel and I visited the ruins of Hippos in 2010.

And now, because of the intrusive savior who bursts into the graveyard at night and heals a man who is not particularly interested in being healed, and in the process, who irritates the businessmen of the entire region, there is one person who can speak to the healing power of Jesus Christ.

There are ten towns in the Decapolis, each of which is filled with thousands of people. And out of all those people, there is one person who knows from personal experience what Jesus can do for a man. The first conversation between Jesus and this man is a harsh and difficult one, but since we’re talking about returning to Jesus, let’s look at the second conversation, there in verses 18-20. More than anything, the man who had been the object of Jesus’ unsolicited healing wants to get out of the Decapolis and follow Jesus. The man begged Jesus for the chance to accompany him and be a disciple, and Jesus – confusing, irritating, unpredictable Jesus – says “No. Go home.”

After being “clothed and in his right mind” for less than twelve hours, the man has a hunger to be with Jesus. I’m sure he doesn’t understand it very well. It’s just gnawing at him. There’s a sense that something amazing has happened, and that something bigger could happen. The man has been wandering the hillsides crazed for who knows how long, and now he gets it. Now he sees. Now he is healed. He knows what he is hungry for and he knows where it is. It’s in Jesus.

And Jesus looks him in the eye, and Jesus loves him, and Jesus says, “Now, go back to the Decapolis, and tell your friends.” And the man does. He does!

Check this out: a few chapters later, Mark talks about the next time that Jesus and the boys visit this region near the Decapolis. In between these trips, we hear about the ways that Jesus was treated in his hometown of Nazareth. The people among whom he grew up, the men and women and boys and girls who ought to have been most aware of the Holy that was in their midst, rejected him. And so Jesus and the disciples head out on a preaching tour and find themselves “on the other side” again.

Jesus Feeds the Multitudes (artist unknown)

Jesus Feeds the Multitudes (artist unknown)

Only this time, when they get to that neighborhood, it’s not such a lonely place. This time, there are more than 4,000 people who are there eager to hear his teaching and experience his touch.

When he left that town, how many people knew who Jesus was, what he could do, and who he was calling them to be? One man – ONE MAN – was told, “go and tell your friends what the Lord has done for you” – and he did. He did.

Lent is a time to wait or to reflect. To anticipate. To begin to wonder what might happen if this intrusive and powerful savior was to show up in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love. It’s a time for us to look around us at the demons that we love and to cry out to the Lord who asks us to love him more.

The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is an incredible Lenten reading. What would happen if each of us were to be willing to row all night with Jesus towards a place where we’d rather not go? What would happen if each of us were to allow Jesus to hear us speak the names of the demons we have grown to love…and if we were to allow Jesus to remove them from us? What would happen if each of us were willing to pray for the Christ to show up in the lives of those whom we love who are unwilling to call out on their own behalf? What would happen if one, or two, or five or six of us would be willing to obey Christ and go out and tell our friends?

What would happen? Well, we’d find ourselves in Easter, my friends. It would be a season where we explored and dwelt in the kind of life for which God intends us.

What would happen?

Returning and Re-Turning

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for Ash Wednesday came from Matthew 4:1-11.

Do you remember the first time that you and I met? Take a look around the room at the other people you could call friends or acquaintances. How about them? Can you remember the first time you laid eyes on each other?

If you are like me, I would imagine that there are some folk for whom that first meeting stands out with vivid clarity in your mind’s eye. Yet I suspect that most of the people in your life have sort of edged in there gradually. You don’t carry around a first impression so much as you have a sense of who this person has been to you, what this person means to you today, and what hopes you might have for your relationship in the days and months to come. I suspect that for most of us, most of our relationships are a story of returning to the same people again and again and again.

This Lent, we will spend some time in worship getting to know some people who came to Jesus again. The Gospels tell us a number of stories of people who met Jesus once and their lives were changed forever – the Canaanite woman, for instance, or the thief on the cross. Yet there are many stories of people who had an encounter with Jesus, and then walked away from him only to return another day.

Christ in the Wilderness: Awaking, by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Tonight, we begin that exploration by considering the encounter between the devil and Jesus, a reading that is often shared at the beginning of Lent.

And you might be tempted to call a foul on the play and say, “Look, Pastor Dave, you are breaking your own rules! The gospels do not record any prior conversation between Jesus and the devil. How can this be a ‘returning’ story if this is the first time?

Well, I could say that since Jesus is a co-eternal person of the Holy Trinity and since Satan is a fallen angel who despised God’s authority, their fingerprints have been all over each other since the beginning of time.

Or I could point out that the devil begins the conversation by saying, “if you are…” or “since you are the Son of God…”, that presumes a knowledge of and some sort of relationship with Jesus.

Or you could simply throw me a bone and accept the fact that the devil comes back to Jesus three times in this one reading. I think it’s fair to call this a “returning” story.

And on every occasion in this story, the tempter suggests that Jesus would be happier if he believed less about God.

“God is not caring for you the way that you deserve to be cared for. Turn these stones into bread.”

“God is not protecting you as well as you ought to be protected. Prove that you are in control of your own destiny.”

“God can’t give you what you really want. I will.”

Again and again, the tempter returns to Jesus and says, “You know, you really ought to settle for less than that which you were called to be.”

And again and again, Jesus turns back to God. He re-turns to the promise of the Word and anchors himself, his answers, and his hope in God’s word, God’s presence, and God’s power.

I mentioned that this passage is often read at the beginning of Lent, and I would not be the first pastor to claim that this is proof of the fact that Jesus is just like us in that he knows what it means to be tempted. In fact, the unknown author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way: “Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin!”

Christ in the Wilderness: The Scorpion, by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Christ in the Wilderness: The Scorpion, by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

And that makes sense, I’m sure. However, I have never had the urge to myself off of Mount Washington just to see what would happen. When Sharon and I were driving through the desert last month and I missed lunch, it never occurred to me to grab a boulder and try to turn it into a Big Mac.

However, even though the temptations that I face are not listed in this reading from Matthew, I sure know what it’s like to be tempted, and to hear the suggestion that I, like Jesus, ought to settle for less than God’s best for my life.

How do you deal with temptation in your life? What do you do when you find yourself dealing with a burning desire or a secret sin or wanting something so badly that you’ll do something foolish in order to get it? Allow me to make a couple of suggestions.

First, re-turn to God. Were you distracted? Did you lose focus? Do you know what it means to really blow it, big time? Of course you do. That’s going to happen if you’re human. You are not Jesus. When you find yourself dealing with or even succumbing to temptation, re-orient yourself. Re-turn, and look toward God again. The Biblical word for that is one that sounds really religious: ‘repent’. It means ‘turn around’. Stop looking over there and look over here. The best way to get back on track spiritually is to acknowledge the fact that you’ve gotten off track and re-set your steps.

As you do this, you will find that it is immensely helpful if you are clear about what, and who, you are fighting. Listen: in the passage that we’ve heard from Matthew, the identity of Jesus’ opponent emerges gradually. In verse 3, we’re told that “the tempter” approached the Lord. The Greek word there is peirazon, and it means ‘the one who tempts or tests’.

Later on, in verse 5, we see that the tempter is also diabolos – the slanderer, or the devil. The one who tests is also the one who lies about the nature of reality, God, and yourself. As both the number and frequency of the temptations grows, and as Jesus is bearing an increasing load, he turns and addresses his opponent by name in verse 10: “Away from me, Satan!” Satanas: the adversary has a name: Satan. The Lord calls the tempter by name and reveals him for who he is. I have found that to be an excellent strategy in my own life. When you find yourself facing temptation, think about what is really happening and name the real evil that confronts you.

For instance, if you struggle with food and body image, I’m not convinced that the enemy is named “fat”. I think that there are two lies behind your struggle. On the one hand, there are those who will say that God doesn’t really care about your body, that all God cares about is your soul. On the other hand, there is a lie that far too many of us believe that says we are only lovable if we look a certain way. In either case, the extra piece of pizza or the second helping of mashed potatoes is not the real temptation: the temptation is that you are being asked to believe less than the best about yourself. God isn’t going to love you any more when you are skinny – yet if you are dwelling in a rich and true relationship with God, you accept the notion that how you treat and how you view your body matters – because that body is a gift from God and a way to honor God.

Similarly, you are well aware of the impact of pornography on our culture. You may struggle with porn – but if you do, the worst thing is not that your parents or spouse or boss or pastor will find out what you’ve got on your laptop. The worst thing is that pornography sends out a signal that preys on a deep fear: that somehow, there is no real person who will love me for who I am…and so I am in an imaginary relationship with an assortment of perfect – but unreal – partners… because I do not measure up, somehow.

Do you see what I mean? When you find that you are in the grip of temptation, let me ask you to ask yourself, What am I really afraid of here? What deep need is this desire really uncovering in my life? The problem is the pepperoni or the Penthouse – the problem is that you, like Jesus, are being asked to accept a shadow of something real for which you have been intended. Can you name the real need to which your secret sin, or addiction, or fear, or excess, is pointing? And, having done that, can you re-turn to God in the light of the hope that he offers to meet you in the worst place of your life?

The invitation of Lent is to constantly re-orient yourself in a Godward direction, to wake up once more in a desert place and say, “Well, God, here I am. Again. In this place. Fighting this foe. Heal me, Lord. Fill me. Send me. Use me. Allow me to be the me that you have intended from the foundation of the world, and take away from me anything, however shiny, that is less than your best for me. Just as you sent your angels to attend to Jesus, send me the encouragement that I need this hour.”

The Christian faith is not a “one and done” kind of deal. It is a daily walk, with Christ, that gives us the opportunity to turn, re-turn, and re-re-turn to the Lord. Thanks be to God for that! Amen.

Not Who You Thought?

On the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the saints at Crafton Heights considered the account of Jesus on the mountain as recorded in Mark 9:2-9.  Our other reading came from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

Sometimes I start the sermon with a joke, or a funny picture. Today, I have a serious theological question that I’d like you to think about. You don’t need to answer this one out loud, but give it some thought: Does Jesus ever change?

Absolute_ImmutabilityThe theological concept here is called “immutability”, and it refers to the notion that if God is truly God, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, forever and ever and ever, then God cannot change. And if Jesus is God, then Jesus cannot change either. So one scholar recently answered my question this way:

According to a broad consensus among the Reformed divines, the second person of the Godhead remains immutable by adding a nature that, while personally united with His own divine nature, does not alter it: the incarnation is to be regarded such that ‘the human mode of being was added to the eternal mode of the Logos by the assumption of the human nature into its personality without altering the latter.’… To suggest that the divine nature could change was to fail to uphold its own distinctive properties, confusing it with the human…[1]

In 1560, the leaders of the Church in Scotland that was to become the Presbyterian Church put it this way:

We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity of Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.[2]

These great theologians were simply trying to get at some of the truth that is found in Scripture:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

God is no mere human! He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind. (Numbers 23:19, CEV)

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

So, if you’re taking an examination at seminary or before the Presbytery, the right answer is this: Jesus does not change.

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Except, well, right there in Mark 9, Jesus sure seems to change. He was “transfigured” in front of his disciples. His appearance – his visage, clothing, bearing, and stature – they all change. We know this because it scared the heck out of the disciples, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote it down so that we’d know about it.

And there are other places where it sure looks to us like Jesus is changing. In Mark 8, for instance – and in a lot of other places, to be honest – the disciples, or somebody, comes to Jesus and say, “Hey! You’re the Messiah! You’re from God!” And Jesus’ response is “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” But in Mark 5, a man comes to him and says, “I know who you are – let me come with you!” And this time Jesus says, “No, you can’t come with me. Go to your home village and tell everyone what’s happened!”

One time, Jesus tells a man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and another time he allows a woman to pour all kinds of expensive oil on his feet, even while some of his followers are saying, “Wait! Aren’t we supposed to be giving this stuff to the poor?”

And even beyond all that, how can we say that Jesus never changed? I mean, seriously, he was human and divine, right? Which means, presumably, that at one point he was three feet tall and later he was five feet tall. He needed haircuts. He got older. Jesus changed.

You’re not surprised to learn that the theologians have considered all of those cases, and they turn to look at me with patience and sympathy and say, “Well, of course, Dave, those changes were real. But they were changes in Jesus’ method of communication, or changes in his physical expression. It’s not the same thing. When we talk about immutability, we mean that in Jesus Christ, the unchanging purposes of the unchanging God were clearly visible: the grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and holiness of God were made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Those things never change. The person and work of Jesus Christ is fully consistent with the eternal, changeless, omnipotent being.” And then, just because some theologians can be sort of snooty, at least one of them would do a facepalm and say, “For crying out loud, Carver, don’t come and talk to me about Jesus and haircuts. Seriously.”

And I would say, “Fair enough. I accept the immutability of Jesus, and will agree that God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging.”

But that leads me to another question: What if Jesus isn’t who you think he is?

Years ago, I was introduced to a man who was to become a friend to me: Bart Campolo. But because this was the early 1980’s and neither of us had any money and we lived on opposite coasts, we communicated – can you believe this – through the U.S. Mail. Every now and then we would talk on the phone, but mostly we sent letters. Yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

So one fall day in 1988 we were both going to be at a conference in Chicago. Michelle Salinetro was there, and she saw me walk into the room wearing my big old “Dave Carver, Pittsburgh PA” nametag, and extend my hand to “Bart Campolo, Oakland CA” and say, “Hey, Bart, man, it’s good to finally shake your hand.” And Bart Campolo looked at my face, and then at my nametag, and then at my face, and then at my nametag, and he finally said, “You’re Dave Carver? From Pittsburgh? Dude…I always thought you were black…” Ummmmmmm… Not sure what to say to that.

But what if we do that to Jesus? What if when we get a closer look at him – he’s not what we expect him to be?

Jean Vanier lived a life with which many of us can identify. He was born into a very comfortable family and was taught at an early age to strive and to achieve. He served in both the Canadian and British navies and rose through the ranks. When he finished in the navy, he received a doctorate and taught philosophy in Toronto. And then, through an odd twist, he was asked to leave the world of academia and live with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. He said,

I had to change, and change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself… When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing![3]

Can you imagine how disconcerting that would be – to go through most of your life thinking that Jesus was this way and then to discover that, no, Jesus is that way?

But that’s what happened to the disciples on the day of Transfiguration. The Jesus that they thought they knew ended up to be someone else. And that leads me to a couple of observations that might be helpful for 21st-century followers of Jesus.

First, don’t limit Jesus. I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, the Carvers have finally taken down the last of the Christmas decorations. My wife’s growing collection of nativity scenes has been packed away, and all the little baby Jesus figurines are safe in tissue paper and plastic bins in the basement. Those items have been carefully protected, and I am here to tell you that nothing is going to happen to baby Jesus in my basement in 2015. He’s safe and sound.

The problem with that, of course, is that as long as I keep Jesus safe and sound and hermetically sealed in a Tupperware in the basement, he’s not going to challenge me or change me.

You see, a lot of times, the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – they thought that they had Jesus all figured out. They’d seen him at work, they knew his stuff. And so they began to wrap him up and put him in a little box where they thought he belonged. They began to respond, not to the living Lord, but to their image of who or what they thought he was. Jesus was not pleased when this happened…

Don’t limit Jesus, or try to pack him into a little box. He won’t fit. And my second observation is the mirror of that: don’t limit yourself.

You, unlike the one eternal and immutable God, are destined for growth and change. There is nothing about your body that is exactly the same today as it was a week ago.

A few years back, I returned from a trip with the youth group. Sharon took the camera and asked to see some of the photos. Since members of the youth group had taken most of the photos, I was eager to see them, too. We sat on my sofa and we got to one shot that I just couldn’t place. I recognized the playground where the image was taken, and I knew several of the people in the photo. But there in the middle of the scene was an older guy looking away from the camera. All I could see was the top of his head and his shoulders. Before I could say anything, Sharon said, “What are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know who this is.” My bride said, “It’s you!” I said, “It can’t be me. The guy in this photo has a bald spot.” And she said, “Honey, it’s you.” I said, “Seriously? I have a bald spot? And nobody told me?” I had no idea why my head had been so cold. I had changed – but not known it.

You and I change physically. We grow mentally and intellectually. Depending on where we are in our lives, we either accept those things or celebrate them.

What about spiritually? Where are you growing, and how are you changing spiritually?

The person and work and hope of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. I get that. But how is your perspective of that work, and your relationship with that person growing? We ought to be constantly developing as spiritual creatures. If your understanding of God in Christ and the role he plays in your life is the same now as it was when you were four, then you are in trouble.

I accept the scriptures fully – that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus does not change.

But our ideas about Jesus probably will change, because faith is alive and active and engaging and growing. If we are not able to hear Jesus calling us to some new places every now and then, I fear we are not listening.

This coming week we will observe Ash Wednesday here at Church. The season of Lent begins, and this forty day period, as much as any other season of church life, presents us with an opportunity to engage Jesus and develop our spiritual lives.

I am begging you to do this in the next six or seven weeks. Invite the unchanging Jesus into all of your life. Ask that Christ to show you where he is at work in the world.

I know that for many people, Lent is thought of as a season in which we “give up” something. We deny ourselves some pleasure or treat in the hopes that we might identify more completely with the suffering of Jesus.

And, to tell you the truth, if going without meat or television or Facebook is going to help you learn more about Christ’s suffering, then by all means, go for it.

But let me ask you to do this thing, too. If you are going to “give up” something this Lent, then please “take up” something as well. Read. Pray. Sing. Serve. Write. Walk. Share.

For instance, what if, instead of giving up sweets for Lent, you decided that you were going to bake cookies or bread or pie once a week and share that with your neighbors? What if you made time in your life to be a blessing in a simple, unexpected way?

What if, instead of giving up coffee and making everyone in your workplace or home miserable until Easter, you took fifteen minutes a day to visit with someone – either by phone, in person, or through the mail? What if you adopted a practice that would immerse you more deeply in the lives of people that Jesus loves?

The word “Lent” comes from Old English and Germanic words that mean “lengthening daylight”. Between now and Easter, the days will get longer, the sun will get higher. You may start your garden seeds indoors. In some parts of the State, the trout season will open. Lent is a time of year that is full of newness and growth and life and depth.

It would be an absolute shame if all of that newness and growth and life and depth was found in the natural world, and not in our hearts, spirits, and lives. Jesus doesn’t change. But I will. And by God’s grace, my ability to know, understand, and follow Jesus will, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Sumner, Darren, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 45.

[2] The Scots Confession 3.07

[3] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press 1994, pp. 18, 23).