Today I’d like to begin with a question that I often like to ask people. If you could possess just one of Jesus’ miraculous powers, which one would you chose?
To heal the sick, cast out demons, make the lame walk or the blind to see? While it would be more profitable to possess the ability to change water into wine, I’d settle with having his patients and compassion. Yes, it’s not a miracle per se unless you're quarantined with teenagers during a pandemic.
I once asked this question to a group of ministers, and I was surprised no one chose resurrecting the dead. I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Maybe no one wanted to initiate a zombie apocalypse. Or they just assumed God owns this power outright?
As we begin the fourth week of Lent and continue our series on Hope and Resurrection, I have selected one particular bible story that point us towards God’s power over life…and death. It comes from long ago, long before the Easter miracle, back when God led a faithful prophet named Ezekiel into a vast, desert wasteland.
Read: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Imagine for a moment the Spirit of God carrying you to a place where the land is withered and the air is dead. There are no trees, no shrubs, no signs of water or life anywhere, except for a life that once was. All around you are piles of dried up tibias and fibulas, rib cages, skulls, and vertebras. Bones upon bones, as if giants had fed on smaller humans and tossed the remnants to the ground like a bunch of chewed up hot wings. If that’s not weird enough, God tells you to prophecy over the bones. Convince them to take a deep breath and get up because God’s going to do something really cool, and they won’t want to miss it.
It’s one thing to talk to the dead. But commanding them to rise up is a whole other thing. It’s clear Ezekiel has never seen Night of the Living Dead, or any Rob Zombie movie, because like any prophet worth his salt, Ezekiel does what God asks his to do.
He begins to preach. And preach he does. As the words pour out of his mouth, the bones began to rattle and lock together; their muscle and flesh and skin returned as they once were. And the breath of God sweeps over them and resuscitates an entire valley of naked zombies.
The author of this story lets us know this is a metaphorical tale – a story of God’s promise to breath life back into the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon. After all those years imprisoned in a foreign land God’s people were spiritually dried up and parched like a desert wasteland. They felt as lifeless as dead bones.
But here’s the thing, God hears their cries, just as God hears ours. In one grace filled breath their hope returns, and so will ours. Just as God resurrects the life of his people, so too does God resurrect our lives even when the odds of that happening are stacked against us. As we progress through this pandemic, we will be faced with new and difficult challenges. We too will have to find a way to put life back together again. Especially when we feel as lifeless as a pile of old bones.
As daunting and overwhelming as life might seem right now, must not lose hope. But be on guard because it’s in these moments doubt, depression, fear and anxiety sneak in and drag us away to a dry wilderness of hopelessness and despair. Just as God didn’t give up on Israel, God does not give up on you or me. I recently read a pneumonic for the word faith that I think is worth sharing. It goes like this: Feeling Afraid I Trust Him. Ezekiel trusted God. Even when all the things that he loved the most were taken from him, he still believed the bones could rise again.
In the season of Lent, we are called into the wilderness not to wither and die, but to lean on God, to inhale the very breath of God deep into our soul. Wherever you are right now, faithful or faithless, God is asking you “Can these bones live?” In other words, do you believe God can restore us back together again? Our hope lies in the answer.
If I am to believe Jesus then I believe God’s promise of restoration is real. This life, with all its unknowns, pain, and suffering, is not the end of the story. God hears our cries and comes to us, to breath new life in us.
If I believe in the incarnation, the very breath of God becoming flesh and bone in the man Jesus, then I can believe in his resurrection, and the new life that comes through him because of it.
If you believe that God’s promise is real, that these bones can live again, then you will find your hope – hope that will grow your faith and bring you closer to the very heartbeat of God’s love for you. But if you believe these bones will live, then you must ask yourself, what am I going do with my bones today? Will I raise the dead? Make the blind see and the deaf hear?
If that seem impossible, remember it was Jesus who said, the person who believes will not only do what he did but even greater things.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for breath is also the word for spirit. God’s spirit is breathed into you for a purpose, not just so we can have life, but so we can live life abundantly, fearlessly, graciously – as one united people. Jesus gave us his final breath, the very Spirit of God, so that we could proclaim the truth of God’s love for all things. Like him, we are to take that Spirit and be the miracle God wants us to be.
With a single breath, we can heal the sick with compassion and care. We can feed thousands of people by sharing our resources with one another. We can forgive sins and bless people no matter what. With God’s breath, we can resurrect the dead by being resurrection people.
God is calling us to prophecy to others by being people who show compassion and seek those who have been pushed out to the fringes and love them back into society. This is what Jesus' miracles were all about… returning people back to God where we all belong. This is what resurrection looks like. This is how our dry bones come back together, how we as a community and as a human race come back stronger and healthier than ever before.
As we walk and live amid the painful and death-dealing realities that plague God’s creation, let us not lose the hope that God calls us out to the wilderness, just like Jesus was called out from the grave, to bring new life to those whose spirits are withered and dead.
And so I ask you, “Can these bones live?” If so, then let them know.
Let us pray: God of life, just as you have breathed us into being, so too does your breath push us out into the world to prophecy and proclaim the good news of Jesus the Christ, whose resurrection is the proof of you greatness and glory. Let us turn our eyes upon him, who taught us to pray saying:
God reckoned Abraham as righteous. That’s to say Abraham walked right with God. And God was satisfied. So, it seems to me that God has an appetite for righteousness. Are you righteous? How do we know? What does righteousness look like?
Does it mean being obedient to God’s law? If you know Abraham’s story, then you know he was obedient when God told him to leave home and go acquire land in the great unknown. However, it wouldn’t be for another few hundred years that God would give the law to Moses while he was leading Abraham’s descendants through the wilderness.
Maybe it means being perfectly good all the time? Never ceasing to do the right thing. Abraham was a good and just person, so much so God sends Melchizedek to blesses Abraham. But to be honest, Abraham was far from perfect. He was human like you and me. Although, there were a few times when his mistakes almost put God’s covenant in jeopardy.
There were also times when Abraham questioned and challenged God whose promise seemed a bit too good to be true. Although he was no saint, God reckoned Abraham righteous. Why? Simply because Abraham trusted what God said and lived his life accordingly.
No matter how messy his life got or how impossible things seemed be, Abraham held onto the hope of God’s word. And as such, God didn’t let him down.
There are many different ways we hold on to hope. My kids hope to pass a test. My friend hopes to get a job. And I hope more people will support our ministry. But as I have learned in life, whenever I put my hope in material things or in people, I expect to be disappointed because whether it’s intentional or unintentional, these things will let us down. Just as there will always be finite disappointment, we also have infinite hope in the One who will never let us down.
Read Romans 4:18-22
"Hoping against hope, Abraham believed.” This tells me that our righteousness is tied to what we believe. And not just any belief either. I can believe my kids when they say they did their homework, but it doesn’t mean they did it. I can believe my wife when she says she’s ready to go, but it doesn’t mean I won’t still be waiting another half hour to leave. I can believe my eyes see words on a page, but to believe that those words mean something to the way I live my life takes having faith in those words. Abraham believed the words God said to him, and his faith was made stronger because of it. This is true for us as well.
This does not to say Abraham never doubted, or never tried to take matters into his own hands. But when it mattered, Abraham faithfully trusts in God’s covenant promise, he believed and his faith grew and strengthened. Because of his faith, Abraham could step out of his comfort zone, to take great risks, and do what God has called him to do. And so can we. If we believe that God’s promises are real and trustworthy, then we have all that we need to do all that God needs us to do. Righteousness is tied to God’s righteous word…where we can put our hope.
With the looming threat of climate change, the current state of world politics, or a schizophrenic economy it’s easy for people feel hopeless. This sense of hopelessness, along with all the hypocrisy and division found in our religious communities, have pushed people to lose faith or stop believing all together.
If you’re feeling like this, you’re not alone. The Bible is filled with people who felt hopeless: Job, Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah, and Elijah - all of these biblical heroes went through a crisis of faith. Imagine being a disciple and witnessing Jesus’ death. How does one recover one’s faith after the rug is pulled out from underneath all you believed in? They trusted that God’s word is true. The resurrection would be their proof.
In all their fears, doubts, and anxieties the steadfast love of God remained. God's love came to be with us in the flesh, to strengthen our hope and faith us no matter where we are in our journey.
Read Romans 4:23-5:2
Kintsugi is a perfect metaphor for Lent. It reminds us that we are broken vessels. While some of us might believe we are damaged beyond repair, God doesn’t see us that way. God sees our worth. Like a Kintsugi artist, God is the potter and Christ is the gold that bonds us back together. In the end, we are made new – worth more to God because of our golden scars. Hope and resurrection.
In his book A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway writes, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.” Hemingway’s suicide is a real reminder that life is hard. And it’s impossible to get through without suffering a few cracks along the way. Sadly, too many people give up on life simply because they feel hopeless. The Israelites suffer the same while wandering through an actual wilderness.
Read Numbers 21:4-9.
After Moses led the people out of Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Day after day they trampled around the grassy plains...not really sure where God was leading them. When they got thirsty, God gave them water. When they were hungry God gave them food. In spite of all that they were given, they still grumbled. In Egypt they feasted on fresh fruits and vegetables. But out here they at the same thing – manna, which literally translates as “what is this.”
It’s not too difficult then to understand how they felt like God was marching them to their death. They can't take much more. The uncertainty and fear of scarcity is too much for them. They begin to crack. They’d rather go back to being slaves than to suffer in this kind of freedom.
To be fair, slavery was all they knew. For hundreds of years they worked for the Pharaohs – making bricks in the hot sun...seven days a week, 365 days a year, brick after brick they worked. If they did not meet their quota, they were severely beaten. Eventually they were so broken that they cried out to the God of their ancestors who rescued them from their pain and suffering. So why would they want to go back to that place? Perhaps it’s easier to face the devil you know than to trust the unknown.
Think about those people who fight progress with thoughts of nostalgia because deep down inside they don’t really have hope. Maybe you’re one such person. Maybe you don’t believe that God’s means what God says, which requires trusting in the unknown. We’re no different than the Israelites. When life doesn’t go exactly as we want, we too begin to crack. And God gets an earful. Because that’s how we treat the one who gives and gives and gives. But Israel’s story reminds us that even God has a breaking point. When the complaining gets to be too much, God sends a pack of poisonous snakes to shut them up.
The people beg Moses to ask God for mercy. Moses gives in. And so does God, who offers an unusual antidote. Build a bronze snake and lift high on a pole. Anyone who looks at it will be cured and even the dead will come back to life. The people faithfully obey, and all is well for the time being. There will be more complaints and grumblings, but for now it's a happy ending filled with hope and resurrection.
Read Mark 1:9-13
Just as it was with the Israelites, the Holy Spirit takes Jesus out to the wilderness – not to be rescued but to be tempted. Why would God do that to him? Or anyone? Why does God send us out where there’s poisonous snakes and wild animals?
When I read the stories about Jesus’ time in the wilderness I can’t help but think that maybe he needed to face temptations in order to overcome his human nature, his ego. Maybe it is the only way he could fully embrace his divine? If that’s the case then maybe God allows us to be tempted so that we will be able to discover our own divine self. Maybe God sends us to places that will break us apart, so we can get rid of the things that are holding us back from truly becoming who God made us to be: beloved, beautiful works of art.
Mark doesn’t tell us the temptations Jesus faced, but his were no different than our own today. Temptation is temptation. But the hope we can cling to is that when Jesus went out among the wild animals he was not alone. There were angels who waited on him. What this tells me is that the wilderness is a scary place that will try to break us – the threat of attack is real. Yet God has a way of protecting and providing for us.
Like the bronze snake, Jesus will be lifted up. And all who fix their eyes upon him will be restored. Just as God saved the Israelites, so too does God save us. In Christ, we hold onto the hope that God’s promise is real – that not even death can keep us from living in God’s glory. Suffice it to say, we are given this Lenten season to look at our own cracks and complaints, and lift them up to the cross of Christ. Nailed to the cross is our hope. The golden bond of God’s love piecing us back together. In Christ, we are made new, and more valuable than before.
How wonderful it is then that our Lenten journey ends on Good Friday, where pain and love mingle together like broken ceramic and gold. What is created is Easter, the promise of God’s love and grace in its fullness and glory.
Hemingway was right to point out that the path to redemption is coated in pain and suffering. Being broken is an unavoidable part of living in this wilderness. But in Christ, God has made us something more beautiful, and more valuable. Our golden scars become a new story with a new history. The goal is not to hide our scars or pretend that our broken places never existed. But to wear them proudly knowing each scar is a testimony of God at work in our lives.
As you find yourself wandering or lost, not sure where to go or where you are headed, fix your eyes upon the cross. It’s not a magical symbol or icon, but a visible reminder of the hope we have knowing that even through death God rescues and saves us in the most spectacular way. Amen.
Let us pray, God of the living and of the resurrected, during this season of Lent, bring us closer to you. Prepare our hearts and homes for silence and solitude so that we may discover your grace in it’s entirety. Strengthen us with your Holy Spirit to fast from the things that threaten our well-being, and help us to feast on all that is good. When we feel the fear of failure tempting us away, let us never lose site of the cross of Christ so we can always walk in his ways.
Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word, Lenten Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Behavioral scientists have written volumes on chasing perfectionism – a pursuit that makes us less willing to try new things, often paralyzing us with great fear and anxiety. It’s actually altering our perceptions and personalities.
And just this week there was a segment on NPR about how Photoshop have changed the way we see ourselves, because it literally can change the way we look. Perfect skin and hair are just a few clicks away. I think there’s a part of me who is a protectionist, but one with a procrastinator complex. Someday know I will be totally awesome. Actually, as long as everything is exactly how I want it I am totally flexible.
This Wednesday, the church kicks off Lent where many of us will fast from something we love for the following 40 days. This is a perfect spiritual discipline, unless you are a perfectionist, because the chance of failure is pretty much guaranteed. Lent is a time to fail. That’s the point. It’s a time to learn and grow from our mistakes. You might say it’s because of our imperfections we become perfect.
Jesus has something to say about this too. As we come to the end of Matthew 5, Jesus seems to raise the bar on what it means to be perfect.
Read Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Be perfect as God is perfect. Who’s in? Better yet, who’s terrified? Let’s face it, Jesus is good at scaring us – challenging us to do what seems impossible by human standards. He calls us into the kingdom of heaven where people love and pray for their enemies, give to those who beg, and turn the other cheek. His is a world where vulnerability is a strength.
On this mountain top, Jesus reorientates the way we see ourselves and others. To be perfect as God is perfect. So why does it feel like a set-up?
By definition, to be perfect is to have the required characteristics to be as good as it is possible to be. In his remarkable career Kobe Bryant never stopped perfecting his game. He drove himself to be the greatest athlete in the NBA. But truth be told, he was just trying to outdo what Michael Jordan had perfected. LeBron James is doing it with Kobe. And now the Greek Freak has his sights on besting LBJ. By definition, there can only be one at the top. And Jesus makes it very clear who the GOAT is.
Now think about all the hard work you put into pushing yourself to be the perfect parent, the perfect child, the perfect student, employee or spouse. This pursuit often ends in discontent for the simple fact that no one is perfect. “If you expect always to succeed, life will always disappoint you,” writes Andrea Brandt. We can strive to be perfect, but each time we come up short we’re at risk for a whole host of issues, from depression to eating disorders. No relationship will work if you demand perfection all the time.
But here’s the problem. We live in a culture where being perfect isn’t good enough anymore. And it’s causing all sorts of disorders in our communities. After years of buying into the hype my daughter Fiona admitted that “Outside Harry Stiles, perfection isn’t real.” But her sister Colleen sees it differently. Even though she couldn’t define it, Colleen said “I know it when I see it.”
So what does perfection look like to you? A perfect score? Being the greatest of all time? Maybe it’s material wealth or obtaining financial success?
Jesus boils it down to one word: love. And not just any kind of love – but God’s unconditional love for you and me.
We may not be very good at turning the other cheek, or giving our stuff away, or going the extra mile for someone we don’t like. But we can still be perfect as God is perfect by being a community shaped in the very heart of God who loves the unlovable, and gives extravagantly to anyone who asks.
This is the blueprint for the life of the church. A constitution for a new society made perfect in Christ despite our imperfections. We will struggle and failure is guaranteed. And that’s good. It’s in our faults and failures, we see our place in God’s love and grace. But more importantly we begin to really understand our relationship with our Creator, and with one another.
Jesus devoted his entire ministry to show us how to be a loving community where people put others first and where everyone strives for the common good. It was his life work to embody these values that some politicians today will criticize as being socialist or unAmerican. We are called first to be obedient to a higher authority. By looking at Jesus, and loving as he loved, we see that the kingdom of heaven has come. It’s here, today.
In Christ, we come to know and understand God’s will for us, which is to live in imitation of the One who loves and blesses us all the same.
In Christ, God became human so we will come to know what it truly means to be human. To be beloved children of God. But not everyone will live out their belovedness in accordance to God’s righteousness. Some will even try to take advantage, believing we are doormats and pushovers. Yet we are called to lead the way, following in the footsteps of Christ, as a community alive with the heartbeat of God. A community that embraces the gospel fully no matter what.
To be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect isn’t about being a perfectionist. It’s about discipleship. It’s less about getting things right and more about sharing God’s love in all our everyday messiness.
Last Tuesday, I went to the Union Rescue Mission, where a group of little Mother Theresa’s work tirelessly to feed and house and assist thousands of homeless people a day. For 127 years, URM has been sharing the gospel on Skid Row. And not just preaching it, but actually living it as if Jesus really meant what he said.
I believe this is how we become perfect as God is perfect. To use all the abundance God has given us to make heaven come alive on earth, right now. You don’t have to work in a homeless shelter to help a person on the streets. You don’t need a medical degree to make someone feel better. All you need is a heart. God’s heart in particular. And a willingness to share it.
At the end of his book, Growing Into God, John Mabry reminds us that, “God never called any perfect people because there aren’t any perfect people. God only ever calls flawed, wounded, limited, scared, and imperfect people because that’s the only kind there are. So, don’t be discouraged, you’re actually a pretty good company.”
Jesus calls you and me to be a visible community sharing God’s love in our every day. No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, or where you come from, the good news is this: you are loved, and you are love. A noun and a verb. You’ve been blessed by God to be God’s blessing to all.
And so, I encourage you to embrace God’s love and to be God’s love out into the world as Jesus did. Through him we are made perfect and flawless, united with God as one perfect heart and life, now and forever Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 38-385.
Brandt, Andrea. The Dangers of Perfectionism. April 1, 2019 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201904/the-dangers-perfectionism?amp). Accessed on February 21, 2020.
Mabry, John. Growing into God: a Beginners Guide to Mysticism. (Wheaton, IL: Quest 2012) p. 120.
We can’t be a Christ-centered church
a few words about life and law from
On January 20, 2009, Barak Obama stood on the steps of our Nation’s Capitol and gave his inaugural address as America’s first black president.
In it he said, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
I remember watching this historic event and feeling a sense of pride wash over me. There was hope on the horizon. The kind of hope that dawned, some two thousand years prior, when Jesus stood on a mountainside and gave his own inaugural address.
Today, as our country is more divided than ever, Jesus’s blessings and charge are still the same. As we gather today in his name, let us be a united people and faithful community shining God’s righteousness like a beacon of hope in the world.
As we continue reading from Matthew 5, it’s important to note that Jesus isn’t saying anything new here. Its Torah stuff found in the book of Deuteronomy. Pretty much all he’s doing is making the commandments relevant to his followers, pushing them to new heights. On the surface it might feel Jesus is demanding a level of perfection that would leave the pope feeling hopeless.
As you listen, you might ask yourself “Who could ever live that way?” The answer is, no one can. And that’s the point. No one person can do all that Jesus is asking. But as a community, we can all bring our blessing to help one another.
As a Christ centered community, Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, mind and soul…and to love our neighbors the same. We rely on the righteousness God’s words, and the holiness of God’s children.
Jesus said, in Matthew 5:17-20:
Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.
Jesus makes the claim that he did not come to change the law but to uphold it. I believe him. What would be the point? God’s laws do not change. But if you abide in them like Jesus did, they will change you and the entire world.
By upholding the law, Jesus sets the foundation for heaven and earth to be one.
Next Jesus said, in Matthew 5:21-26
You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill. This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God. Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
Jesus knows how dangerous words can be. Then used to belittle or hurt others they often escalate into greater acts of violence and retaliation. We need to be careful with our words, and our tweets, because they tell the truth about what is in our heart. Later Jesus will have a confrontation with the religious leaders about purity laws - reminding them, “It’s not what goes into to a person’s mouth that defiles but what comes out.” Before words fall from our lips, they are first formed in our heart.
It’s imperative that a community centered on Christ be grounded in his heart, so his words will be ours. Jesus used words to heal and forgive not to harm or punish. His words had the power to transform us all into children of God because his heart was one with God’s love and righteousness.
That’s why Jesus said, if you’re at church and your heart is filled with angry words, then leave. It’s more important to seek reconciliation than sing a hymn. Every relationship we have will reflect our relationship with God. People are listening and looking for Christ in our Christianity. Just as our words need to be his, so too our actions must be his actions. By upholding God’s law we too set the foundation for the kingdom of heaven to come.
Next Jesus said, in Matthew 5:27-32
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt. Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump. Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
I agree with theologian Stanley Hauerwas who believes Jesus isn’t so much talking about divorce, but about establishing “a community of friendship that is an alternative to the loneliness of the world.” That’s to say, a community formed in Christ’s likeness will be a place where people don’t have to be married for social or economic reasons (which was the norm back then) because it has become place where everyone would be loved and cared for. Jesus shows us that God cares enough to become one of us for the sake of redeeming us.
Jesus knows God’s law intimately. It’s written on his heart. His actions reflect God’s love and grace. There can’t be a Christ-centered church if the heart of Christ’s message is missing.
Lastly, Jesus said, in Matthew 5: 33-37
“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
We are our word. It’s how a Christ centered community identifies with God. And what it means to be the salt of the earth. God has entrusted us with an important message of hope. People are listening and looking to see if our yes and no’s mean yes and no.
Jesus didn’t come to change the laws and prophecies. He came to uphold them – to bring us all together as a united community, redeemed in God’s righteousness and love. By upholding the law, Jesus formed an ethical community where people make amends and accept apologies no matter what. A community that knows your heart well enough to care for it and to trust you because of it.
By upholding the law, Jesus created a new kind of community, one that is always there for each other. One that focuses on hope instead of fear. A loving community united in purpose, seeking to build bridges of peace instead of sowing seeds of conflict and discord.
Jesus gathers people together in a new way and offers them a new way to live life – a new order of peace and truth – “by making concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person.”
This is what it means to be the church, the body of Christ, blessed and sent to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill and a light to the world.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) pp. 68-71 (Kindle edition).
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. ~ Matthew 5:13-16
Growing up in Florida you learn a few things about nature. First, never open a door or window if there is no screen between you and the world for you never know what will fly in and land on you.
Second, if you sense that a storm is about to come you’re probably right – even if the local meteorologist argues differently.
I believe we all have special intuitions that help us detect when something bad is about to happen, or how we should act in a specific circumstance.
But most of what we know or do is learned behavior. We are taught how behave in church, or how to be on guard when walking around at night. And this brings us to our reading today from Matthew’s gospel.
We are still on the mountain side with Jesus and his disciples. We are part of the crowd listening in to glean some wisdom from this amazing new teacher.
Our lesson today continues from Matthew 5:13-16.
To this day, his blessings and analogies still ring true. What Jesus said back then, still matters to us today. We are salt and light. We receive God’s blessing and then are called to be that blessing out in the world for the sole purpose of helping others see, in the good things that we do, how God is at work in their life… so they will respond by giving glory to God. That’s pretty much sums up today’s reading. And what it means to be a Christian, as individuals and as a church. We are salt and light.
Any student of science knows salt is an important part of life. It’s a mineral that plays a vital role in hydration and maintaining a balance of electrolytes in the body. Without salt, we would die. Whenever I had a sore throat as a kid, my dad made me gargle with saltwater. A gross tasting magical elixir… which helps to reduce inflammation. If you have sore muscles or tired feet, nothing is more healing and restorative than a good soak in a salt bath. Maybe Jesus uses this analogy to tell us that we play a vital role in the healing and restoration of the world.
Salt is also used to enhance the flavor of food. In some households, it’s the secret weapon to enjoying your mother-in-law’s cooking. In our house, one cannot sit at a table without being given a sampler of salts to sprinkle over whatever food has been prepared. Kathleen swears that different salts enhance the natural flavors of different foods. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that as salt we are to elicit goodness and bring out the best in people.
Here’s a little known important fact to keep stored in your head. Salt was the main contributor to the development of civilization because it is a perfect way to preserve food for storage or travel. A thick coat of salt can keep meat from being corrupted or spoiled. Is Jesus telling us that we are to be a spiritual agent that stops the spread of bad things from corrupting and harming our communities?
Because of all these great qualities, salt remains one of the world’s most valuable commodities. Back in the olden days, was a common practice for Roman soldiers to receive salt as part of their salary. Thus a person was, or wasn’t, worth their salt.
For all it’s goodness, salt also has a bad side. Too much can spike your blood pressure or cause kidney disease, or affect your appearance. In biblical times salt was even used as a weapon. Once it lost its flavor, or its tang as they say in Scotland, one would spread salt on an enemy’s crops, causing the land to go barren. Maybe that why Jesus warns us not to lose our flavor, our saltiness, so we don’t do harm to others or ourselves.
Someone once said, “while we can’t lose our soul, we can lose our savor.” We all run the risk of becoming unsavory – a worthless commodity that does more damage than good. We see this today not only in our politics but even in our churches. It happens when people who call themselves Christians do not stand up for what is right and just. Instead they turn a blind eye or simply put up with the corruption festering all around them. Such people, as the old saying goes, “are not worth their salt.” If there is no Christ in your Christianity, then you have no value in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said, “You are salt.” But if you lose your saltiness then how will people taste godliness? If you’re going to call yourself his disciple, you cannot lose your capacity to love and value those who are dispossessed. Jesus teaches us the way of godliness and righteousness – always seeking justice and fairness, showing mercy, having integrity, and speaking up and standing up for what is right even if those in power crucify us for doing so.
We are salt. We are valuable to God. It’s in the way we live out Christ in the world, that people come to see their worth in God’s kingdom and give God glory. That’s the gospel. To be the salt and light, because human beings cannot live without either one.
I might be old, but I do remember some lessons from a high school biology class I had in the early 80’s. One is that light is the main source of energy for all living organisms. It is the essence of life itself. Without it we would literally be nothing. Maybe mushrooms, or mold, but who wants to be something so slimy and gross?
In John’s gospel, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is making us light-bearers with him. He’s putting us in the center of the table to illuminate the entire room for others to see how God is present even in the darkest of places.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that every day, when light breaks the darkness, there is a new beginning, a new day. Every sunrise awakens every lifeform. So maybe when Jesus gives us this analogy he is reminding us that every day we are given a new opportunity to shed light on God’s blessing for the world to see. God’s light is our light, the light of life itself.
Last week, my friend Gianni and I were talking about the affects that artificial light has on our health. Whether it’s the neon numbers from an alarm clock or the glow of a television screen, artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythm – the body’s 24-hour sleep/wake cycle. Science has shown that artificial light affects things like brain wave patterns, hormone production, and cell regulation. It has also been linked to medical issues like depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and sleep disorders like insomnia.”
Just as artificial light is harmful to one’s health, artificial faith is harmful to one’s spiritual growth. Likewise, real faith, like real light, is life giving. As followers of Christ, we must be his Light – willing to faithfully go to the dark places, bearing the light of Christ in all that we do. Just as the moon, which has no light of its own but reflects what it receives from the sun, we who chose to follow Jesus, are called to reflect his light upon the world. It’s imperative that we not to hide our faith or spiritual gifts but to put them in the center of life – drawing people to its warmth and radiance.
We also need to remember that a candle only shines once it’s lit. We cannot bring the light of Christ to others if we refuse to let it shine in our own heart. Our spiritual journey begins with God’s blessing upon us. But it doesn’t take off until we accept that blessing; allowing it to penetrate the deepest and darkest depths of our soul, so that we can fully and truly light up as bright as the Son. By embracing our own blessing, we are able to bless all our relationships in a way that fulfills the righteousness of God – to love as we are loved by God.
By truly embracing our own blessing, we are able to demonstrate what it means to have a character shaped by God’s blessing – to be the salt of the earth. We are able to make our words mean something, to live with integrity, to show respect and kindness to one another without fearing how others might retaliate.
By understanding our own blessing, we are able to illuminate God’s blessings in those dark places where love is lacking, forgiveness is needed, and where mercy and justice are missing.
My charge to you today is to go and be the salt and light of Christ in the world, so people are able to see their value in the kingdom of heaven, to know their worth in God’s glory and shine themselves.
This is how Jesus fulfilled God’s righteousness, and blessed the world with love and grace. And this is how we, his followers, are able to abide the same – loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul; and our neighbor as ourselves.
Let us pray:
God, you have enlightened us with your Word today, and illuminated us with your Spirit. Send us now out into the world to bring out the best in others by being our best. Help us to shine brightly, not for our glory but for yours. As our individual lights come together to form this church, we pray that you will draw others to it’s warmth and radiance, now and forever. Amen.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol 1. (Louisville: Westminser John Knox, 2010) pp. 332-337.
Lockyer, Herbert. All The Parables of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963) pp. 146-147.
In Christ, God reveals the truth about who God is, and who we are in God’s eyes and heart. Through him, God turns our world upside down to help us see the world and ourselves differently
For the last ten weeks or so I’ve been writing in this gratitude journal that was given to me by my dear friend Darlene. I’ll admit, when she gave it to me I didn’t really know what to make of it…other than I loved the title, "OKAY, FINE, I'm Grateful."
But once I started writing in it, things began to change. Taking a few moments in the morning to jot down the things I’m grateful for has helped to switch my default position of griping and complaining to one of being mindful and present in all of life.
This simple daily practice has also opened my eyes to see all that God is doing in my life. In Christ, I have access to all the abundance of everything ever created. But for many, this massive blessing can be hard to see, especially if you are not looking for them. That’s why living in gratitude is important. It keeps us always on the lookout to what God is revealing to us.
Read Matthew 5:1-12
The beatitudes, as they are commonly known in the church, are these “short, two-part affirmations that sum up common knowledge about the good life. Blessed are those who floss, for they will have good teeth.” (Taylor) But up here, on this mountainside, Jesus does something different. His blessings are equated with things people worked hard to avoid – poverty, suffering, hunger, and persecution. I imagine those who listened, did so in shock as their world was turned upside down.
As far as we’re taught, blessings given are to those who succeed. To be poor in spirit or meek will get you nowhere in a culture that is grounded in competition and fear. But to Jesus, who sees the world with God’s eyes and loves others with God’s heart, he blesses those who know what it’s like to be excluded and the ones who don’t make it to the top of the ladder. His blessings may shock some, yet they give hope to all. For the way things are…is not the way they will always be.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it like a Ferris Wheel, where “those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the world’s lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, …while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars…This is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”
How does knowing this about God change the way you see yourself or your current life circumstances? Are you grateful in your own hunger or poverty? Or let me ask it this way: how blessed are you that God sees you differently than you see yourself?
I am grateful to know that no matter how far I stray from doing what God has called me to do, I’m never beyond the boundaries of God’s love for me in Christ. I believe the same is true about whatever mess you find yourself in. No matter how many times the world drags you down, God always draws you up?
Let us count it a blessing that God sees our real worth no matter how much money we make or how far down the ladder we have fallen. God does not focus on our poverty or deficiencies but on the wealth we produce loving and caring for one another. Blessed are you who takes the time to be present when a friend really needs you to be there; or you who stands up for someone being picked on at school, for you are worth your salt in the kingdom of heaven.
I count it a blessing that God sees through the costumes and masks we think we have to wear to make it in this world. I am grateful that God loves me just as God made me. Real. Divine. True. We can lie to ourselves and try to fool the world, but we cannot hide or conceal ourselves from God who knows the secrets of the heart. And loves us anyway.
So blessed are you who strive to do good, you who seek to cooperate instead of compete or fight, for you will be called first to sit on the lap of God in heaven.
So how blessed are we? Very blessed said Jesus, who reveals our future to us by giving us a foretaste of it today; blessing us so that we can go and bless others in his name.
Why is this important? Because the world blesses those who build their fortune and fame on the back and expense of others. The world idolizes power and strength, it loves to flex its muscle with acts of aggression, war and violence. It promises salvation through favoritism and consumerism, bought by those who can afford it. Enslaving others who cannot.
In Christ, God disrupts the way things are going on in our world and transforms them to the way things are to be in God’s world. Those who are last will be first. Those who hunger will feast. Those who are persecuted will live forever in the kingdom of heaven. That’s how it’s done by the God who has loved us and blessed us from all eternity.
In Christ, God reveals the truth about who God is, and who we are in God’s eyes and heart. Through him, God turns our world upside down to help us see the world and ourselves differently so that we might know wherever hunger is, wherever pain or injustice is inflicted, or tears are shed, God is there…making some kind of blessing.
So let us count it a blessing that our God saves us when this world fails us? And that God loves us enough never to give up on us? Blessed are those who understand this and invest their life in imitation of Christ, for they will be worth more than any earthly treasure.
I invite you to take the time each day to count your blessings. Write down in a journal or note pad all that God is doing for you, out of great love for you. It might be something as simple as a good night sleep, or to have a great cup of coffee to wake up to. It might gravity, puppies, health insurance, comfortable shoes, or a Super Bowl championship. The more you practice living in gratitude, the more you realize it’s easier to count your blessings than it is to resist them.
I know there will be things that happen that will make it seemingly impossible to be grateful for. It would be remiss of me not to address the tragic death of Kobe and Gigi Bryant, and the seven others onboard that helicopter which crashed a few miles away from here. Where is the silver lining in that?
During an interview at Friday’s Laker game, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers said something to the affect that Kobe had a special way of uniting different races, ethnicities, and social classes. He did it by giving us hope when things seemed hopeless. In a single game Kobe could transform enemies into friends, and bring us together as one family. “Even in his passing,” Flea said, “Kobe continues to unite us.” I was grateful to hear that, and to see the truth in his words.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I believe this to be true.
“The way things are… is not the way they will always be, and no one gets to stay at the top of the wheel forever,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “What goes round, comes round. Neither the going up nor the coming down is under our control as far as I know, but wherever we happen to be the promise is the same. Blessed are you who lose your grip on the way things are, for God shall lead you in the things that shall be.”
Let us pray:
God, a wise person once said, if the only prayer we offered was thank you, that would suffice. And so thank you God for the endless blessings you pour out upon this world. May we never lose sight and always be humbled in gratitude. Amen.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way. (Lanham: Cowley, 1999) pp. 51-56.
a message on Matthew 4:12-23
I want to tell you a story about a monk who leaves his secluded monastery in the rural part the country to visit his cousin in the big city. As they’re walking down the noisy street, amidst the clamor of city life, a fire truck moves through traffic, with its sirens blazing.
As it passes the two, the monk asked “Did you hear that? It’s a cricket singing?” His cousin replies, “How can you hear a cricket singing in the middle of all this noise?” To which the monk answers, “I guess one hears what one is listening for.”
Last week we heard Jesus ask, “What are you looking for?” Then he invited Andrew and his friend to come and see for themselves. Today, we are given a different version of this story. I hope that you will listen carefully to these words from Matthew’s gospel, to hear what Jesus is saying among the noises of everyday life.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
How do you think people first heard Jesus as he began his ministry? How do you think they responded when they heard him say, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near”?
I suspect some people thought he was mad. And some didn’t bother to give him the time. But there were those who were intrigued. They wanted to know more. But what would make these four guys quit their jobs to follow this stranger?
“Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Many people today hear these words and think Jesus is saying, “Follow me, I know a back way into heaven.” Others hear and believe heaven is a place to escape this life – some kind of nirvana that’ll replace the hell they’re in. You might hear something completely different.
As for me, I don’t hear Jesus talking about leaving this world so much as I hear him asking what have I done, and more importantly, what I’m doing right now in the world. I hear him saying heaven has come down to earth. So how I’m gonna respond? What am I listening for?
Barrie Bates hears Jesus inviting us to examine our past…by taking an honest assessment of our present situation…which will give a clear indication of what our future might look like.
In addressing our past, Jesus says, “Repent.” I don’t know about you but this particular word used to raise the hackles on my neck. It carried such a negative connotation that it used to stop me from hearing anything that was said after it. I can still feel the harsh rebuke from those old preachers who’d wag their finger and told I was not good enough to be standing in the presence of God.
Truth is, Jesus is pretty straight-forward: “Repent.” If I am hearing him correctly, he’s not saying I’m not good enough. Instead I hear him say, “Ian, get your act together. Take inventory of your past. And let it go. Drop it like a fishing net, and follow me.”
Let go of all that stuff that weighs you down. And grab hold of God who lifts you up. When I tune my ear to Jesus I hear him telling me that I am forgiven, loved, and free to live in the abundance of God’s grace right now.
Jesus says, “Repent,” not because you want to get into heaven, but because heaven wants to get into you.
This bring us to the present. “For the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s not on its way, but it has come. For some crazy reason God wants to dwell among us, to sit in our sin and to love us through it until heaven and earth are of one mind and spirit.
As Rohr often says, “You cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time and everywhere.” If that is true, then it tells me heaven is within our reach. In fact, “It’s so close we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear it — if that’s what we’re listening for.” (Bates)
In calling us to “Repent,” Jesus is inviting us to see signs of the kingdom fully alive and God’s abundant glory shinning brightly in us and all around us – especially when it comes to doing for and to others.
Thus Jesus tells Simon and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” He is calling them, and us, to participate in the work of God’s kingdom. That’s a huge calling – one not simply reserved for ministers but for all of God’s children.
Until heaven and earth are one, we need to shine the light of Christ on the darkness of places. We need to proclaim the Good News of God’s redemptive love. And we need to make known the glory of God’s marvelous works, so others will know they are of value to God.
When I hear Jesus say “Repent” I don’t hear a commandment. I hear a call to be a part of God’s community in the world, where the kingdom of heaven is revealed. I hear an invitation to be healed, restored, and redeemed back to my rightful place as God’s beloved child. And I hear a call from God to live fully and faithfully into that responsibility.
What is it that you hear? How do Jesus’ words penetrate your heart and soul? How do they cause you to react…to be a part of this community…in the kingdom of heaven?
While this church doesn’t have a building, we do have a mission: “To Love God, Love Others, and Serve Both.” We strive to be fishers of people, ambassadors of Christ, evangelists who tell their story so others can see God’s glory in their life. And as we start a new year, we hope that you will join us in this mission.
Jesus is calling all of us to do some radical stuff. His demands haven’t changed since James and John dropped their nets to follow Jesus – who went around “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people." Think about those verbs – teaching, proclaiming, and curing. This is how people are able to see that the kingdom of heaven is within their reach.
As the body of Christ, we represent Jesus’ sacrificial love by offering ourselves to be a living sanctuary where others can find rest.
Whether it’s you or me, or us all together, we are the church. Teachers and professors of God’s love in Christ.
We are called to be agents of change reversing the pain and suffering caused by injustice and war. We are to be the balm that heals the world of emotional, physical, or spiritual pain.
We are a community that loves and forgives and accepts all people just as God has been gracious to welcome us— if that’s what you’re listening for.
My hope for you today is that you will tune your ear towards Jesus. That you will stop fighting with the clanging noises of the world, and dance with our Lord to the divine music of everlasting life… to be a cricket singing…on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray:
God, you are above us. God, you are beneath us. God, you are in front of us, God you are behind us. God within us and all around us…open our eyes to see your glory…open our ears to hear your guidance…open our hearts to reach us ceive your Spirit and to live you out into the world. Amen.
Bates, Barrie. Repent, Look for Signs of the Kingdom, and Follow Jesus. 01-19-2020. (episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/repent-look-signs-kingdom-and-follow-jesus-epiphany-3-january-26-2020)
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And…daily meditations. (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013) p. 71. Adapted from his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, pp. 56-57.
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
The other morning I was driving down a side street where a delivery van was double parked and blocking the flow of traffic. Normally this isn’t so much of a problem on side streets, but thanks to Amazon Prime there was a massive three car back up happening. People’s anxieties were flaring. And tempers were on the verge of bursting like a wild volcano.
Since I was in no real hurry, I hung back and flashed my high beams to let the other cars know that they could go around the van. Instead of going, they just sat there agitated. The more I flashed my lights, the more ticked off they got.
I began to think that no one taught them this well known gesture of kindness. So I drove on. As I past one car, the driver boldly showed me that she did know, another universally recognizable gesture that wasn’t so kind.
Whether it’s operating a vehicle, showing random acts of kindness, or flipping someone off in traffic, we know what we know…because someone first taught it to us. Math. Science. Language. Religion. We are always students learning from someone or something.
I heard a great scholar confess how he learned more about God’s grace and forgiveness from his dog than from anyone else. Is there a person you know or met who has made your life more blessed by what they taught you?
In 1979 I got a job as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant a block away from my house. I was hired by the owner, whose birth name was Francis L. Morris, the same name as a guy who escaped Alcatraz and was never caught.
I mention that because Frank was a tough and intimidating man. A retired firefighter from the South Bronx, Frank was raised on the wild streets that he would later serve. Outside men like Evel Knievel and the Bionic Man, Frank was probably the first male figure I looked up to.
However, he was not the kind of teacher parents would want their children to have. He taught me how to cuss more colorfully, how to think more dangerously, and how to survive on the streets more skillfully…and often illegally. He made such an mark on my life that when I went off to college people always asked me what part of New York I was from.
Just as someone taught Frank, and he taught me, I try to do my best to pass on the lessons I have learned. In today’s Gospel passage, we see how this kind of teaching works. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness doing something new with an old ritual. People were coming in droves to see what he’s all about. In the midst of the dunking and shouting, Jesus walks by.
Out of nowhere, John blurts out, “There’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He’s teaching those gathered that Jesus is the one who brings true restoration between God and all of creation.
Today, we know this because, as the Bible reveals, John is testifying, he’s teaching us to what God has already made known to him. God tells John and John tells us. This is how teaching works – said knowledge moves from the teacher to the student. And in this case, it’s the kind of knowledge that sends the students to go and learn more.
To those who meets Jesus will learn, it’s more than mere knowledge…it’s excitement, joy, transformation, new life…the kind of newness you can’t help but share with others, if only because others see the change Jesus makes in you.
Look at what happens to Andrew when he leaves his teacher John to follow Jesus. He is enlightened and runs to his brother Simon to teaches him what he knows about Jesus. These two brothers, who become part of the 12 disciples, will go on testifying – teaching others what they know in their hearts to be true about God’s transformative love in Christ. To those they teach, will in turn will go and do the same and on and on and on it goes… right up to this very moment in time. (Bowron)
And that’s where we come in. Like every aspect of life, we eventually make the move from student to teacher. As followers of Jesus, especially we who have been spiritually awakened to our belovedness in Christ, we have to proclaim this truth: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The question we all must ask ourselves then is how am I testifying this good news? How am I telling or showing the world that they too are a beloved children of God, made in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit? This is not just my job, but yours as well. We are all ministers, teachers, of this truth.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives his students a great task. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations. Go make students who then can become teachers who can go and teach others of God’s redemptive love and grace. Jesus knew if we don’t continue what he started then people will not know that they are loved, no matter what. They will be left empty, searching for anything culture and society offers to fill the void.
People are watching and listening, they are learning from you whether you know it or not. So how will you teach them? In what way do you live your life that bears witness to Christ? How do you show the excitement of your faith like Andrew did when he ran off and told his brother?
I understand not everyone is comfortable expressing their faith verbally. Most of us don’t want to be pushy or have people avoid hanging out with us. So here’s something I learned from a wonderful mentor about circumventing this uncomfortableness. He said, “We don’t beat people into the kingdom of heaven. Instead we must live the kingdom in such a way that others will want to join us there.”
When I was going through a difficult time in my life, a friend asked how I was able to cope. I answered, very much like Jesus did, with my own an invitation of “Come and See.” I asked, “What are you doing on Sunday at 11:00 am?” She accepted my invitation to come and learn. And a year and a half later, she married me in that church.
How do you teach or testify? I have a t-shirt that says “The Sermonator.” You might wear a cross around your neck. Both are powerful statements and great ways to start a conversation.
Another great place to start is in the way you show kindness to others. Kathleen always says it’s easier to catch a bee with honey than it is with vinegar. People may not understand why you are flashing your lights at them, but when you respond to a rude gesture with love, that is a teaching moment. Even if you don’t say anything, simply being the love of Christ in the world helps to spread the love of Christ where it’s needed the most.
Start with love. Start with caring for someone else. Start small if you want to, but start. The more you practice this the easier it becomes and bigger it grows. John lit the fire in Andrew, and Andrew lit the fire in Simon, and so we too are to light up the world as God’s beloved children.
Before her death some 500 years ago, St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
Yes, Jesus invites you to come and see. But today, I encourage you to go and be. Go and be a living testimony to God’s glory in your life. Go and be “like John, be like Andrew, be like the uncountable cloud of witnesses to God’s gospel of love, justice, peace, and presence. Show us all in your words and deeds, in all of your life, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.” (Bowron)
Flash your light on this message and teach the world to see their place in the kingdom of God. Amen.
Let us pray:
God you have shone your light in us, now that we are full of your light and love, send us out to fill the hearts of others, encouraging them to do the same. Amen.
Bowron, Josh. Testimony, Epiphany 2. Posted on January 12, 2020 (accessed 01/16/2020).
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A vol 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) p.260.
“He was essentially a fighter, afraid of nothing and of nobody, but withal he was human, overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to all his friends.” ~ Louis Bernacchi, physicist aboard Shackleton's ship the Discovery
This past Christmas a friend sent me a book on the leadership style of Sir Edmond Shackleton, Briton’s most famous Antarctic explorer. Inside the books jacket, Justin wrote, “You are a world changer.” I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this idea ever since.
According to the book, Shackleton defined it through his leadership style. He hired people he believed could bring more to the expedition than just their particular expertise. He created a spirit of unity and peace among the crew. And invested time to get to know each man personally. He cared for their needs, often sacrificing his own comforts to do so. Most importantly, Shackleton lead by example.
Today, the church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus; another world changer forged in water. Jesus was also a leader who put others before himself, and was kind and generous to all people, be it friend or foe. As such, many would follow even if it would cost them their life.
While Shackleton developed his skills on the high seas, Jesus got his from reading scripture and shaped his life accordingly. In Luke we learn that when Jesus was only 12 years old, he was in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, and asking tough questions. “Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).
Long before Jesus was baptized, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words. I invite you all to imagine hearing them as Jesus first did. And think about how they might shape who you are.
Read Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
So who than is this one chosen by God, who does not break a bruised reed or extinguish a dimly lit wick? Believe it or not this is a hotly contested question.
Was it a person? Someone like Shackleton who did the impossible to ensure his entire crew made it safely home after being shipwrecked in the darkness of winter and no hope of survival. Some argue it’s a collective group – like Israel or the United States – who believed they were chosen by God to bring justice into the world. Because it’s written in poetic form, there are those say Isaiah’s words are symbolic, a metaphor for living life.
When I asked my wife who she thought this passage was about her answer surprised me. She said, “It sounds like you.” (I know many people who would beg to differ, myself included.) To her credit, she meant it allegorically describing the way I evangelize. “Despite challenges and doubters you face,” she said, “you do not quench their light or grow faint, instead you persevere and grow through it.”
Although I love my wife’s perspective of me, given my Christian upbringing, it’s difficult to see anyone other than Jesus in this passage. Who else checks off all these boxes? But believe it or not, and I know what I’m risking by saying this, my wife is right too suggest that maybe God is not just talking to us in this passage, but talking about us as well?
It’s easy for us to read Jesus these words, but not so when it comes to seeing who we are in them. That’s why I asked you to hear these words as Jesus did. Jesus took the scriptures to heart and used them to defined who he as and all that he stood for. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus declares that he “did not come to abolish the laws or the prophets; but to fulfill them.” This is how he understood his ministry and how he ushered in the Kingdom of God.
Sadly, many of us view the Bible as some dusty old history book, forgetting that it’s the Living Word of God. We need to read these sacred text less like a history lesson and more like a user manual for living life. Like Jesus, we need to take these words and infuse them into every aspect of our lives. This is how we, in our own baptism, participate in the Kingdom of God; leading the way for others to follow.
The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus living out the word. One in particular is like our scripture reading today. In Luke 4, Jesus is asked to do the reading at his hometown church. The Rabbi handed him a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Standing before family and friends, he read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18-19).
At the end, Jesus didn’t say, “This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.” Instead he broke tradition and declared, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 20). On one hand, Jesus is boldly announcing who he is, and on the other he’s calling us into action. To not only be hearers of the word, but doers as well.
Like trekking across Antarctica, living faithfully in God’s word is a risky endeavor. So maybe we make Isaiah’s passage about Jesus, because it’s easier to let him do all the heavy lifting. We give Jesus the responsibility to deal with others so we don’t have to. We say Jesus loves. Jesus saves. Jesus heals. Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. That is true. But if we only see Scripture talking about Jesus, then I fear we’ll miss out on the bigger blessing that God has given to the world.
Like I said last week, we are God’s beloved children, chosen in Christ to participate fully in God’s redemptive grace. We are stamped with God’s love and filled with the Spirit of Christ to be a light to the nations.
It’s our job to stand up for justice…without shouting, breaking, fainting, or quenching. It’s our job to free people of the bonds that bind them without judging, shaming or belittling anyone in the process. It’s our job to be a living example of God’s covenant to all people, despite of where they’re from or what they believe. God has called us in Christ …to lead the way of the greatest exploration of all time: the journey back to God’s loving embrace.
Jane Goodall once said, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Just as Jesus cared for the bruised and the hurt, so must we. Is there someone in your life who needs their pain soothed or a hurt mended? If so, lead the way by being the healing balm they need to be well.
Just as Jesus cupped his hands around the dimmest wicks until it was able to shine brightly, so too must we. Do you know someone whose light is barely flickering and in danger of going out? If so, then strengthen and stoke that ember until a bright light shines within them.
Jesus led by example. And in doing so opened the eyes of the blind to see God in their midst. Do you know someone who’s having trouble seeing God’s love and grace? If so, lead the way by being God’s love and grace for them.
Let us not forget that the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit sealed within us at ours. Same is true about his mission and ours. Just as Jesus left the wild, raging waters of the Jordan to proclaim the gospel, so too are we called to participate in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus changed the world by living fully and faithfully to God’s word, so too are we do the same. We can do this because God has anointed us with all the abundance of God’s glory at our disposal.
And so, in the name of Christ, go and be the person who changes the status quo, who stands up for justice and fairness for all people. Go and be the one who heals the broken and opens the eyes of the blind. Go and be the one who frees other’s from the prisons they have put themselves in. Go and be the light of Christ that leads others on the great exploration of life, and bring them safely home to God.
Let us pray: Loving creator, in your sacred words we find all that we need to be world changers. Empower us with your Spirit to be leaders of your love and peace, to be more like Jesus so others will come and see your glory. Amen.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 218-223.
Morrell, Margot and Stephanie Capparell. Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From The Great Antarctic Explorer. (New York: Penguin, 2001) p. 15.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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