April 9, 2019- Peter Betrays Jesus, and We Do Too- Mark 14:66-72

peter-denial

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”  But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”  And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. Mark 14:66-72 (ESV)

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Peter. He thought he had the inner fortitude to confess Jesus even when it could mean his hide.   There are times when we all think that we can be confident to confess Christ, and then our old Adam comes out and our words and actions betray Him.

The ability to remain faithful is not within us. This may have been the lesson that Jesus had for Peter as well as for us. Whether we stand or fall in the faith is not reliant on on our own desire, willpower or merit.  If Peter, the apostle, who walked and ate and lived with Jesus, could betray Him, who do we think we are?

The saint side of us (which is a gift of God, a result of God choosing us as His own) wants to cling to Jesus and wants to live for Him, even when it means our own personal discomfort or sacrifice.  We as sinners want to be God and we insist on having our own desires fulfilled- our own personal comfort and our own advancement and benefit.  It is inevitable that the saint and the sinner will have some skirmishes.

The apostle Paul discusses this struggle in Romans 7 – the things he wants to do he does not do, and the things he does not want to do, he does.  It is the struggle we all have and will have as long as we live in this lifetime.

Yet God gives us the gift of repentance. He gives us the Good News that Jesus died for ALL of our sins- even the times when we are faithless, when we fail, when we outright break His law.  No one is “too bad” for God’s grace and forgiveness.

Jesus forgave Peter and commended him to service and ministry even though Peter betrayed Him. We still sin and our actions betray Jesus every day.  Even so, we are still, by faith in Jesus, by the grace of God, named and claimed as His own children.

Thankfully Jesus doesn’t just leave us to the consequences of our sins. We are baptized, washed, covered in His righteousness, because we believe He is who he said He is and that we trust that He is enough.

January 15, 2019 – Slaves? Romans 6:15-23

slave ship 1788slave auction

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:15-23 (ESV)

21st century Americans have a difficult time with the concept of slavery. We may remember seeing drawings of slave ships or slave auctions from the 18th and 19th century from history class like the ones pictured above, but we don’t really see slavery out in the open. We think of slavery as something that ended with the Civil War in 1865. Slavery does still exist in the modern world. It may not be as visible today, but it is still just as repulsive as the buying and selling of humans on the auction block. Human trafficking, child abuse, forced labor, addiction, and domestic violence are examples of some modern forms of slavery.

An easier question for us today is, to whom or what do we sell ourselves? Are we slaves to addictions such as drugs, cigarettes or alcohol- or even to an excess of good things such as food or exercise? Are we slaves to excessive work or excessive leisure? Are we slaves to the thoughts and opinions of others?

The apostle Paul teaches us: “you are slaves of the one you obey.” As long as we are living in this body, in this life, we will still be tempted and we will still sin. (Simul Justus et peccator still applies.) However, because in baptism we die to sin and live with Christ, we have become His slaves- not in the sense of being in a sorry forced servitude, but as joyful servants responding to the love He first showed us.  We may not be able to obey perfectly, but our faith in Jesus is what saves us and justifies us. Our faith- which is a gift of the Holy Spirit- is what sets us free to live as God created us to live, and to do the good works that He created for us to do.

Sanctification is another concept that we can have difficulty with. Christian sanctification does not mean becoming rigid, legalistic, “holier than thou” hypocrites. We aren’t always people who are clean and tidy and well behaved.  Sometimes we road rage. Sometimes we use nasty words.  We are rough around the edges and a lot worse than that if we are honest with ourselves. Jesus’ first followers were once the likes of fishermen and tax collectors and even women of ill repute.  Our caricature of snooty false piety- imagine Dana Carvey as “the Church Lady”- is right out.  We are real people who live in this real world.

We are all hypocrites because we are all sinners, however, we confess our sins just as the apostle Paul did when he referred to himself as the chief (or foremost) of all sinners. We let Jesus forgive us. We trust Jesus to help us do better and to change our minds and hearts to be more like His.  Sanctification is actually “holification” (if I may borrow a term from Rev. Jonathan Fisk) meaning a process in which God makes us holy, by faith, in Christ, because of His grace. God makes us more like Him. We are meant to grow and develop into the people God has intended us to become.  That becoming is not something we do, but something God does in and through us.  It’s not easy.  Sometimes it’s painful, but faith is trust that in all of it God knows what he’s doing.

Sin and death appear to be the masters of this world. When we look around us, those things are everywhere.  Yet so is the transforming power of God- the same God who put death to death.  We know the end to this story.  God wins.

All of us sell ourselves to something. Our first parents sold us all into sin and death at the moment of the Fall. Yet we have been bought for a price. Jesus sold Himself- a perfect sacrifice- to purchase us so that He could transform us and make us holy.  He bought us, and set us free so that we can love and serve God as willing and joyful slaves to Him.

 

March 27, 2018- The Offspring of Eve, the Offspring of God- Genesis 3:14-15, 22-23, Isaiah 49:5-7

adam and eve

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”- …And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”  So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. Genesis 3:14-15, 22-23 (NIV)

The entrance of original sin into the world followed creation very closely. It didn’t take long for the human desire to “be as God” to enter into the dynamic of creation. Fallen humanity shares the curse of sin and banishment from the Garden. All of creation groans under the weight of human failing and sin (Romans 8:18-25.) We are no longer perfect and sinless and free from suffering the way that God originally created Adam and Eve. Apart from the grace of God and the gift of Jesus, humanity is still hopeless and fallen. We can’t stop sinning and falling short of God’s expectations for us no matter how hard we try. We are still waiting for the final realization of God’s kingdom.

Even as fallen as we are, we are not without hope. We learn even from the beginning, God made a way for humanity to be saved from our sin and to be brought back to Him. We learn in Genesis 3 in the account of the Fall, that the serpent (or the tempter) will be defeated by an offspring of Eve, Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, an offspring of both God and of Eve. Jesus suffered death, but in doing so He conquered death and He defeated evil.  This week we reflect on Jesus, the Son of God, the Suffering Servant, as he takes the journey to the Cross, to endure the piercing that covers our transgressions, and to endure the punishment that brings us peace. (Isaiah 53:5)

Isaiah the prophet lived about 700 years before Jesus walked on earth as a man. Isaiah was given words of God regarding Jesus so that we would know Him when He appeared.

And now the Lord says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength— he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

This is what the Lord says— the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel- to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Isaiah 49:5-7 (NIV)

Jesus came to earth in a flesh body as a man, to live like us, to suffer like us, to die for us, so we can be saved from sin. This is the Gospel in a nutshell, but what does that mean for us?

Jesus came to restore, to bring humanity back to God and back to the purpose God created us to fulfill. This restoration and redemption was not just for the people of Israel, but for all the people of the world, and for all creation.

As we contemplate Jesus’ journey to the Cross in the following days, and knowing that we are still living in the paradox of now, but not yet, may we remember that His sacrifice was made for us. Our sin and our human weakness and all of fallen creation hung with Him upon the Cross. He gave His very Body and His very Blood so that we could be part of His abundant, forever life. He endured the punishment that we deserve and that we have earned.  We don’t remember Jesus’ suffering because we need a guilt trip, but so we can live in gratitude and thanks for what only He could do for us.  We honor him by living in response to His gift to us, with open and generous hearts.

 

 

March 13, 2018 Falling and Standing…and Snakes- Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:13-15, 1 Corinthians 10:6-13

moses bronze serpent.jpg

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. Numbers 21:4-9 (NIV)

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:13-15 (NIV)

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:6-13 (NIV)

Temptation and snakes are themes that run throughout the Bible. The serpent tempted Eve, and we know how that story goes.  Humankind has a sort of uneasy relationship with the reptilian world, but a sort of love-hate relationship with temptation.  We know we shouldn’t give in to certain things…but we do, whether it is something as trivial as scarfing down that hot fudge sundae we know we really don’t need, or constantly whining and complaining and being surly and unkind, or even something devastating  such as succumbing to desire for someone other than our spouse, or murdering someone. Even worse, we don’t actually have to do the deed to sin. We just have to want to do it in our minds and hearts, and that is sin. God sees our hearts and knows our motives no matter what our outward behavior might suggest.  All of us are guilty and law-breakers according to God’s Law.

Temptation is everywhere and no one is immune. All sins are disobedience to God. The only differences are that some sins are more tempting than others, and some sins have deeper temporal consequences depending on the damage that gets done to others and in the greater society.  What may be a temptation for one person is not a temptation at all for someone else, but we are all tempted and vulnerable to various and sundry forms of sin.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) are an excellent place for us to start to examine our hearts and see our sins revealed to us and put out in the open.

Temptation and sin are written into the human condition, snakes or no snakes. The apostle Paul makes it clear that we cannot live according to God’s will in our own power.  If we think we can live perfectly, upholding all Ten Commandments, all the time, we will fall flat on our faces.  We do fall flat on our faces, all the time.

We can only be made whole and healed of our sinful nature by looking to Jesus and confessing our sins. As the Israelites were bitten by the snakes- the bites that maimed and killed them were the consequences of their sins- God tells Moses to set up a bronze serpent.  Symbolically he is hanging up what has been made sin for them- so they may see their sins and have faith in God to look up, to confess their sins, and be healed of them. It was a free gift of mercy, a vision of Jesus.  It was God making a way for His people to be forgiven and healed of sin by faith even though they had earned the consequence of death by sinning against Him.

Jesus has been lifted up upon the Cross for us to look up to Him, to ask His forgiveness and be healed, to be forgiven, and to be made new. We look up knowing that He is our source of life.

Do we believe that Jesus has taken on our sins, no matter how bad we might think they are?

Do we believe He gives us what we need to resist temptation and live in a way that honors Him?

Do we trust that He purifies our hearts and motives and that He will make us more like Him?

Do we believe that on Calvary He became our sin, and in doing so, He put sin and death to death forever?

We can only stand and be justified (made good) before God because of Jesus. We can’t make ourselves good no matter how hard we try. Apart from Him we fall. The good news is that no matter how many times we fall, or how many times we overestimate our own abilities, because of Jesus we stand.  Because He was lifted up, because He put our sin to death, we stand in Him.

September 19, 2017- The Holy Name of God- Exodus 3:4-6, Exodus 20:7, Matthew 15:16, Matthew 23:27, Psalm 51:10-12

moses burning bush

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he (Moses) said, “Here I am.”  Then He said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Exodus 3:4-6 (NRSV)

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7 (NRSV)

He (Jesus) said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Matthew 15:16 (NRSV)

God is holy. We are given the privilege of calling on His Name for prayer and praise and worship, because His Name is a holy name. Are we rightly offended when we catch others (and even ourselves?) in a fit of anger or frustration using God’s name to swear?

It’s important for us as Jesus followers to understand and submit to the sovereignty of God, even as we know that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. We need to be reminded of the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of the apostles and others in the early church, because we need to know that they were human like we are, with the same frailties.  They had the same temptations that we have.  But even as we realize that Jesus hurt and loved, and cried and laughed just as we do, because He is fully human, unlike Jesus, we are not divine.

Who do we say Jesus is? Not just by our words or our church attendance or our financial giving, but by the thoughts of our hearts and by our actions? The heart of the Second Commandment is, “OK, we know who God is, and we know that He is holy.” Since we claim to follow Him, do our lives reflect His holiness– do we shine the Light of Christ? That doesn’t mean false piety, or prudery, or a perceived moral superiority masquerading as righteousness, but a real and true love and reverence of God.

(Jesus said): “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. Matthew 23:27 (NRSV)

The scribes and Pharisees knew the Jewish Law in and out- the letter of the Law.  But they missed the heart of the Law.  On the outside it looked like they honored the Name of God, but their motives and actions proved differently.  Each of is a hypocrite in his or her own way, because we are sinners, but in Christ we have the opportunity to confess our sins to Him and call upon the Holy Spirit to put a clean heart in us, and to give us the right motives. (Psalm 51:10-12)

How many atrocities and persecutions have people tried to perpetrate while hiding behind the Name of God? How does God feel about that?

What does it mean to honor the Name of God?

September 14, 2017 – Snakes, Sin and the Son of Man, John 3:13-17, Numbers 21:7-9

The_Brazen_Serpent_(Bible_card)

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:13-17 (NRSV)

 

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. Numbers 21:7-9 (NRSV)

Humanity has a fascination with snakes. In some traditions snakes are seen as sacred, in others they are reviled as evil. The serpent is even portrayed as a catalyst to the Fall in the Genesis narrative, though it was Eve’s decision to allow the serpent to succeed in tempting her, and Adam’s decision to follow suit.  The cause of the Fall always comes back to humanity, and our attraction to sin.

Interestingly enough, God sends a plague of snakes to the Israelites as they are wandering in the desert and disobeying Him. In all three of these narratives, (Genesis, Numbers and John) the snakes are symbolic of our sins. Like with the snakes, the consequences of our sins will come around to bite us and bring us death. It’s not so much God’s decision to punish us, but in disobeying Him and going around the boundaries He has set for us, we bring the consequences upon ourselves.

Mary serpent

In Catholic iconography, there is a popular rendering of Mary, Jesus’ mother, standing on a serpent. The imagery here suggests that at Jesus’ conception the serpent (our sin) was trampled and defeated.  The implication is that in God choosing her to be being Jesus’ earthly mother, through her, God gave us the means to reverse the long-ago (bad) decision of Eve in the garden.

It is interesting that John makes the comparison of Jesus crucified on the Cross with the bronze serpent Moses held up. When those who were bitten by snakes looked up to Moses’ bronze serpent God healed them.  If we look up to Jesus, hung from a tree and weighed down with all our sin, we find healing, life and salvation.

Hopefully we all have memorized that iconic verse, John 3:16- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

He loved the world enough to put the burden of the whole world’s sin and failure on His shoulders.

How do we respond to the love of God in Christ, poured out on us in His Blood that flowed from the Cross?

August 16, 2017 – Wooden Idols and Other Gods Who Cannot Save – Isaiah 45:20-25, Daniel 4:28-33

wooden-durga-statue

Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge—those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior;  there is no one besides me.

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”

Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; all who were incensed against him shall come to him and be ashamed. In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.

Isaiah 45:20-25 (NRSV)

 

In Western culture a wooden, man-made idol is seldom seen as having any other power other than that of an aesthetic appeal. We can appreciate the craftsmanship and the artwork involved in the manufacture of such idols, but generally we don’t regard such things as being divine or deserving of worship.

Our idolatries are much more subtle and perhaps more insidious. The first commandment of God is “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)  That sounds easy enough until we are put on the spot.

Who (or what) do we run to in times of trouble? Who (or what) do we rely upon for our provision?

Do we think money will buy our way out of problems? How many times have we thought, “If only I had enough money I wouldn’t have to worry about this or that problem?”

Do we think our own intelligence or our connections with other people will see us through trials?

It has been said that the root of all sin (sin being anything that goes against God’s will) is pride- trusting in our way instead of looking for God’s way. There is another old expression that states, “Pride goes before a fall.”

Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful king of Babylon who had convinced himself that he was omnipotent (all powerful) and in control of everything.  God had different ideas, and found it necessary to let Nebuchadnezzar know who was really in charge:

All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king said, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you!  You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.” Immediately the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws. – Daniel 4:28-33 (NRSV)

 As much as we would like to believe the idolatry of Western society at times, especially the myth that each of us is “captain of our own souls,” in truth, God is the one in control.  It took Nebuchadnezzar a rather harsh lesson to understand the sovereignty of God, but ultimately he got the message.

When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me.

I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?”

At that time my reason returned to me; and my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom. My counselors and my lords sought me out, I was re-established over my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice; and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride. Daniel 4:34-37 (NRSV)

Intelligence, financial resources, friends in high places, and even political power are not necessarily bad things. However, everything we are and everything we have are gifts from God.  God expects us to put the gifts He has given us to good use, however, when we value the gift in higher esteem than the Giver, we lose our foundation and perspective.  When we put God first, He brings the rest of our lives into balance.

Are we putting our trust in the One True God?