It All Starts Here – Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

December 10, 2017

Imagine you are in Palestine. War is everywhere. You are surrounded by violence. The military leader who just got promoted to imperial dictator happens to be the same general who was responsible for destroying your village last year. Friends and family have scattered, and you aren’t sure what you should do next.

Someone bumps into you on the street, and presses a pamphlet into your hands. For a moment, your eyes meet, and you are struck by two things: first, the intensity of this stranger’s gaze, and second, by the fact this intensity does not seem to be rooted in anger or fear, but … joy. You glance at the pamphlet in your hand, and read the title: “Good News.”

You could use some good news. Is the war over? Has the dictator been overthrown? You find a safe place to open the pages, and you begin to read…

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Continue reading

Eternal Investment – Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

November 19, 2017

We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.

The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle. Hear the Word of the Lord, from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ The Word of the Lord, Thanks be to God.

Why isn’t “good enough” good enough, as we wait for Christ to come again? What is it about following Jesus that requires more from us than we are often prepared to offer? Does the abundant life Jesus promises to us only come at extravagant cost?

From today’s parable, it would seem that’s the case. In Luke’s version of this story, each servant is given a pound, but here in Matthew, the unit of measure is a talent. One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and we already know from previous stories that a denarius was the usual daily wage for a common laborer. So, one talent was worth about 20 years of labor.

Here we have an obviously wealthy master entrusting huge sums of money to his servants, and even the least of these would have had to work for twenty years to earn as much as his master hands over to him. This is extravagance on a grand scale.

We usually think of a talent as some special ability or giftedness, and linguistic experts will tell you that the root of our word “talent” probably comes from the original Greek word we find in this parable. But they will also tell you that the meaning we give to “talent” today did not come into common usage until sometime in the 1500s. At the time Jesus told the story, everyone understood that a talent was a fortune, and five talents was an enormous amount of money, a hundred years’ worth of wages.

Why is this important to know? The traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents has focused on using our abilities while we wait for Christ’s return. Use your talents well, or you might lose them. God gave you special gifts, and you don’t want to be caught on judgment day having to explain why you failed to make the most of your talents. Because the master in our story gave to each “according to his ability,” people have made “ability” the central theme of this parable.

But if we realize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our abilities as much as the greatest treasure we can imagine, it puts a little different spin on the story. Now, instead of using our abilities as best we can, the question becomes, “how much are we willing to risk to get the greatest return on our investment in the kingdom of God?”

And before we can even ask that question, we need to know what great treasure has our master entrusted to us?

Remembering the parable of the ten bridesmaids, we might think that the great treasure entrusted to us is the faith God gives us. Some invest in their own spiritual development, and they see their faith grow. Others may try to hide their faith, and their faith shrivels away.

But then we run into the problem of the one-talent servant who is cast into outer darkness, and we are left wondering if perhaps his faith was not real faith, or if it was not deep enough. And that idea doesn’t match up with the promise that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

But what if the talents don’t represent faith, any more than they represent our God-given abilities? What if this great, immense treasure is something else entirely? Think, for just a moment, about what we as Christians can claim as our most precious treasure, worth more than we can possibly imagine. The Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most powerful and amazing story we know! Instead of teaching us to multiply our faith, or develop our abilities – good and worthy as those things are! – perhaps this parable is here to remind us that our greatest treasure, as Christians, is the gospel itself.[1] So, what are we willing to risk to get the best return on our investment in the gospel of Jesus Christ?” What does an investment in the gospel look like?

First of all, investing in the gospel involves letting it change us. It means allowing its transforming power to work in us until our lives are fully centered on Christ. Then it means spreading that good news, so others can come to know and love Jesus as we do. Living into our faith, showing the world what a difference following Jesus makes in the way we live our lives, telling people about the ways God has transformed us – That is how the gospel multiplies and grows. Not by being buried in the ground, but by being shared. And sharing the gospel is a risky business.

Those first two servants understood the need to risk everything. They invested radically in order to double their investment. The third hid his in the ground, in order to return it risk-free to his master. And before we tell ourselves, “I would never do something like that,” we should keep in mind that the third servant was simply doing what was considered prudent at the time.

“Rabbinic law stipulated that burying was the best safeguard against theft and that when one buries entrusted money one is free from liability for it” (Boucher, 139, quoted by Alyce McKenzie.).

Two servants invest radically, and double their money. The third followed a perfectly acceptable course of action, with minimal risk. He did what would have been considered “good enough.” But it wasn’t.

Because if we are talking about the gospel, about following Jesus and being obedient to his teaching, we have to act on that teaching for it to do any good. And the reason we have to act on the gospel isn’t just because Jesus says so.

The parable teaches that the master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and when it comes all the false values of this age will become obsolete. The gospel of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is all that will matter in the age to come. “What will stand at the end is the gospel and nothing else.”[2]

There’s something else in this parable that we need to see clearly for it to make sense. The relationship between the master and his servants determined how they responded to the trust he placed in them. The two servants who doubled their investment clearly trusted their master enough to risk losing his money. He rewards them with greater responsibility, and invites them into his joy.

The mutual trust between the master and these servants made it possible for them to invest fearlessly what had been entrusted to them. But the third servant does not see his master in such a positive light. In fact, the third servant’s conservative handling of his master’s wealth is clearly based in fear of what would happen should he lose it all.

If we think about our relationship with God in these terms, we must ask ourselves, what is our image of God, and how does that image dictate the way we act? Try it for a moment. What does God look like to you when you close your eyes? What do his hair and his face look like? His clothing? His posture? Is he smiling, or looking stern? Does he have a beard?

Those images we hold in our minds dictate the way we behave. If we see God as a stern ruler who punishes those who disobey him, we will act in fear, just as the third servant did. But if we see God as a generous and loving caregiver who wants only the best for us, we will act in confidence that he will forgive us when we do wrong. We can depend on God’s abundance being made available to us.

Our image of God determines how we invest in his kingdom. Either we will share lavishly, or we will hide the good news where it does no one any good. It all depends on how we view God, and how much we trust the One who entrusts us with his greatest treasure.

To be a trustworthy servant, we must be willing to trust the One who trusts us. And that trust is the key to understanding what this parable is really about. It isn’t about using the abilities we’ve been given, even though that is a worthy thing to do. It isn’t about believing that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins, even though that belief is necessary for our salvation. Faith is more than simply believing something to be true. James 2:19 says even the demons believe in God, and they shudder. Faith is more than that.

Faith is trusting what you believe, which means becoming vulnerable, putting yourself at risk. Are we willing to invest extravagantly in the work of God’s kingdom? We have been given not only the great commandment, to love God and our neighbor, but also the great commission, to make disciples. Not just converts, but disciples who are fully devoted to a life of following Jesus Christ.

And in order to make disciples, we have to be disciples. Yesterday, those of us who attended the charge conference heard District Superintendent Fred remind us that God has one plan for reaching the world, and that plan is the church. There is no Plan B. We’re all Christ has to reach new people and heal a broken world! But we can’t make disciples if we aren’t fully devoted to being disciples. We can’t share what we don’t have. And the world desperately needs what we say we have.

It’s by what we do that people see the need to have Jesus in their lives. It’s the risks we take that show the depth of our faith. Not just belief, but trust. The master trusted his servants. Two of them trusted him back. The third one, not so much. Faith means trusting in what we believe to the point of greatest risk. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he asks of us.

Your commitment to follow Jesus is much more than a slip of paper you can place in the offering plate this morning. It’s a promise to let Christ invade your life, take over your thinking and your doing, and completely trust him. Trust him to show up whenever you show up for worship. Trust him to use your talents, your gifts, your time and treasure to further his kingdom. Trust him to listen when you pray and trust him to be present with you when you serve. Trust him to place you in front of people who need an invitation into a life of faith, and trust him to give you the right words to offer that invitation.

So, if you haven’t filled out a commitment form yet, I encourage you to do it right now. Ask God to guide your hand as you fill in the blanks. Trust him to help you keep the promises you make, and know that God will fulfill his promise to be with you as you devote yourself to a life of faithful discipleship.

Are you willing to trust him, to risk everything in order to hear him say to you, at the end of time, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?’

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 281-282.

[2] Long, 282.

Through Christ: What Are You Waiting For? Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

November 12, 2017

We had an All Saints detour last week, as we flashed back to hear the familiar words of the Sermon on the Mount. Just a few verses after the Beatitudes we heard last week, Jesus teaches, ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5:16). At the end of that same sermon, Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt 7:21).

Today we pick up the story where we left off a couple of weeks ago, as we hear Jesus teach his disciples through a series of parables. And the first parable has a lot to say about shining our light and claiming Jesus as Lord.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry, he wanted his disciples to be prepared for the time when he would no longer be with them. But he was also preparing them for something more. He was preparing his followers for the fulfillment of God’s promised kingdom, for “the end of the age.”

Jesus began many of his early parables with the familiar phrase, “the kingdom of God is like….” It is like a grain of mustard seed, like yeast worked through dough, it is like a lost coin or a buried treasure. Jesus was introducing the idea that the kingdom of God is present among us now, already working to transform us, and the broken world we live in.

But now, as Jesus teaches his disciples, he tells them, “the kingdom of God will be like…” As he prepares them for the future, Jesus wants his disciples to be ready for the coming of the fulfilled kingdom, whenever it might occur. This kind of preparation requires more than a quick trip to the store to stock up on necessities, or putting clean sheets on the guest bed when company is on the way. Jesus is urging his followers to prepare their hearts.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It doesn’t take a lot of in-depth study to notice everything that seems to be wrong with the story. For example, there is no bride in this wedding party. And what decent bridegroom comes to his own wedding hours after it was scheduled to begin?

There’s the problem of the wise bridesmaids refusing to share their oil with the others. That doesn’t seem very gracious! And what oil merchant is going to be open for business at midnight?

Finally, there’s the problem of the bridegroom refusing to open the door to the bridesmaids who had to go find oil in the middle of the night, just because they come to the party late – this is the same guy who kept them waiting for hours, remember!

The parable is full of problems and puzzles, and trying to explain every one of them could send us down lots of different rabbit holes. So let’s stick to the basics.

This parable compares two types of believers – the wise and the foolish, or the prepared and the unprepared. We find similar comparisons throughout Matthew’s gospel, and especially in this final teaching about the End of the Age: one will be taken and another left, the sheep will be separated from the goats; the faithful steward will be rewarded, while the unfaithful one will suffer punishment. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus described one who builds a house on rock as wise, and another who builds on sand as foolish.[1]

Jesus uses the image of bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom, to set before us two options – wisdom or foolishness. As the bridesmaids wait in darkness, it’s hard to tell the wise from the foolish. In the dark, they all look alike! But each of us must decide which type of bridesmaid we want to imitate.[2] Because the world is watching us.

Sometimes, I think it is hard for the rest of the world to look at us Christians and tell the wise from the foolish. We may all appear to be ready for Christ’s return. We may attend church, we may serve on committees, we may be the first ones signing up to provide desserts for potluck meals. On the surface, we may all look the same, but who among us is spiritually prepared for the long wait in darkness, before Christ comes again?

Sometimes, we behave more like the foolish bridesmaids, who are short on oil. These bridesmaids have come to the feast expecting a short wait, and their preparation has been minimal. They are like believers who have limited spiritual resources, whose spiritual reserves are shallow, without any staying power. When the night gets long, and faith is tested with waiting, their lamps start to flicker.

Flickering faith won’t do us much good in the final judgment, and that’s what Jesus is really teaching in this parable. This whole final sermon is about God’s judgment, which each of us must be prepared to face, because the consequences for being unprepared are severe.

The unprepared bridesmaids were shut out of the banquet, and when they tried to enter, the bridegroom told them, “I tell you the truth, I never knew you.”

This was the formula a rabbi used to dismiss a disciple, and such a dismissal could not be undone. It was final.

“God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9), but when Christ comes again, judgment will be certain. Whether the Lord comes sooner than we think, or his coming is delayed beyond what we expect, we must be ready.

The concern with delay was important to believers at the end of the first century, because they had expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes. Now, the apostles were dying off, and some had begun to doubt whether Jesus would actually keep his promise to return.

More than two thousand years later, it may seem that our world has completely given up on Jesus coming again. Our culture is so caught up in satisfying personal desires, we even view our life of faith in terms of what we can get out of it, or how it will meet our needs. We’ve lost the urgency of expectation that even the first century believers struggled to maintain.

On the other hand, there are those who have tried to determine when Jesus will come again, and their predictions have all proven false (so far!), because they have missed the point of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). We do not know when it will happen; we only know we must be ready.

Verse five tells us that the bridegroom was delayed long enough for the bridesmaids to fall asleep as they waited. Do we sometimes “fall asleep” in our faithfulness to Christ? Do we find ourselves repeating meaningless prayers and barely skimming over familiar Bible passages? Do we just go through the motions of living a Christian life, without making a full commitment to discipleship?

When the bridegroom is announced at midnight, all the bridesmaids wake up and trim their lamps, preparing to join the processional. But the unprepared bridesmaids discover that they are nearly out of oil. Their supply has run low. They were not adequately prepared.

Sometimes we get a “wake up” call to pay closer attention to our own walk with God. Maybe we are suddenly faced with health issues, or a personal financial crisis catches us unawares. An unexpected death in the family reminds us of our own mortality.

Whatever the trigger may be, we suddenly realize that our spiritual reserves are too shallow to give us the strength and courage to stay faithful through difficult times. When real struggle surprises us, we need a deep and abiding faith to get us through the darkness.

If we wait until we need faith to get faith, we will be like those unprepared bridesmaids who had to go buy more oil in the middle of the night, and missed the bridegroom’s coming.
If our faith is too limited to get us through life’s trials,
how can it get us through the dark night of waiting for Christ to come again in glory?

And that wait has already been a long one. Waiting with patient endurance can be hard. David Lose writes, “Waiting for something way overdue, waiting for something you’re not sure will even come, waiting that involves active preparation when you’re not even sure what you should be preparing for. That kind of waiting is challenging.”

So, while it’s important to be prepared for judgment day by making sure our spiritual reserves are deep, while it’s important to engage in spiritual practices that will strengthen our faith, such as Bible study, prayer, and fellowship, the real question might be, “What are we waiting for?”

That’s a question Matthew’s church might have been impatiently asking. “We’ve been waiting and waiting, Jesus. When will you come again and fulfill your promise of a new kingdom? What are you waiting for?

It’s also a question we may ask God whenever things we hoped for don’t seem to materialize as quickly as we thought they would. Like the psalmist who wrote, “How long, O Lord?” we might wonder when God will act on our behalf. “I’ve been praying and praying,” we tell God, “What are you waiting for?”

The question carries with it an expectation that something should be happening that isn’t yet. “What are you waiting for” has an air of dissatisfaction tucked inside.

But notice how different that question sounds when Jesus is the one doing the asking, instead of us? How does it feel to have Jesus expecting something of us that should be happening, and isn’t yet? What are we waiting for?

Are we waiting for God to work some dramatic transformation in our church? What needs to change in us for that to happen? How can we be prepared for that kind of change? Are we willing to step forward in faith, even if it means waiting in the dark? Can we trust God enough to try some things that might fail, knowing that God can use even our worst failures for his good purpose?

What are you waiting for?

Are you waiting for someone to notice that you are hurting inside, that you have doubts about your own worthiness?

Are you waiting for someone to love you? To show you that you matter?

Are you waiting for some indication that you are on the right path, as you struggle to hear God speaking into your life?

Are you waiting for someone to trust, someone with whom you can be completely honest?

And this reminds me of the real problem with those foolish bridesmaids. It isn’t just that they forgot to bring extra oil to the party, that they came unprepared to wait as long as necessary. The real problem is that they went looking for oil somewhere else, instead of making the commitment to wait – in the dark, if necessary – so they would be present when the bridegroom arrived.

The oil in our lamps isn’t what gets us into the kingdom of God. It’s more like the spiritual toolkit we use for living in this time before eternity, than a ticket for entrance into eternity.[3] But if we let our supply of oil – our spiritual reserves – run dry, we may be tempted to seek out substitutes for those reserves that will not work. They won’t keep our lamps lit. And looking elsewhere distracts us from the hard work of waiting. It makes us forget what it is we are waiting for.

You see, what we are waiting for is Jesus. We are waiting for the King of kings and Lord of lords to heal our brokenness and bring peace to this hate-filled world. We are waiting for the Savior of the nations to bring in the reign of God. We are waiting for Christ to make all things new. We don’t know when it will be; we only know that it will be when we least expect it.

We can wait in fear, or in joyful expectation, but as we look for Christ to come again, know that Christ is waiting for us, too. He is waiting for us to prepare our hearts for that glorious reign of God to come in its fullness. He is waiting for us to commit ourselves completely to doing the work of the kingdom of God. Jesus is waiting for each of us to turn our lives over to him, and to claim him as our Lord and Savior. Jesus is waiting for us to follow him as fully devoted disciples.

What are you waiting for?
The bridegroom says, “Come!”
The Lord Jesus Christ is waiting for you.
[1] Matthew 7:24-27 (and Luke 6:47-49).

[2] Floyd Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 1960, 263.

[3] Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 288.

How Blessed You Are! – Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 All Saints Sunday A

November 5, 2017

We’ve been reading through Matthew’s gospel over the past year, and the story is nearing its conclusion. Jesus has been teaching us the way of discipleship. This is more than stewardship of our resources, something the church often brings into focus at this time of year. It is a commitment to become as much like Jesus as possible, and to let that transformation show through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. It’s a promise to do everything through Christ, who strengthens us.

We’re going to take an All Saints detour today. Actually, it isn’t so much a detour as a flashback to an earlier part of Jesus’ ministry. In movies, flashbacks give us necessary background and character development. They take us back to an earlier event that helps explain how we got to this point in the story.

This week, we’re flashing back from the final sermon Jesus will preach in Matthew’s story, to the very beginning of his ministry, and that familiar passage we now call The Sermon on the Mount. In this first and longest sermon from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lays out the foundation for his entire ministry. Just as in chapter 24, where we would be reading if it weren’t All Saints Sunday today, Jesus climbs up on a mountain with his disciples nearby, and other followers listening behind them.

Then, Jesus sits down to speak, showing his authority as a reliable teacher of God’s ways. But instead of words about the last days, which we will hear over the next few weeks, let us go back to that first sermon, and hear words of blessing.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The pattern of the beatitudes follows a three-part formula: First the blessing, always in present tense. Then the description of those who are blessed, and finally, the reason they are blessed. In these nine beatitudes, Jesus tells us who we are, and whose we are. He contrasts the world’s expectations with the reality of the Kingdom of God, a reality that is here and now.

The first three beatitudes focus on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. Jesus begins by addressing us in our weakest, most vulnerable state. These three beatitudes seem to contradict what we thing of as “blessing.” How can such negative attributes as spiritual poverty, mourning and meekness be blessed?

I once asked a friend how he was doing, and instead of the usual “fine” or “great” he smiled and said, “I am at the end of myself.” My friend had exhausted all his own resources, he had used up all his own spiritual strength.

You would think this would have been cause for despair, but here he was, completely at peace, smiling as he said, “I am at the end of myself.” He knew what it is to be blessed when poor in spirit, because at the end of himself, he was finally able to depend completely on God.

Many of us have mourned the loss of a loved one in the past year. For some of us, that experience is fresh. For others, the process of grief has moved us further down the road toward healing. Sorrow takes a toll. It drains us of energy and makes our hearts heavy.

Yet, in our sorrow, God blesses us with hope, and reminds us that we have a future in Christ Jesus that the world cannot see. Our hope is in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, and in the promise he has given us that where he is, there we may be also.

And what about meekness? We don’t often use the word “meek” in today’s society, because this world sees meekness as a liability. Meek rhymes with weak, after all, and no one wants to be seen as weak. Those who are weak don’t stand a chance in this world, where personal power is considered a premium virtue.

But theologian Thomas Long writes, “’Meekness’ is not timidity or passivity but rather a patient trusting that God will act in due time, an insistence on being nonviolent even in the midst of a violent society, a contentment with the basic necessities of life even in a possession-hungry world, and taking delight in the gifts of God and the many comforts of faith (Psalm 37:3-5, 7-8 14-17).”[1]

When we are at our weakest and most vulnerable, Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven will be ours, we will find comfort in our sorrow, and we will inherit the earth. We may see our present condition in a negative light, but our future is filled with great promise.

The fourth beatitude starts out sounding like it might belong to this group that includes spiritual poverty, sorrow, and meekness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” Jesus says. But what do they hunger and thirst for? Righteousness. And this puts the fourth beatitude in a category by itself.

For those who seek righteousness will be satisfied. They will be filled. In this one promise, Jesus turns our attention away from what we lack, and toward what we eagerly seek – the righteousness of God. Though the fulfillment of this promise is still in the future, it gives us great hope. Instead of focusing on our deep need, Jesus turns our attention to God’s great provision for us.

And this brings us to the next three beatitudes. As we are filled with God’s righteousness, we are transformed into those who bring mercy, purity of heart, and peace to a broken world. If the first three beatitudes could be seen in a negative light, these next three must surely be seen in a positive way.

Those who offer mercy, whose hearts are pure, who make peace in every corner of creation are given an amazing promise. They will receive mercy. They will see God. They will be called the children of God. These blessings are easy to identify as positive ‘blessings’!

So we have three ‘negative’ means of blessing, a pivotal blessing, and three ‘positive’ means of blessing. Now comes the hard part.

Beatitudes eight and nine are so similar, it makes sense to consider them together, but that doesn’t make them easier to accept. If we started out at our most vulnerable, came through a desire for righteousness to the strength of mercy, purity, and peacemaking, you’d think Jesus would be building us up for the grand finale, the blessing to top all blessings. Instead of “Blessed are those who finally attain the perfection God intended, for they shall live eternally with God in glory,” Jesus says,

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake ...”

and I don’t know about you, but those words make me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t want to be persecuted. Many people suffer persecution throughout the world because of their faith in Christ, and I pray for them daily, but I don’t want to be one of them.

But look at what Jesus says about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is identical to the first beatitude, the one about being poor in spirit. And notice that Jesus doesn’t put it in future tense, but the present. Right now, both those who are poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted, receive the kingdom of heaven.

And then Jesus gets really personal. For the first time, he isn’t talking about some hypothetical “they”. Now he looks us each in the eye and says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

Not “if” but “when” people revile and persecute you and say awful things about you because of your faith in Jesus Christ, he says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer tells us that there are two Hebrew words that translate as “blessing.” One is barak, and it means to bow or stoop. This is the word used in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me.” But it’s also the word used in Numbers 6:22 – “The Lord bless you and keep you…” In this case, it means “The Lord stoop down to you.”

But in Psalm 1, the word used for “blessing” is ‘ashar, which means “to find the right road.” Palmer writes, “’ashar in Psalm 1 means ‘you are on the right road when you walk not in the way of unrighteousness but in the way of the Law of God.”[2] This idea of ‘ashar is the kind of blessedness we find here. You are on the right road when you are spiritually poor, when you are meek, when you show mercy, when you make peace, and even when you are persecuted for the sake of the gospel.

Rejoice, and be glad! You are on the right path! Yours is the kingdom of God!

But there’s one more thing you need to know about these beatitudes. The beatitudes aren’t a prescription, or a “how to” lesson. They aren’t commands, like the two we heard last week, to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus isn’t telling us to get busy and become poor in spirit or start mourning or get out there and make some peace. And Jesus also isn’t saying, “if you will do these things, this is what your payment will be.”

Jesus is telling us that, no matter what circumstances we experience, whether good or bad, he is with us on the right road. Things may look bleak, or they may look great, but no matter how things look, we are on the right road if we are on it with Jesus.

And that road leads straight to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is already here among us, even as we wait for its fulfillment. But to be on that road with Jesus means we have to trust him, we have to name him as Lord. we have to believe that he is the Son of God, who died to save us, who rose from the dead, and who reigns with God the Father through all eternity.

Whether we mourn or suffer persecution,
Jesus is with us.
Whether our spirits are poor or we hunger and thirst after righteousness,
Jesus is with us.
Whether we are meek or merciful, peacemakers or pure in heart,
Jesus will be with us.

And when – not if – we are reviled or persecuted for the sake of Christ’s name, he will be with us, giving us strength to do everything through him.

Today is All Saints Sunday. We celebrate the long parade of saints who have come before us, and those who will follow after us, all of us blessed. Scripture tells us that many will come from east and west, and from south and north, to sit at table in the kingdom of God. That table is waiting for you to claim your place at it. Will you come to this feast that Christ our Lord has prepared for you? The Kingdom is yours. Come to this Table.

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 49

[2] Earl F. Palmer, Feasting on the Word Year A, volume 4, 238.

Through Christ: Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

An earlier version of this sermon was preached on October 19, 2014, and has been updated here for October 22, 2017.

We’ve completed all the coursework for Discipleship 101 and have jumped to the graduate level of learning to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Over the next few weeks, we will celebrate the vows of our baptismal covenant that call each of us to be a minister, through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

How is God calling each of us to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? If we really want to stay centered on Christ and offer Christ by doing everything through Christ, we will want to pay close attention to what Christ himself has to say.

Our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness.

Because the kingdom of God is already present, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Here’s the story so far: We’re in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting for the story.

The characters include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat from earlier in the story. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds.

In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have enlisted the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious. They were political leaders who supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we give our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

When you think about it, the world we live in today is becoming an increasingly polarized society. Everything is ‘either/or’ and if you don’t land on the same side of an issue as your neighbor, that makes you an immediate enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians lived in a similarly polarized world. You either paid allegiance to Caesar, or to God. But Jesus says that looking at this question from a polarized perspective gets it all wrong. If we insist on ‘either/or’ we miss the point.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist.

And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama.

Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, leaving you without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. You are here simply out of curiosity.

Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. You are here, not as a believer necessarily, but as a skeptic. And if this Jesus can embarrass those self-righteous religious leaders, you want to be around to see the show.

Or maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all.

Whatever has brought you into this crowd, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy.

But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. Jesus doesn’t blink. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question.

But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours has.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all.

It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:15-16,

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is why we say, here at First UMC New Ulm, that we are centered on Christ, and that we offer Christ, doing all things through Christ. We bear the image of Christ to the world around us, and how we bear that image determines how willing others may be to receive the good news that Jesus died for their sins and wants to give them eternal life.

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of a discipleship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge or your commitment to service or worship attendance or prayer. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve in a leadership position. As much as I would love to see your deepening faith expressed in all these ways, I’m not asking any of those things.

I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Our identity as beloved children of God, bearing God’s own image, shapes our behavior and our thinking. It urges us to become the people Christ calls us to be, centered on Christ, offering Christ, doing all things through Christ, to the glory of God the Father. ###

 

Discipleship 101: Through Christ – sermon on Philippians 4:8-13

October 15, 2017

This week concludes our Discipleship 101 series with an introduction to our next season of focus. We could call it “Discipleship 201” and bring everything to the next level, but in reality, this is more of a graduate course in following Jesus. From this point forward, we have to decide if this Jesus-following path is really something to which we want to commit our entire lives.

I’m reminded of the time that Jesus’ teachings became too difficult for his disciples to understand, and some turned away from following him. Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” And Simon Peter answered with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

Coming to know Christ in the same deeply personal way as those first disciples did brings us to a new level of maturity in faith. This level can only be found when, like those first disciples, we decide to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul addresses this kind of Christian maturity in his letter to the church at Philippi.

It’s interesting that the verses we will read in a few moments do not appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle of readings. The lectionary only goes as far as verse 9 in this 4th chapter of Philippians. I find this curious, because it omits one of the most popular verses found in scripture – right up there with John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm: Continue reading

Staying Centered on Christ

Back in September, I started a sermon series called “Discipleship 101.” In my planning, I thought it would last about 4 weeks, maybe six. It was intended to help the congregation of First United Methodist Church live into its mission to “stay centered on Christ and offer Christ.” We do pretty well at “offering Christ” through various ministries, but it’s that “staying centered on Christ” part that is often a struggle. This sermon series was originally intended to help us go deeper into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a handy bullet-pointed list of things we can do to grow in faith. Wow, was I wrong.
youth.bibleThe scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary kept bringing me to messages of forgiveness and reconciliation and living in community with fellow believers. As I prayed over these passages and listened for a theme to emerge, I discovered that the path to true discipleship isn’t a “to do” list at all. In fact, nothing we do in our own strength will bring us closer to Jesus or deepen our faith. Discipleship isn’t about what I do, it’s about the One I follow.
Followers of Jesus stay focused on the One they follow. Everything else – Bible study, prayer, spiritual practices, equipping people for ministry, generosity, hospitality – these are simply evidence of a life devoted to Christ. They aren’t the “how to” steps for getting there. The only way to become a better follower of Jesus is to ….follow Jesus.
Yes, it really is that simple. And that hard.
The next few weeks will bring us to the completion of this particular series, as we slide into “Discipleship 201” – but where will God lead us on this journey? I invite you to join us on Sunday mornings at 9:30 at First United Methodist Church in New Ulm, MN to discover “what’s next?” And if you can’t make it to worship with us, check back here for a link to the sermon each week. Together, let’s stay centered on Christ and offer Christ to one another. Peace be with you. – Pastor Jo Anne