Tag Archives: transformation

When Dreams Become Reality – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 Advent 4A

December 18, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

We’ve been reading Adam Hamilton’s book The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem in our Wednesday Family Night adult groups. It’s a five part study of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and it explores those events from the perspective of different participants in the story. Chapter Two is about Joseph.

We don’t know much about Joseph – he never says a single word in the entire Bible. But like his Old Testament namesake, he has some pretty intense dreams. You might remember that Jacob’s son Joseph made his brothers angry whenever he told them about the dreams he dreamed. He was good at interpreting other people’s dreams, too. That’s how he got on Pharaoh’s good side. This Joseph never rises to power the way Old Testament Joe did, but his dreams are just as powerful, and even more direct.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25

 

Author Suzanne Guthrie writes,

“How do you know when to listen to your dreams? When are your dreams truthful and when are they simply ridiculous? When does the trickster or the devil or your own malformed desires undermine your journey toward the good and lovely? How soon after falling through a trapdoor into a wider consciousness can you scramble to your feet, find your balance and head in the right direction? 
How did Joseph know to turn aside from righteousness as he knew it, to follow a dark, non-rational, alternative righteousness? Something in his life must have prepared him to pay attention to that particular dream that night: do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Such a statement can make perfect sense in the context of a dream. But not upon waking. … But the messenger in the dream sweetens the message with a scripture passage familiar to the dreamer: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
A poor man working as an artisan (probably building for the Roman oppressors) Joseph drew hope from … this promise, this dream of all dreams. What righteous dreamer upon waking would not lay down his prejudices for such a dream?”

And that brings us to the first lesson Joseph has to teach us about dreams that become reality:

You have to abandon your old dream.

Joseph had a dream for marriage with Mary. We don’t know how long they had been officially engaged, but we do know that the common practice in that time was for a couple to sign a contract for marriage, then wait about a year before the bridegroom brought the bride home to live with him and start a new family.

This legally binding contract was not just a social arrangement. The only way to get out of it was through death or divorce. Joseph’s dream probably included having children, and raising a family with Mary, but that dream was shattered when she became pregnant, and he knew he wasn’t the father.

Joseph also had a dream of what righteousness looked like – adherence to the Law of Moses. In that view of righteousness, Mary had obviously committed adultery – how else could she explain the bulge in her belly? This is where the conflict arises for Joseph. By Law, she should be publicly humiliated, stoned to death. That would preserve Joseph’s own righteousness under the Law. But Joseph also loved Mary enough to not wish her any shame or death. He solved his dilemma by deciding to divorce her (to maintain his own righteousness) but to do it secretly, with only a couple of witnesses, instead of publicly. She might have experienced some embarrassment when the baby was born, but people would probably blame Joseph, not Mary, for her predicament.

Joseph had to abandon his old dream for a family with Mary, and his dream of maintaining a righteous reputation for both of them, when he learned that Mary was pregnant. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. He wasn’t happy about it. But he thought divorce was the only option available to him under the circumstances.

What dreams have you, personally, seen dashed? What dreams have you had to abandon, because it was the only option you saw available? Maybe it was a dream of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Maybe it was a dream to become rich and famous. Maybe it was a dream to live happily ever after with a particular person. Whatever your dream, something happened and you had to abandon it. Reality checked in, and you realized your dream would never come true. At least not the way you dreamed it would.

Like Joseph, you experienced disappointment. Like Joseph, you wondered what you should do next, and you maybe even came up with some sort of makeshift plan to save your dignity and not cause too much harm to anyone else. Abandoning a dream can be difficult, but it’s a necessary step if we are to learn Joseph’s second lesson:

Abandoning the old dream makes it possible
to embrace a new dream.

Joseph didn’t argue with the angel who appeared to him in a dream. In fact, Joseph doesn’t say a single word anywhere in the whole New Testament. He simply does what he is told. He is obedient. When given a new dream, one that he could never have anticipated, he embraces it immediately. Joseph responds to the angel’s message by taking Mary to be his wife, so that the dream can be fulfilled.

Mary (passively) says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” But Joseph isn’t passive; he acts. He does what the messenger tells him to do. He embraces a new dream.

This new dream includes a new name, and a new meaning for that name: Yeshua, short for Joshua, means “the Lord saves.” This was always the dream for Messiah, that the Lord would save his people from their oppressors. But the angel gives this name a new twist, explaining that it means God will save people from their sins.

This is a whole new dream. This is bigger than anything Joseph could have imagined. We aren’t talking about winning a war against some oppressive regime or emperor. We are talking about changing peoples’ lives. We are talking about a totally new way of thinking and living. We are talking about a holy transformation, saved from sin – all our sin, forever.

When I came here, you were eager for something new and fresh. You wanted change, but you weren’t sure what kind of change, or what it might look like. You were given a pastor with no experience in leading change, but a willingness to learn, and a deep desire to answer God’s call into ministry. Like Joseph, I wanted to be obedient. Like Joseph, none of us knew what to expect when we put ourselves at God’s disposal.

We have started the process of becoming a healthy and missional congregation. Part of that process is to imagine how we see our church thriving. We have dreamed dreams of welcoming new families into styles of worship that we already find comfortable and familiar. We have dreamed dreams of finding more able-bodied people to do the hard work of keeping this church alive and functioning smoothly.

But what if that is not God’s dream for us, any more than settling down to raise a simple family was God’s dream for Joseph? What if God is calling us into something we cannot imagine, something that doesn’t match what our view of the way the world should be? What if God is asking us to be obedient, as Joseph was, in living into a new reality, one that others might scoff at, or find objectionable, a way of being the people of God that isn’t neat and tidy and familiar?

What new dreams have you begun to embrace about the life and purpose of this church? And how will those dreams begin to show others how God is present among us, Emmanuel? This brings us to Joseph’s third, and final, lesson:

When God’s dream for us becomes reality,
we are changed.

Joseph’s dream transformed him – it changed his mind and his heart. Joseph’s dream changed his view of the world, his idea of how things should be. It shifted from preserving the status quo and upholding existing expectations. Joseph’s thinking expanded to accept something radically different from anything he had known or believed before. Joseph’s transformation set a series of events into motion that changed the world.

Jesus was born, Emmanuel, God with us, just as the angel had told both Mary and Joseph. The dream became reality. It wouldn’t have been possible without the quiet faith and obedience of the man who would teach Jesus how to be human.

This wasn’t the dream Joseph had built for himself. He had to abandon his own disappointment at dreams that had been destroyed when he first learned that Mary was having a baby. But that baby, Emmanuel, would embody the One True God. God With Us.

I wonder what Isaiah’s prophecy about Emmanuel holds for us, two thousand years later. Adam Hamilton writes, “In a sense, as Christ’s followers, we too are called … to be signs of Immanuel – of God’s presence in the world – and to be visible reminders of hope.

“All of us know people who are walking through tough times, who feel besieged in one way or another. How will those people know that God is with them, that they are not alone, if we don’t embody God’s love and presence to them? … We are called to act as a reminder that “God is with you,” to come alongside someone and say, “Listen, I am here to remind you that God has not forgotten you.”[1] We are called to show Christ’s love.

Transformation happens when we trust God enough to say, “Yes,” and God’s vision for us begins to work its way into every aspect of our lives. Some new dreams are waiting for each of you, dreams God has to make you more like his Son Jesus, who came to save people from sin. Will you take hold of those dreams, and become the person God created you to be?

Will you accept the call to be Emmanuel – God with us – to someone who desperately needs to hear that word of hope? You can be a physical reminder of God’s presence and love, but only when you are willing to abandon your old dreams, embrace God’s dream for you, and allow yourself to be transformed into Christ-likeness.

Then, and only then, will God’s dream for your life become reality.
Let us pray.

Almighty God, help us to discern your dreams for us, and make us willing to obey you. Give us courage to abandon our old dreams, dreams that focus on what we want for ourselves, instead of what you want for us.

For we know that what you want for us is far greater than anything we can imagine. Help us to embrace the new dreams you put into our hearts and minds, dreams for peace, for justice, for lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things, dreams for sharing the good news that You are with us, Emmanuel, and you will save us from our sins when we turn to you.

Give us your vision, Lord, so that we can see the people around us who need to hear this good news. Most of all, transform us, Lord. Change us into people who can dream your dreams, and bring them to reality through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 49

When Righteousness Isn’t Enough – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

October 23, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Like last week’s parable, Luke introduces today’s story with an explanation. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”

We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time (Luke 22:60), to alert these listeners to their foolishness.

So Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Jesus describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about them to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required.

The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A Pharisee was a Really Good Person.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Person. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal.

But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung.

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects this awareness. He stands where he can be clearly seen by anyone who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a prayer of thanksgiving. His prayer sounds a lot like the psalm David used to rejoice when he was delivered from Saul.

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psalm 18:20-24)

But the Pharisee doesn’t just recite a psalm. He prays, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but he chooses Psalm 51, a prayer of repentance: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.”

Consider the language of these two prayers. Four times, the Pharisee uses the word
“I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. And everything the Pharisee says about himself is true. He has set himself apart from others by faithfully obeying the Law. He really is righteous (Luke 15:7), by the standards of first century Judaism.

So before we condemn the Pharisee for his pride, it might be a good idea to wonder if we’ve prayed prayers similar to his. How often might we have seen someone else down on their luck and said, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It’s too easy to judge the Pharisee as a prideful, self-righteous hypocrite.

The problem with limiting our understanding to such an obvious interpretation is that we end up sounding just like the Pharisee: “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: we aren’t like the hypocrites you find at other churches. We aren’t overly pious, or self righteous, or even like that Pharisee, making a big show of our religion. We show up every week, we listen to Scripture and pray, we sign up to bake pies and serve meals, and we know that we should always be humble.”

When we start sounding like the Pharisee, it might mean we are starting to think like the Pharisee. The Pharisee’s problem is that he thinks his righteousness is securely grounded in his own actions and attitudes. He has trusted in himself, in his own effort. He may be telling the truth about himself, but his prayer misses the truth about God.

In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. The Pharisee made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness.

The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer that cover nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other asked for God’s mercy.

The tax collector isn’t so much humble as desperate. He doesn’t take time to divide humanity into sides, to sort people into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” groups. All he recognizes as he prays is his own great need. He doesn’t stake his hopes on anything he has done or deserved, but entirely on the mercy of God.

This parable can be a trap. Whenever we try to divide people into any kind of groups, we find ourselves siding with the Pharisee. Whenever we take it upon ourselves to judge who is righteous and who is a sinner, as the Pharisee did, or we try to divide people into the proud and the humble, as Luke seems to do, we fall into the trap. “Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” … you will find God on the other side,” David Lose writes. This parable “is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart;” God who justifies the ungodly when they ask for nothing more than mercy.

The only way to avoid this parable’s trap is to remember, each time we try to interpret it, that we can claim nothing but our dependence on God’s mercy. When we forget about creating divisions, and we stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, can be justified through Jesus and invited into God’s mercy and grace.

At the end of the day, the Pharisee went home from the Temple the same way he came. He was righteous, in his own eyes and in the eyes of everyone who saw him. Nothing had changed.

But the tax collector experienced something different. Jesus says that when he left the Temple, he went home … justified. That word means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” How did this happen? The tax collector made no sacrifice, no offering of restitution. So how is it that he was the one who was justified? The tax collector was made right with God by his prayer for God’s mercy.

The prayer didn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. If the tax collector had kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

Dawn Chesser writes,
“We don’t pray because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more about loving God, and loving others the way we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.”

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of conversation about “change” in this congregation. The Healthy Church Initiative process that we voted to undertake back in April has raised lots of questions, and much of the concern that has been expressed in those questions centers around change. How will it work? What do I have to give up? What will I be asked to do differently than I’m used to doing it?

Some people embrace change easily. They thrive on being the first to adopt whatever is new. Just look at the people lined up at an Apple store whenever a new iPhone is released, or even the people who were lined up at the new ALDI when it opened here in New Ulm this week.

Others claim they don’t like change. They like things to stay predictable. They find a lot of comfort in the familiar. They wear the same hairstyle they’ve had for years. They listen to the same music that was popular when they were teenagers. They can tell what day of the week it is by what’s on the table for dinner that night. Meatloaf on Monday, Fish on Friday … you get the idea.

But Jesus doesn’t really give us a choice. If we want to be his disciples, we have to accept the fact that our lives will never be the same. If we hope to see our faith grow, we have to be willing to let Christ change us. A Christian isn’t someone who shows up on Sunday and prays good prayers like a Pharisee. A Christian is someone who has been transformed by the power of the Gospel, someone who has turned away from sin and has asked Jesus for mercy. A Christian is someone who keeps following Jesus, growing deeper in faith, becoming more and more like Christ. You can’t do that unless you are willing to let God change you.

And if we want to see our church grow, we have to be willing to let God change our church. We have to be willing to focus on God’s grace instead of our own accomplishments. We have to seek God’s desire for us instead of seeking for our own preferences to be satisfied. We have to remember that the mission of our church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Transformation means change.

One left the Temple the same way he had come – righteous in his own eyes. But sometimes righteousness isn’t enough. The one who went home justified was the one who had humbled himself, focused his attention on God’s grace, and asked for God’s mercy. May we do likewise. Amen.

A Final ‘Eureka!’ – Sermon on Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration B
February 15, 2015

It was no big deal for the guys to go on a hike. Mountain climbing was something they did together quite often. Sometimes their Teacher would take the whole class, sometimes just a few would go. They wouldn’t be gone long – an afternoon, maybe they’d camp overnight and climb back down the next morning. So no one thought much of it when the Teacher asked his three best students if they’d like to climb this mountain with him. The physical challenge would do them good, give their minds a break, and get them away from the pressures of their work for a few hours. So they didn’t think twice, they just followed.

It wasn’t much of a climb, really. They didn’t need any special gear or equipment. There were places where they could even walk side by side, instead of following single file up the mountain. The view was amazing from the top of this mound that jutted up in the middle of the plain. Looking out over the fertile farmlands of the valley, they could almost see Nazareth, just beyond Mt. Precipice.

They didn’t talk much. It was just good to be together with trusted friends, taking time for some much needed R&R. By the time they reached the peak, it was already afternoon, and the shadows were getting long. But they were tired, so they agreed to a short break before heading back down.

That’s when … Continue reading

“Eureka! With Authority!” – Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

February 1, 2015

Last week, we heard Jesus call out to four fishermen. They left their boats and nets immediately, and followed Jesus. Today’s story picks up where that one left off. They have walked a mile or two up the coast to Capernaum.

Capernaum steps

This was a poor little fishing village. There was no market place, no evidence of Roman buildings or roads. It was a good place to be from, but not necessarily a great place to go to. This is the village where Peter lived with his family.

 

 

CapernaumcourtyardA colleague once described the customs around home-building in first century Palestine. In those days, houses grew as the family grew. Continue reading

Eureka! Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 Epiphany B 1/4/2015

There’s a story of a woman who searches store after store for the perfect Christmas gift for her husband. A friend has come shopping with her, and the friend tries to help this woman find what she is looking for, but the woman shakes her head “no” at everything the friend points out. Finally, in exasperation, the friend asks, “What, exactly, are you trying to find?” And the woman answers, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Have you ever stood in front of an open refrigerator or kitchen cupboard, looking for something to eat? You’re hungry, but you don’t know exactly what it is that you want? What will satisfy your grumbling stomach? There’s plenty of food available, but what will you choose? What do you really want? What will fill you up, and keep you satisfied for more than an hour or two? Will you know it when you see it? Continue reading

The Spirit Is Life – Sermon on Romans 8:1-11 July 13, 2014

When I was growing up in southeast Kansas, I was certain that our state was at the center of the United States. Whenever I looked at a map, there it was, right in the middle. Then I moved to Missouri. It’s right next door to Kansas, so I didn’t move very far. As I taught fourth grade music classes, I ran up against something called Missouri State History month every year, and that meant setting aside the music curriculum for a few weeks, while students learned “The Missouri Waltz,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and a poem that begins like this…

“I’m from Missouri, the Show Me State,
Right in the middle of the forty-eight…”

Now, which is it? Is Kansas in the middle, or Missouri? Well, the answer kind of depends on where you come from. As we move deeper into Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find ourselves approaching the very center of his theology, the heart of his argument. In this case, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where Paul is leading us, as his careful writing brings us to the main point he wants to make.

Here’s what we know so far, from the first seven chapters:
God’s righteousness has been revealed in the midst of human sin. Whether Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Paul’s point is that righteousness does not come through the Hebrew Law, but through faith alone. Even Abraham came to God’s righteousness by faith (4:3). In fact, the Law does not have the power to make us righteous, because its purpose was always to show us our sin. Sin has been our problem ever since Adam, and we are all condemned to death because of it. But there is hope. In chapter six, Paul says we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. Last week’s reading told of a battle between the law of God and the law of sin. As human beings, we are bound by the law of sin, and we cannot obey God’s law even when we want to. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). ”

This brings us to chapter eight, which opens with the strong word, “Therefore.” Paul has reached the point in his letter where we find the real meat of his message. Because of everything that has gone before, we are about to learn what Paul thinks is most important as we move forward into our life as Christians. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11

In mathematics, there are a couple of little symbols that Paul could have easily borrowed for this passage. They both consist of three dots, in the form of a triangle. The triangle with a broad base at the bottom and the small tip at the top stands for the word “therefore.” If you flip it upside down, the same triangle of three dots means “because.” As Paul sets out his central idea, and then explains how he has come to this conclusion, his explanation is filled with ‘becauses’ to support his ‘therefore.’ And what is the central idea? It’s the heart of the gospel message: you are not condemned if you are in Christ Jesus.

Paul has spent seven chapters explaining why we should be condemned, under the Law. Sin condemns us. We aren’t just talking about our little individual sins, the ones we ask forgiveness for before we fall asleep at night, if we remember. Paul means Sin with a capital S. The Law was given to God’s people because of Sin, but the Law could never save us from Sin. In fact, Paul tells us, the Law condemns us to death by making us aware of our sinfulness.

Yet Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It’s as if we have been found guilty in a court of law, and we know that the punishment for our crime is the death penalty, but when the judge pronounces our sentence, we hear, “You are free to go.”

It’s more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It’s more than having all the charges dropped, or having our sentence commuted to time served plus parole. We are not condemned, after all. We have been found to be in the right, instead. How can this be?

Paul says, it is because we are in Christ Jesus. So, what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this happen? Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us. God has condemned the sin that condemns us. Paul has been making this point in nearly every chapter. God sent his own Son – which means God came in person (he didn’t send a substitute) – “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3) to deal with sin once and for all by condemning sin in the flesh.

Flesh is a word we need to understand clearly, for all this to make sense. The contrast Paul gives us here is not between body and spirit, but between flesh and Spirit. Paul is not talking about our bodies, but what we choose to do with them. The Common English Bible translates the word for ‘flesh’ as ‘selfishness,’ and this might be a better way to think of it – when we are focused on ourselves, our attention turns away from God, where it should be. We become our own idols. We serve our own desires, and this is sin, which leads to death. Listen to verses 4 – 8 from the CEB, and see if this helps Paul’s argument become clearer.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t.  People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God, Paul writes, and if that were the end of the message, we would be doomed. “But that’s not you!” he goes on. Thanks be to God, that’s not who you are!

You are in Christ, because Christ’s spirit lives in you. Christ’s spirit lives in you because you are in Christ. Back in chapter 4, Paul reminds us that Abraham had faith, and God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3). That word righteousness is a big word. It means acceptable to God, found to be ‘in the right.’ It’s the very opposite of ‘condemned.’ Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus, it’s more than being loyal to Christ or even trying our best to follow Jesus. Being in Christ is a new way of being, an entirely new system of living that is centered on Christ and surrounded by Christ. Instead of self-focused lives doomed to death, we have been changed, and are continually being changed, into what theologian Karl Barth calls, the “impossible possibility.” Barth writes, “The negation of sin is not a possibility among other possibilities, but the possibility beyond all other possibilities … and we possess [this], the impossible possibility of walking after the Spirit.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 282) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s! (v 11).

Therefore, you are no longer condemned. You are in Christ. You are changed.

On Thursday, I attended a district gathering, led by our District Superintendent. As he spoke, he reminded us of our purpose as Christ’s church. Everything we do, he said, needs to be grounded in this goal: that lives will be changed. That’s what Paul is writing about here. Being in Christ means being changed, being transformed into a “little Christ,” to borrow a term from C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, 171). When we wipe off a table after a Wednesday night meal, or hand out a bulletin on Sunday, or pick up a bit of trash that blew into our parking lot, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we move our youth ministry into the main building of our church campus, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we serve a meal at the Salvation Army in Mankato, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we set up a place for parents to change a baby’s diaper at the County Fair, we do it so that lives will be changed. And as we do these things, with this goal in mind, we bear witness to the Spirit that is alive in us, the very Spirit of Christ Jesus.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”

If you haven’t stepped into that freedom yet, I invite you to do so today. If you are still struggling under the weight of your own sin, know that Christ died so that your sins could be wiped out – not just forgiven, but completely destroyed. It’s time to step out of the old life and into the new one, a life of joy and peace. Then you can join us in saying to others who long for something more, “Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, home of the uncondemned, home of those who are in Christ, because Christ is in us. Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, where lives are changed.”  Amen.

No One But Jesus – Sermon on Matthew 17:1-8 (Transfiguration A)

It was no big deal for the guys to go on a hike. Mountain climbing was something they did together quite often. Sometimes their Teacher would take the whole class, sometimes just a few would go. They wouldn’t be gone long – an afternoon, maybe they’d camp overnight and climb back down the next morning. So no one thought much of it when the Teacher asked his three best students if they’d like to take a hike. It had been a pretty intense week, and the physical challenge of climbing a taller mountain would do them good, give their minds a break, get them up into the cooler mountain air. So they didn’t think twice, they just followed.

And it wasn’t much of a climb, really. They didn’t need any special gear or equipment. There were places where they could even walk side by side, instead of following single file up the mountain. The view was amazing, looking out over the valley. They didn’t talk much. It was just good to be together with trusted friends, taking time for some much needed R&R. By the time they reached the top of the mountain, it was already late afternoon, and the shadows were getting long. They took a break before starting the long climb back down.

That’s when it happened.

They didn’t talk about it when they got back down to base camp, but something had definitely occurred while they were up on that mountain. The others could tell. Something was different. But the crowd was pressing in again, begging the Teacher for help, and there was no chance to talk. It was a long time before James and John and Peter told the others what they had seen up on the mountain.

Then, one day, out of the blue, James says, “Remember that time we went climbing, right after we got to Caesarea Philippi? You know, it was the day that man brought his son with the demon, the one you guys tried to cast out, but couldn’t. Remember?” The others turn and listen. They had wondered about that day. It had been a pretty intense week, starting with the Pharisees and Sadducees challenging Jesus. There had been hard conversations about death and sacrifice and facing what would surely come soon. Even though it was all behind them now, they still wondered about that hike. Matthew moved closer, and found something to write with. He wanted to make sure he got this story straight…

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. – Matthew 17:1-8

In a way, this trip up the mountain foreshadows the night before the crucifixion. For one thing, the same three disciples accompany Jesus. These are his inner circle, the same ones who will go with him to the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed. Luke’s account (Luke 9) of this story says that they went up to pray, and that the disciples became sleepy, and this gives us another parallel to the Gethsemane story, where these same three disciples fall asleep while Jesus goes a little further into the garden to pray.

Theologian Karl Barth notes that this miracle is unique among all the miracle stories in the Gospels, because it happened to Jesus, not by Jesus.[1] Ponder that for a bit. Jesus never asks us to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Jesus never asks more of us than he offers himself. Last week, he said, “Be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect,” and now he says, “Be transformed, even as I have been transformed before your very eyes.”

And what a transformation! His clothes are dazzling. His face is shining like the Sun.  He becomes the embodiment of light, and Moses (often thought to represent the Law) and Elijah (thought to represent the prophets) are there with him, talking. What we have here, friends, is a theophany – a physical manifestation of God in all his glory. But this time, it isn’t an angel of the Lord. It’s Jesus himself, changed into glory, along with Moses and Elijah.

Peter recognized the presence of God, and immediately determined that where God is, a tabernacle should also be. We often think that Peter acted foolishly when he offers to put up three tents, but what if Peter didn’t so much want to erect a shrine, as he wanted to raise a Tent of Meeting, just as his ancestors had done when they first encountered God in the desert? What if Peter’s offer comes less out of confusion, and more out of a desire to honor the holiness of this moment in the only way he knows how? If God often spoke with Moses in the tent of meeting, filling it with the dark cloud of God’s glory, and making Moses’ face shine so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil when he came out of the tent, doesn’t it stand to reason that the voice Peter hears coming from a dark cloud would remind him of that earlier Tabernacle?

The voice from heaven speaks the same words we heard at the baptism of Jesus, back at the beginning of his ministry. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Only this time, the voice adds an important command to the statement. This time, God says, “Listen to him!” Listen to Jesus.

And what is the first thing Jesus says after the disciples hear this command? “Get up. Stop being afraid.”

Every time we encounter God in a tangible way, it’s scary. The fabric that separates the mundane from the holy is torn, and God’s glory shines through to blind us with light brighter than we can imagine. We want to make sense of it all. We try to assign meaning to the various elements of the story, and if we only had a Secret Jesus Decoder Ring, we might be able to figure it all out. Barbara Brown Taylor says we might be missing the point if we try too hard to figure out what it all means. She writes,

“But what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it? What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again? … Whether such biblical encounters come disguised as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they have a way of breaking biblical people open, of rearranging what they think they know for sure so that there is room for more divine movement in their lives.”[2]

Fear is the natural human response to things we can’t understand. We are afraid of what we can’t see, what doesn’t make sense to us. We fall down like those overwhelmed disciples, and hide from the things that confuse us. It is in that very moment that Jesus reaches out to touch us, to remind us of his presence, and he says, “ Get up. Stop being afraid.”

When he said this to Peter, James, and John, they looked up, and they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

That’s it. That’s the point. See no one but Jesus. Listen to him. No matter how confusing or frightening the experience may be, when we encounter God, we don’t need to understand or explain it. We don’t need to interpret it or decode it. We can respond to God’s presence without fear, by looking to Jesus alone. He doesn’t scold us or berate us. He just says, Get up. Stop being afraid. Peter was eager to put up a Tent of Meeting for his encounter with God, but God only wanted him to pay attention, to listen to Jesus.

Because, when we do that, God changes us. When we focus our attention on Jesus alone, we start to look a little more like him.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encouraged you to pay attention to these moments when God is evident in you and through you, when you find yourselves being salt and light in the world. As we head into the season of Lent, I encourage you to continue noticing these moments when they happen, but also I encourage you to make yourself ready for an encounter with the Living God.

One way to do this is through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Instead of giving up something for Lent, I encourage you to take on something: maybe it’s a more focused prayer life, maybe you hunger for a more diligent reading of God’s Word, maybe more generous giving to meet the needs of the poor. Maybe you need to find more intentional silence, when you can listen to Jesus. As you encounter God in these practices, you may discover that the person you see in the mirror each morning changes over the next few weeks. You may notice that you are being shaped and formed more and more into the image of Christ.

This morning, as I read the Daily Office Lectionary scriptures, I was struck by this verse from 2 Corinthians. Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV)

We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another! It doesn’t happen overnight. It can take a long time for the transformation to be complete, but the change is already at work in us.

So get up. Stop being afraid. For Christ is with you in the dark cloud, and you are becoming more and more like him, transformed and transforming into his perfect image, from one degree of glory to another. Amen.