Mighty Name of Jesus!

“Mighty Name of Jesus!”

Mark 1:21-28 (1:24) – January 31, 2021

            When many people think of superheroes, they cannot help but think of mighty people of valor or power. For many children (and, for some grown-up people, too!) thoughts of the most powerful superhero or mighty person in the region can be absolutely intimidating.

            Can you imagine our Gospel writer Mark wanting to kick off his narrative of Jesus with a bang? Why not start off with a really big event, displaying mighty power? Soon after the baptism in the opening scene, what does Mark present in the first chapter? An exorcism! That’s right, the unconventional Rabbi Jesus has a power encounter with a demonized man.

            The Rabbi Jesus started his itinerant travels throughout the northern region of Palestine, soon after He was baptized. Mark tells us how Jesus meets a certain man in Capernaum, while He was teaching and preaching in the town.

            But, before we zoom in and look at this encounter, can we talk about the various people the Rabbi Jesus met, each and every day? People from all walks of life, from all different levels and places and spaces in society. These folks could be broken, hurting, angry, ill, tired, frustrated, or despairing. Even perhaps cynical, miserable, in pain, or grief-stricken. Does a word or two of that description strike a chord within you? Can you see yourself in the crowd listening to Jesus? I hope you do. I know I can.

Jesus opened Himself up to all of that, all of those feelings, all that heartache and pain when He started His ministry. Do you have some deep feelings, some heartache or pain or grief or despair that you are dealing with today? See whether you can find something in common with the people listening to Jesus in Capernaum.

The Rabbi Jesus and His disciples came to the town and set up shop. Not only teaching and preaching, but I suspect talking and debating with the townspeople and leaders in Capernaum’s society and synagogue. Speaking and teaching with Godly authority, too!

Imagine everyone’s surprise when Jesus taught in the synagogue and a man stormed into the building. He screamed, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are—you are God’s holy messenger!” That must have made everyone’s jaw drop. Mark identifies the man as someone with an evil spirit. I know what Mark is talking about, because I have had several similar experiences, too.

In today’s 21st century setting, especially in the urban United States, many people deny the possibility of evil spirits. This could be severe mental illness, or a complicated medical diagnosis that affects mood and stability. And, I absolutely agree. However, the Bible also is an accurate source for spiritual, emotional and psychological information. Many people in many places in the world today take this power encounter of Jesus and the demoniac very seriously.

Yes, this instance could be involving someone with a mental illness. Yes, the man in this instance could have severe behavioral problems. And, yes, Jesus could well be involved in a situation with something in the spiritual realm. Any way you look at it, our Lord Jesus is exerting mighty power and authority.  

The man (or the evil spirit within the man) definitively stated, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are—you are God’s holy messenger!” Jesus had just started His ministry, and this declaration certainly describes Jesus well and accurately.

Jesus had (and has) mighty power and authority. He did (and still does) miracles. I do not know how our Lord can tell who to do a miracle for, and who not, but there is no denying that miracles happen. However, this power encounter definitely got Jesus and His ministry started with a bang! With a great deal of fanfare and great press, too.

Just imagine the talk that spread like wildfire: “Have you heard about that itinerant Rabbi in Capernaum? He healed a demoniac! It was amazing! In an instant, this Rabbi Jesus cast the evil spirit out of the man, in the synagogue, and everything! That Rabbi – a real man of God!”

Commentator Karoline Lewis says, “Who is Jesus? A boundary breaker, which an exorcism confirms exponentially. Jesus reveals a boundary breaking God. We see this all over Mark. Each and every boundary we try to put in place, we think is in place, even that which we perceive as impenetrable, God bursts through. Political, social, religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, gendered, cosmic,” [1] it does not matter. Jesus breaks through whatever boundary we set up.

Yes, Jesus can break through boundaries, and emotional barriers, and spiritual problems, too. In our own lives, we might have barriers or boundaries set up. With such sadness, upset and distraction going on, who wouldn’t have some difficulties and problems in their lives right now? Whether you have deep feelings, some heartache or pain or grief or despair that you are dealing with today, Jesus can work wonders in your life and spirit, too. Jesus is mighty and powerful. He can overcome, and can come into our lives and hearts in ways that transcend human understanding. In ways that not only amaze us, but comfort and encourage us, as well.

Jesus loves each of us so much, so much that He will banish negative emotions, fearful feelings, and yes, evil spirits, too. Praise the Lord we have such a mighty and powerful God on our side. No matter what, for the rest of our lives. Alleluia, amen.  


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/exorcisms-for-our-day

“Exorcisms for Our Day,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2015

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Cup of Cold Water

“Cup of Cold Water”

Matt 10-42 water, words

Matthew 10:40-42 (10:42) – June 28, 2020

I have several friends who are wonderful hosts and hostesses. They love to have friends and relatives come to their homes, and provide such excellent hospitality. In fact, I had the great good fortune to be the recipient of such fine hospitality a few months ago, at the home of my niece Josie’s uncles (on her mom’s side), in Washington state. Jeff was a marvelous host!

What does hospitality have to do with this bible reading from Matthew 10? At first glance, this reading talks about prophets, or God’s messengers. Jesus tells us how it’s important to accept, or to welcome the messengers of God.

Hospitality was huge in the Middle East. It still is, today. If someone comes to your home, you go all out for them, making them comfortable, feeding them, and otherwise supplying their needs. That hospitality has been a hallmark and a highlight of visiting this region of the world, for centuries.

When the Rabbi Jesus made this statement about receiving the prophets, God’s messengers, what do you immediately think of? What is the first thing that comes to mind? The first thing I thought of was an old-fashioned Sunday dinner after church, where one of the prominent families at the church invites the minister over for a fine meal following the morning services. Well, that cannot happen now, because of COVID-19. Not the socializing at each other’s houses, and not the in-person worship services.

But – can this reading mean more than that?

Somehow, I don’t think the Rabbi Jesus was thinking about the chief rabbi from the most prosperous synagogue in town. I don’t think Jesus had the hot-shot leading elders of the largest congregation in mind, either.

I suspect you can immediately think of someone—maybe a couple of someones—who is absolutely marvelous at hospitality. Putting on parties and get-togethers, gathering friends, relatives, acquaintances. I know, I have been at a few of these gatherings. They are almost always wonderful times to connect. Wonderful times for eating and drinking, too.

What about you? Are you grateful to friends or relatives who have the spiritual gift of hospitality? This absolutely is a spiritual gift, listed among the other more acknowledged or appreciated biblical gifts. Some have that gift of hospitality in abundance.

Except, the words of Jesus do not excuse some of us who are not so hospitality-gifted. No, Jesus’s words are intended for all of us. That means every believer has the responsibility to extend hospitality, whether they have that spiritual gift or not.

I could expound upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to each believer when they come to believe in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul has written several lists where he runs down a good number of these gifts: in chapters Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, among others. Gifts like teaching, discernment, helps, and administration.

I can hear some people say, “Oh, I just don’t have a hospitable bone in my body. I can’t welcome people into my tiny apartment. I’m all thumbs when it comes to spreading a wonderful table, and I don’t know the first thing about throwing a big party.” Well, guess what? Jesus did not say, “This command is just for the people among you who really like Martha Stewart.” Or, “This command only applies to the people who can throw the best parties.”

Jesus wants ALL of us to be hospitable. He wants ALL of us to extend a welcome. But, to whom? Who is it Jesus wants us to welcome in such a way? It’s just our friends and relatives, right? It’s just the people from my church, or from my side of town. It’s just the people who look like me. Isn’t that who You mean, Jesus?

Let’s read verse 10:42 again. ”And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” Acts of mercy and deeds of compassion, no matter how small. My goodness. Is Jesus talking about being kind to – anyone? Everyone? No matter what? No matter who? No matter what they look like? Or, where they were born?

Yes, mercy and compassion are two of those spiritual gifts the apostle Paul talks about. Except, Jesus commands all of us to show compassion and mercy, right here. By doing these compassionate things for anyone and to everyone, we give witness to the unconditional love of our Lord Jesus. Jesus does not make this expression of compassion and mercy something exclusive to “only our kind.” No, He specifically says that we are commanded to show mercy and compassion to “the least of these.” Some translations use the words “these little ones.”

Okay, Jesus. I guess I get the idea. You want me to show mercy and compassion to just about everyone who needs help. But, I need some ideas.

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, gives us some excellent suggestions. He says: “at other times, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without a car. Or volunteering at the local foodbank. Or making a donation to an agency like Luther World Relief. Or…you get the idea.” [1]

Jesus does not simply make a suggestion. This cup of cold water, this mercy and compassion is something He is really serious about. Let us take our Lord’s words to heart, and put them into action. Now. Go, do, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3265

“No Small Gestures,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Together with Christ

“Together with Christ”

John 14-3 prepare a place, words

John 14:1-7 (14:3-4) – May 10, 2020

When I was in middle school and high school, I attended a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin for several years. I vividly remember the girls who got so homesick while they were there. Several really missed home, and needed lots of TLC, tender loving care, for a few days. Have you ever been homesick? Can you relate to the frightened, heartsore feelings of these girls?

I don’t remember being homesick, but I can remember feeling scared at camp. I can remember being really scared on other occasions, too. I wonder if the disciples got scared while they traveled with the Rabbi Jesus from place to place? From what we know about Him, Jesus was an itinerant Rabbi, with no real home, no place to call home base.

What must that have been like, not having anywhere to call home? The Rabbi Jesus and His followers, His disciples kept moving from place to place. Different people react to being on the road a lot in different ways. It can be stressful and cause people considerable anxiety.

Added to that, all of the disciples knew very well that their Rabbi was not viewed positively by many Jewish leaders. Repeatedly, prominent Jewish teachers and lawyers had argued with Jesus. A group of leaders actively opposed this upstart Rabbi with the radical ideas and preaching, even if Jesus was a miracle worker.

The situation when the band of disciples entered Jerusalem must have been tense, to be sure. That Passover dinner on that Thursday night was not the most comfortable, I imagine. Yet, what does our Lord Jesus say to His disciples at that meal? How does He deal with this tense situation? Jesus says, “Don’t be worried! Have faith in Me!”

Have faith? Don’t worry? Listen, Jesus, Your friends have been on the road with You for many months. They are tired, they are tense, they have no home base to go back to. What do You mean, saying to them, Have faith and don’t worry!? Isn’t that expecting a lot from these guys? Isn’t that expecting a lot from us, Your followers today?

The next words are nothing but reassurance, comfort. He says, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I wouldn’t tell you this unless it was true. I’m going to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come back and take you with Me. And then, we will be together.” Total reassurance and comfort. Jesus encourages His disciples just as much as He encourages us.

However—Jesus’s disciples just don’t understand. They can’t get their minds around the metaphor Jesus is using. They mistake His reference to a heavenly house to a real, geographical space. Thomas—who likes concrete explanations, remember—asks for exact directions to plug into his GPS. [1]        How often are we like Thomas?

How often do we need (or want) exact directions, or latitude and longitude, or a detailed list of bullet-pointed things to do? And how often are we told by Jesus that we already know the way? We know Jesus, who is the Way. Precisely because Thomas knows Jesus—precisely because we know Jesus—we cannot become irrevocably lost.

Last week was Good Shepherd Sunday. We talked about the psalm for that week, Psalm 23. I can see definite tie-ins for that beloved psalm with this week’s Gospel reading, as well. Who does not relate to the idea of God shepherding us when we are lost? Who yearns for God to spread a feast in front of us, and to welcome us to the Good Shepherd’s heavenly home?

This week is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Today is also Mother’s Day, traditionally celebrated on the second Sunday of May. This heartwarming adaptation of Psalm 23 is not only a reminder of that beloved psalm, but also a celebration of mothers.

It was written by Laurie Hays Coffman, and is called A Child Learns to Trust. [2] It says:

“My Mom is my shepherd; I shall not want. She makes me lie down under cool, downy comforters. She watches me play beside still waters. She restores my soul. She leads me in paths of respect, responsibility, and goodness, for I am her namesake! Yea, even though I walk past monsters in the dark, I will not be scared, because my mom is always near me. Her hands and her voice, they comfort me. Mama sets the table and cheerfully calls me to dinner even in front of big, mean bullies. She anoints my skinned knees and broken heart with kisses. She smiles and throws me a towel when my cup runneth over. Surely God’s peace, power, and mercy shall uphold me all the days of my life, for my Mother taught me to dwell in the house of God forever.

Yes, this is an imaginative way to think of Psalm 23. And, this adaptation gets across several of the same ideas that Jesus communicated to His disciples at that Passover dinner, too.

Do we take Jesus’s word as true? Even though it’s an anxious time right now, do we trust Jesus to carry us and remain with us—walk with us, even through the dark valleys?

We are in uncharted territory right now, quarantined, apart from each other. Can we hold on to Jesus’s promise that between now and whenever we are all together again, Jesus is showing us the way? His way! Yes, we may walk through dark places and shadowy spaces now, but Jesus our Good Shepherd stays right by our side.

Jesus also said He’d prepare a place for us—a room for us in His Heavenly Father’s house. Jesus assured us we would be reunited with Him at that heavenly banquet. What a celebration that will be! Jesus said so. We can count on it. Praise the name of Jesus!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218

David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] https://www.desperatepreacher.com/mothersday.htm

Who Is This Jesus?

“Who Is This Jesus?”

Jesus Palm Sunday, Armenian manuscript

Matthew 21:1-11 (21:10) – April 5, 2020

Do you remember watching a parade? Some might think of a small, neighborhood parade, or a large, elaborate one. I remember watching old newsreels, the kind that used to be shown in old-time movie theaters, with a cartoon before the feature film. Some of the tickertape parades I saw on the newsreels were huge spectacles, with massive crowds waving as the guest of honor came by, usually in an open convertible.

You understand the picture? That is the scene from the Gospel we are talking about today. Except, instead of confetti and tickertape, the crowds in Jerusalem waved palms. Some even threw their coats or cloaks in front of the guest of honor. Both the long-ago crowd and the modern crowd yelled and hollered and made all kinds of noise.

The Rabbi Jesus had been in circulation in the area for three years. He had been preaching with power and healing people for all that time. I suspect that great crowds wanted to welcome Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, for a number of reasons. And, a great number of people used a word from the Hebrew Scriptures to welcome Jesus. Hosanna!

Hosanna! Let’s say it again. Hosanna! Today, that word is familiar to many from church. From Palm Sunday. It’s something that people say—what children say when they wave their palms. Isn’t it? Isn’t that what it means?

The word “Hosanna!” comes from Psalm 118, meaning “Save us!” It was used when the crowds welcomed the Jewish hero Judas Maccabeus to Jerusalem, more than a century before Jesus lived in Palestine. “Isn’t the Rabbi Jesus a prophet? A healer? Didn’t He have all kinds of power? I haven’t seen it, personally, but I’ve heard about Him from all kinds of people! He’s a wonderful Rabbi, too. Don’t you think He might be the Messiah? He’s come to save us!”

I can just hear the crowd: “Save us!” “Please, bless us! Make us prosper!” “Hosanna!” In this single word, “Hosanna!” the crowd communicates a whole lot of things!

What did the crowd think of Jesus, two thousand years ago? Who did they think He was?

Today, people have lots of opinions about Jesus. Can you hear some of these ideas when people cry out to Him? Some consider Jesus to be a prophet, even a miracle worker. They certainly honor Jesus. Others think of Jesus as a very good man, one whose words, deeds and teaching were a cut above the rest of humanity. Some think the man Jesus exemplified the best of God as Jesus understood God. Or, is Jesus God incarnate, God come to earth in human flesh?

What did the crowd think of Jesus, two thousand years ago? Who did they think He was? Remember, Israel was under Roman domination. The Jews were a conquered people, under tight control by the Roman army. There had been rumors and whispers of a coming Messiah among the Jews for decades, even for centuries.

“Isn’t the Rabbi Jesus a prophet? A healer? Didn’t He have all kinds of power? I haven’t seen it, personally, but I’ve heard about Him from all kinds of people! He’s a wonderful Rabbi, too. Don’t you think He might be the Messiah? He’s come to save us!” With such urgency, such expectations, it’s no wonder the crowds cried “Hosanna!” “Save us, please!”

In the last number of weeks, not only in this country, but worldwide, vast numbers of people look calamity stark in the face. We have the loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of freedom of movement. What have we got in exchange? More fear and anxiety, more anger and confusion, more mourning. What about first responders, medical workers, janitorial staffs, grocery store workers, and people who pack and ship everything from A to Z? Front line workers all. I cannot begin to tell you about fear, worry, sorrow and anticipatory grief in operation here.

We need someone to come and be our Savior, the Rock of our salvation.

The corona virus is not quite like a physical enemy, one we are able to fight through the force of arms. Not like the Roman army, or the armies the United States fought in the wars over the past two hundred years. Would we, today, have reacted much differently than the crowds that greeted and shouted at the Rabbi Jesus? Or, would we be blinded by our fear, anxiety, confusion and profound grief at this current, horrible pandemic? Are we hearing “Hosanna!” differently this Palm Sunday? How can we walk with our Lord Jesus through this Holy Week?

Let me suggest things to do to help each other, at this desperate, anxious time. Can we show each other more kindness, help each other, be more selfless? Perhaps, even be more like Christ in our daily lives and daily activities? We can all do small, caring actions, each day. Call or text a loved one or friend. Offer to take out the garbage for a neighbor, for those who are able. Check on a senior who lives down the street—using appropriate social distance, of course.

As we call on God in our great need, can we see how God in the flesh comes to us? Humble, gentle and riding on a donkey, not charging in on a white stallion, or riding in a late model tank. Our Lord Jesus comes in vulnerability, and weakness, to join with each of us and be with us through our trials and tribulations. God comes to love us and redeem us, no matter what our situation may be. No matter what.

Praise God! Hosanna! Thank You, Jesus.

 

I would like to thank Rev. Dr. David Lose. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas from his commentary on Matthew 21:1-11 from his article Palm Sunday A – The Greater Irony

Posted: 31 Mar 2020 11:12 AM PDT http://www.davidlose.net/2020/03/palm-sunday-a-the-greater-irony/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Living Water

“Living Water”

John 4-14 word cloud

John 4:5-42, Exodus 17:1-7 – March 15, 2020

In any group of people, you will certainly see several at least with disposable water bottles or the more expensive refillable kind. So many people today understand the importance of drinking enough water. My daughters remind me: “Hydrate! Hydrate!”

If we know the importance of drinking water today, in this temperate climate where water is readily available, just think of what it was—and is—like for people living in a semi-arid region like Samaria. Sources of water were not plentiful, at all. Having a deep well near a town, especially a well dug by one of the patriarchs of old, would be considered a great community asset. That well would be a valuable material resource, too.

John tells us it’s the middle of the day, nearing the hottest part of the day. The rest of the band of disciples goes into the Samaritan town of Sychar to find food, but their Rabbi Jesus stays behind at the well. We don’t even know the name of the woman who comes to the well, but Jesus engages her in conversation.

Hold on, here. Fetching water was and is a task that women have done, for ages. For thousands of years. There is a togetherness, a community feel to fetching water; I suspect it was similar for the women of Sychar. All go with their water jars, fetching their loads in the morning, before the heat of the day. But—what about this straggler, coming in the middle of the day? This particular woman’s lifestyle sets her apart from the others!

The Rabbi Jesus starts to talk with her. Imagine, a respected Jewish rabbi, talking to some outcast woman? That shouldn’t be! And moreover, this woman is a hated half-breed Samaritan! Worse and worse! Jesus, what are You thinking of? This activity is really culturally and socially disgraceful. That would be what any respectable, observant Jew would think about Jesus’s words and actions. Shaking their heads, saying, “Shame, shame! There is SO much wrong here!” However, Jesus does not allow social or cultural conventions of His day to dictate to Him.

Jesus had something important to communicate. He talked to the woman at the well about Living Water. Water from heaven, Godly water that gives eternal life! What is more, he treated this outsider, this “loser” of a woman with kindness and respect. What an example for us to follow, too. Imagine, treating all people with kindness and respect, because each one is made in the image of God. Jesus gives us another challenge, to treat each person we meet with respect and kindness, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well.

What are you thirsty for, these days? Sure, we might have one of those fancy refillable water bottles, and try to keep it full most days. As my daughters tell me, “Hydrate, Mom! Hydrate!” We might satisfy our physical thirst, true. But, what about our spiritual thirst? Are we even aware of this deep-down thirsting, yearning for something to fill us up from the inside out?

In Jesus’s case, He told this woman some significant things about her life, things that rocked her to the core. In fact, when she ran to tell the people in town about this marvelous Rabbi, she said 29 “’Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.”

Different people have different reactions. Some people scoff when they hear about the Rabbi Jesus—“He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah! You’re pulling my leg!” Others are just not sure. They might like to believe, but they might be fearful, or anxious, or have their minds on too many other things. And, then, there are those who hear about this Jesus, this promised Messiah, and come running to see Him. That is the woman at the well. She brought a whole bunch of people with her, to check Jesus out. To have the possibility of drinking from this Living Water.

Remember, Jesus says “13 “Everyone who drinks this water [from Jacob’s well] will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” How are you reacting to your spiritual thirst? Are you anxious or fearful, angry, distracted or discouraged?

Jesus promises to give this Living Water to anyone who asks. What would it be like to enjoy Living Water from Jesus in each of our lives, on the inside? Let’s get even bigger. Imagine what it would be like to have Jesus supply each of our congregations with this Living Water, providing a supply for all our spiritual thirst? Filling us up on the inside, so we aren’t anxious or fearful, angry, distracted or discouraged?

We have the opportunity to supply others with Living Water, in the same way that Jesus can. With God’s help, we can fill others with this wonderful spiritual water from the well that never goes dry. I ask again: What are you thirsty for?

Jesus has an amazing spiritual well. God willing, Jesus can fill us, from the inside up.  Amen.

 

(Thanks to Dr. Hongsuk Um of the Church of Scotland for several ideas I used in this sermon.)

https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/62984/15-March-3-Sunday-of-Lent.pdf

Third Sunday in Lent – 15 March 2020 The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Dr Hongsuk Um, Faith Nurture Forum Development Worker, for his thoughts on the third Sunday in Lent.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Stepping Out (in Faith)

“Stepping Out (in Faith)”

Gen 12-5 God-calls-abram

John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4 – March 8, 2020

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

Faith is complicated, for many reasons. Sometimes, people can have a lot of faith in someone or something. Other times, those same people can choke up, or get scared or anxious. And, sometimes, those same people can step out in faith, taking big chances—or opportunities.

We have two stories of faith this morning. Miss Eileen read them to us. The first is the calling of Abram by the Lord, and the second is the nighttime visit of Nicodemus to the Rabbi Jesus. In both of these we see faith, and the need for faith.

I ask again: is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

We look first at Abram, in Genesis chapter 12. He was living in a big city called Ur, and at this point he probably did not know very much about the Lord, the God who made heaven and earth. Abram was fairly well off, with flocks and herds and other resources. In other words, a man of substance. Similar to someone in the upper middle class here in the Chicago area. Can’t you see a well-off executive, or business owner, or entrepreneur, getting acquainted with the Lord for the first time? That is the situation for Abram here.

We have a different type of man in Nicodemus, presented to us in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was a renowned teacher in Israel and a member of the religious council in Jerusalem. (Probably what we would call a full professor of bible and theology at one of the leading universities today.) He was curious and intrigued enough to visit this new upstart Rabbi Jesus, to have a one-on-one conversation with Him.

Abram had a one-on-one with the Lord, too. The Lord of heaven and earth had a command for Abram: “Go.” Go out from your comfortable house and stable place of living, Abram. Go into the wilderness, and I won’t even tell you where your destination is. Just, go, Abram. Go because I tell you to go.

In Nicodemus’s one-on-one conversation with Jesus, the set-up was a little different. We see Nicodemus—the well-respected, senior teacher of Israel—coming to the young upstart Rabbi by night. Sneaking away to see Jesus, because it probably would not be good for his reputation. Imagine, a highly-placed, scholarly professor, actually having a conversation with this young guy with the wild and crazy ideas? Sure, this Jesus is a Rabbi, and He is knowledgeable about the Bible, but, some of His ideas are way out there. Yet, as we see from reading John chapter 3, Jesus has just as much authority as the Lord of heaven and earth.

We see Abram and his reaction to the Lord. When the Lord says, “Go!” Abram packs up his bags and tents and flocks and herds, and his wife Sarai and nephew Lot, and does just that.

We hear much more of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. We hear the marvelous words of John 3:16-17, which is part of Jesus’s response to Nicodemus. We do not find out much about the response of Nicodemus—at least, not yet.

In the children’s time today, I talked about Abram and how much faith he had. Abram went when the Lord told him to go. And, Abram did not even know where he was going to end up. He had faith in God. Isn’t this another way of explaining faith? Faith is more than what Abram thought. Faith is what Abram did and where he went. Faith is believing God.

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life? Is faith more than just what you think? Is faith what you do and where you go? Just like Abram?

Nicodemus is a little bit different from Abram. Abram actually stepped out in faith. The Lord told him to go, and he went. But, Nicodemus was more cautious. Isn’t it difficult to jump in with both feet? Or, step out, the way Abram did? Nicodemus didn’t want other people knowing about him going to see this young Rabbi Jesus.

Sure, we might know lots of things about Jesus. We might think Jesus was right about a lot of stuff He said, too. Jesus even did a whole lot of miracles! At least, people said He did. Or, do we sneak around and visit Jesus by night, under cover of darkness, just like Nicodemus? Are we willing to stick our necks out and tell everyone we are Christians, in broad daylight? Or, are we afraid people might make fun of us for believing some of that stuff about Jesus, including that part about the resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven?

Sure, Abram shows us what it means to believe the Lord, and to act on that belief. Faith is having our Godly sandals on, and stepping out. Faith is what we do and where we go.

But, before we criticize Nicodemus for not having “enough faith,” this is not the end of his story in the Gospel of John. No, we see him again, twice. In John chapter 7, Nicodemus came to Jesus’s defense when the religious authorities tried to defame Jesus. And again, in John chapter 19 after the crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with burying Jesus.

We see Nicodemus as he steps out in faith, listens to Jesus’s words, and watches Jesus’s actions. In his everyday life, faith becomes what Nicodemus does and where he goes.

It’s true that having faith can be a challenge to you and to me. We are not necessarily people of great faith. As commentator Karoline Lewis states, “Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human.” [1]

Did you hear? Yes, it is only human to be unsure. And, yes, believing—even in God—is something that is a journey. A stepping-out-in-faith journey like that of Abram, in Genesis 12, even a hesitant, journey-by-night, like that of Nicodemus, starting in John 3 and continuing throughout the Gospel of John.

For over 100 years, starting in 1859, the Sunday School Times was published. This was a Christian family magazine. Features, articles and vignettes were all included in this publication, including the following:

“There was once a good woman who was well-known among her circle [of friends] for her simple faith and her great calmness in the midst of many trials. Another woman, living at a distance, hearing of her, said, “I must go and see that woman, and learn the secret of her calm, happy life.” She went, and, accosting the woman, said, “Are you the woman with the great faith?” “No,” was the answer, “I am not the woman with the great faith, but I am the woman with the little faith in the great God.” [2]

We believe that God can love us and forgive us, even when we mess up. How can such things be? Because we believe in a great God.

Is faith an important part of your everyday life? We may not be giants of faith, like Abram. We can still step out, in our uncertainty and our hesitancy. We might just be stepping out at night, under cover of darkness, as we strive to have more faith, like Nicodemus.

We might have little faith, but we believe in our great God. And, that’s enough. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43

Commentary, John 3:1-17 (Lent 2A), Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.moreillustrations.com/Illustrations/faith%208.html (Sunday School Times)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Who Searches for the Lost?

“Who Searches for the Lost?”

Luke 15 word cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019

Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.

Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.

Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?

Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??

The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.

This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.

My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)

In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.

Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.

Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.

Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.

Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” [1]

Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.

As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” [2]

The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.

There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” [3]

We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1782

Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lost-found-alyce-mckenzie-09-09-2013.html

“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Where’s Your Treasure?

“Where’s Your Treasure?”

Luke 12-34 your treasure, words

Luke 12:29-34 – August 11, 2019

I greet you all in the name of our loving, gracious God and our Lord Jesus Christ. It is good to be back here with you at Epiphany United Church of Christ.

Is anyone here familiar with a particularly challenging time? Either in your life, or the life of someone close to you? I’ve been through a number of challenging, even difficult times, over the years. Periods of unemployment, strained and broken relationships, times of extended illness of loved ones, even death and periods of grieving and loss—of many kinds. Sadly familiar to many here, I suspect.

On the flip side, I have experienced times of great happiness and contentment in my life, periods of harmony and peace, times when I felt I was in a good place, in terms of relationships, employment, and my personal and family life. Those are times I suspect many people want to continue to experience, long-term. Even, your whole lives long.

What did Jesus have to say about both of these long-term situations? Both the up-side as well as the down-side?  Our Scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke sheds some light on that question. Our Lord Jesus gives many instructions in Luke 12, and tells His listeners a number of important things. He talks about the positive times in life as well as the times of sadness and heartache. And—Jesus does not shy away from challenging His listeners. By no means! He talks straight, and lays things on the line, not pulling any punches.

Let’s pull back, and look at today’s short, power-packed reading from Luke chapter 12 in context. Luke 12 comes from what bible scholars call the Sermon on the Plain, a section from the Gospel of Luke that parallels the Sermon on the Mount closely, Matthew chapters 5 through 7. Many of these statements in Luke state or summarize statements we find in Matthew. (Both Sermons have versions of the Lord’s Prayer, for example.) But, these words of the Rabbi Jesus—from either sermon, Luke or Matthew—have both comforting as well as challenging moments. For example, the words from our Scripture reading today.

This reminds me of two years ago, when I preached a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5. Those were the lectionary readings for February 2017. Yes, the words of Jesus are familiar. We are the light of the world, the city on a hill. We need to take care of our tongues and not call each other names. And, especially, Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus meant all that. All of it. I found it particularly challenging to faithfully lift up the words of Jesus for those Sundays. I tried to do my best, but I know our Lord’s words can sometimes be difficult to hear, and even a rebuke for us.

So, it is with a similar feeling of anxiety that I come to this reading today. What is Jesus saying in this section of the Sermon on the Plain, anyway?

I included a part of last week’s reading from Luke to begin our reflection this morning. Words of a reassuring nature for people going through some difficult, challenging times. Concentrate on God. Keep our eyes focused on things that matter to God, and don’t worry about the peripheral but distracting stuff that happens in our lives. That sounds great! I could just stop right there, couldn’t I?

But, Jesus does not stop there. He continues: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Wait a second, Jesus! It’s all very well to tell us comforting stuff like “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and “your Father (or Parent) knows what you need.” Those things are great, and reassuring, and encouraging, especially when we are going through difficult times in our lives. But, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor?” and, “provide for yourselves a treasure in heaven?” What kind of stuff is that? Sounds pretty suspect to me. I can imagine two hecklers in the back of the room glancing at each other, and elbowing each other. Yeah, I always knew this Rabbi Jesus was running some sort of con game.

Except, it isn’t a con game. Jesus is really for real.

Sure, economic security is certainly a concern for almost everyone. And, appropriately so. Concern for ourselves and for our families is to be commended. But, I think we can better understand where Jesus is focused: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Commentator Matt Skinner notes that “we can train our wills and our ways of thinking (for that is what the heart symbolized in his culture) through the ways we use our money.” [1]

Jesus is really asking each one of us: where are your priorities? What do we put first in our lives? Are my priorities “me, me, me!” and “my house, my car, my 401 K!” Or—are my priorities something else? Something that would be pleasing to God? Something involving having an open heart and loving compassion?

These words of Jesus tell us a lot about God’s view on charity, on being open-hearted and open-handed. The parable of the rich fool is found just a few verses back in Luke 12, where Jesus talks about a foolish man who had big barns stuffed full of all his crops and other goods—all his wealth. And then, after doing a tour of all his barns stuffed chock full of stuff that he was hoarding for himself, he had a sudden, massive heart attack and died.

Jesus’s words for us today are closely connected to this mindset. Where is our treasure? Where are our priorities? If we spend all our money on ourselves, guess where our hearts will be. What is more, we can extrapolate further. Perhaps some do not have too much money, but are particularly focused on their house, or their car, or have some other focus for their life. What is their priority in life? What would Jesus say about that particular priority?

Are we leaving our relationship with Jesus in the dust, in a far distant second or even third place?

I am going to start a third chaplain internship next week, two days a week, and I will still be pastor at St. Luke’s Church in Morton Grove. (And, I would appreciate your prayers, both for my challenging internship and my faithful service to the lovely congregation at St. Luke’s.) When I considered this Scripture passage this past week, I couldn’t help but think of people in the hospital. The patients and their loved ones who I will meet.

I am familiar with that environment, since I was a hospital chaplain for some years, before I came to St. Luke’s Church. I remember many who had total reliance on God, who were spread thin, in trauma. Many of these folks had been pushed so far, and had very little left in the way of resilience. They had fears, anxieties, trials and tribulations. But, they also had faith in God, in whatever faith tradition they came from.

When they—when we—reach a traumatic situation, God is there. God is faithful. That was some of what Jesus was saying in the first part of our Scripture reading today. And, for those who have not faced such sadness and trauma in our lives—yet—this statement of Jesus applies, as well. Where are your priorities? Where are mine?

When we put God first and allow other things to take second place, it is amazing how things sort themselves out. God has a personal hand in sorting things out in each of our lives, and that is truly a wonderful thing. So, where is your treasure?

I’ll let Jesus have the last word: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4142  Matt Skinner

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Proclaim Good News!

“Proclaim Good News!”

Luke 4:14-21 (4:18) and Romans 12:1-13 – January 20, 2019 – Ecumenical Prayer Service for Christian Unity, St. Martha’s Catholic Church, Morton Grove, Illinois

luke 4-18 proclaim good news

[The (Ecumenical) John 17 Fellowship is an informal group of Catholic and Protestant churches in the northwest Chicago suburbs. We celebrated the Week of Ecumenical Christian Unity with a prayer service for unity this afternoon, on Sunday, January 20. I was asked to preach. Here is my sermon.]

What do you want to be when you grow up? That is a familiar question to many children and young people. I dare say lots of people wonder what they will be as adults, today.

I wonder whether Jesus was asked that question while He was growing up? In our Gospel reading today from St. Luke, our Lord Jesus makes some bold statements while at worship with His fellow townsfolk in Nazareth. But first, we ought to set the scene.

Sure, this was the very beginning. Jesus was just starting to make a name for Himself as an itinerant rabbi. And, He came to His hometown, the place where He grew up. Maybe where the butcher and baker down the street were good friends with His parents from way back. Maybe the real estate agent across the square sold His parents their house some years before, the house where His mother Mary still lives. In other words—I suspect everyone in that town was there in the synagogue that day to hear what the Rabbi Jesus—their hometown boy!—had to say.

Jesus already had generated some buzz in the greater Nazareth area. “Have you heard the latest about that Jesus? The one who says He is a Rabbi? The one who was baptized in the River Jordan by that Baptizer fellow? And, there was something about the heavens cracking open, a dove flying out of a clear blue sky—and a voice from heaven! I’m not saying all this was for real or not, but that is what people are saying about this Jesus. You know, the guy from our town.”

Our Lord Jesus had hardly started to do His public ministry, and people were already talking about Him and what had happened in His life. Especially in Nazareth, the town where He had grown up.

In this scene from the synagogue in Luke chapter 4, the townsfolk did what they habitually did every week in worship. In addition to the prayers, the townsfolk read from the Bible, and then someone made an interpretation of the reading. Biblical exegesis, or midrash.

Isn’t that what we do in worship each week? In addition to the prayers, we also read from the Bible, and then someone (usually the priest or pastor or minister, but not always) makes an interpretation of the reading.

The Bible is so important, to all of us. Here in our Gospel reading today, the Rabbi Jesus reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Ecumenically, all of us here from different church traditions and even various places across the globe can agree that the Bible—the Word of God—is one important way that God communicates with us all.

When I was younger, a teenager and in my twenties, I memorized a number of verses from the Bible, from both the Hebrew Scriptures and from the New Testament. I have not kept up with my bible memorization, but I still remember a good deal. Like, for example, two verses from Psalm 119. Verse 11, “Your Word have I hid in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” And Verse 105, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

These verses are just two of the many places in the Bible that remind us of the importance of God’s Word, and what a central role the Bible ought to have in our lives. Our Lord Jesus tells us so. What’s more, He shows us what we are to do.

Our Lord Jesus was attending worship services—as was His custom. He was reading the Bible. What’s more, Jesus always lived out what the Bible said to do. Always.

Listen again to what our Lord Jesus read: “He found the place where it is written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In another sermon two and a half years ago, I preached on this same Gospel reading. I told my congregation that this was where our Lord Jesus preaches His first recorded sermon. It is quite a bit like political campaigns. The various candidates all have their position distilled down to a simple message. What they stand for. What they will strive to do. Just so, with Jesus. Jesus is here to proclaim the Gospel. Share the Good News, indeed!

The Apostle Paul was so moved and energized by the risen Jesus that he made it his life’s work to share that Good News. Paul went to endless places and preached the Gospel to just about everyone he met. What is more, he used his organizational skills to help the growing gatherings of believers, as we can see from our second reading from the book of Romans today.

These words from St. Paul not only tell his fellow believers about their gifts and how much God has blessed each of them, individually, but also to let them know how they ought to live together, and bless each other as a church community. We can take that one step further, and see how Paul’s fellow believers—that is all of us, as Christians—ought to live in love and justice in our neighborhoods, and with our fellow citizens.

Let’s go back to Luke chapter 4. My first thought is, I’m not poor! Or, a prisoner, or blind, or oppressed, either. I am not any of those things. Seriously, what is the Rabbi Jesus saying here? Does He have some kind of secret message? If these are the types of people Jesus says He is going to preach and minister to, I am not sure I would be comfortable with it.

All that talk about the poor and blind, grief-stricken and oppressed, that is giving me some hesitation about following this new Rabbi Jesus.

But, let’s take a closer, deeper look. Here Jesus is addressing the poor. Could that be the poor in spirit, as well as poor, materially-speaking? Next up, He addresses the prisoners. Perhaps, prisoners of sin? Then, speaking to the blind; blind to the love and gifts of God in their lives? And, our Lord Jesus came for the oppressed. Oppressed by anxiety, doubt, fear, anger, self-loathing, self-pity, self-righteousness. (I could go on, but I think you all have the idea.)

That is why Jesus has come to earth. That is His message. Our Lord gives His purpose statement, distilled down to the pure essence.  

Our Lord Jesus speaks to each one of us, as individuals. The Apostle Paul speaks to us as a group, to the church.

So—what do you want to be when you grow up? Do the words of Paul or the purpose statement of Jesus make a difference to you? Do these words change your life or your path? Following God’s Word can make all the difference in the world. It did for our Lord. It did for Paul. Will following God’s Word make a difference for you and me today?

            God willing, may it be so.

Alleluia, amen.

 

King: Alpha and Omega

“King: Alpha and Omega”

Alpha and Omega - Jesus

Revelation 1:4b-8 (1:8), John 18:33-37 – November 25, 2018

Royalty is very…regal. Kings, queens, princes, princesses—think of this past spring, when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle. Talk about a fairy-tale wedding! For those of us in the United States who watched the wedding, it was a grand gathering of royalty from across the world, plus some Very Important Persons, from any number of places.

Royalty was very much on the mind of people throughout the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world, in the first century CE. Yes, small regional kings ruled over many tribes and areas. However, they were all subservient to the Roman Emperor, once his power reached into Africa, north into Europe, and east beyond the Fertile Crescent.

In our Gospel passage today, we have an interaction between Pilate the Roman governor of Palestine, and the prisoner Jesus. It’s just hours before Jesus is to be crucified. Yet, Pilate is all concerned about the Rabbi Jesus calling Himself a king. What’s the big deal with that?

We need to understand where the Jewish people are coming from. They want Royalty. Or, more properly speaking, a Messiah. Their nation has been subject under foreign countries for hundreds of years. They desperately yearned to be free! Free in not only a physical sense, but free in the prophetic sense, as well. In their writings there were prophecies of a Messiah, a Coming One, an Anointed One. That’s what many Jews were looking for! One who was a descendant of King David. A Messiah, a King.

Living in the United States today, we don’t have any concept of what that would be like. To be conquered, subservient to a huge foreign power. The closest thing I can think of in recent memory is the Eastern Bloc nations, the nations under Soviet rule for most of the second half of the 20th century. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Estonia, East Germany, and the other former Soviet satellite states.  All of these had local leaders and rulers. But—none of these local leaders got too big for their britches, unless they wanted to be deposed and imprisoned, and perhaps even killed.

That description is so similar to the position of the Rabbi Jesus, when He came before the Roman governor. Pilate was the Roman governor, the local voice of the Empire in Jerusalem. He had a prickly situation to handle. Yes, Pilate had to watch those stubborn, wayward Jews, and needed to manage their surly, ill-tempered leaders.

Pilate must have heard lots about Jesus! He was a miracle-worker! Healing the blind, the deaf, making food out of thin air for thousands, even raising people from the dead! Not to mention hearing about His wisdom and no-holds-barred interaction with the leaders of the Jews, priests and lawyers. What is more, the Roman governor must have heard whispers of this reactionary Rabbi possibly fulfilling the prophecies of the coming Messiah, or King.

Except, Pilate was considering kingship, power and authority from a Roman point of view. He was absolutely flabbergasted at this reactionary Rabbi. Not grasping the reins of force, power and control? What on earth is wrong with this guy?

Many people never consider the legal questions surrounding Jesus and His trials. Have you ever considered the royal power of Jesus before? If so, where was it active? Over whom did He rule? And, where was His jurisdiction?

As a typical, practical Roman, Pilate wanted to know all of those operational things, especially where Jesus had jurisdiction, power and control. Where exactly was His kingdom? Was He really King of the Jews? As if that was not enough, Pilate needed to know whether Jesus was committing treason. To set oneself up as an earthly King was plainly dangerous. As the Emperor’s representative, Pilate had to keep track of treasonous activities.

The Rabbi Jesus sidestepped Pilate’s questions.  Jesus is essentially saying that Pilate—by extension, the Roman government—does not have earthly jurisdiction in this matter.

True, Jesus said He was a king. But, Pilate is completely at a loss. Speaking from the point of view of a Roman, who considered worldly authority, control and power to be the be-all and end-all, this stuff about Jesus’s kingdom not being of this world does not compute.

This Sunday, the last Sunday in the Liturgical Year, is called Christ the King Sunday. Some call it Reign of Christ Sunday, because of negative connotations of the male image of “king.” But, Jesus turned the concept of “king” on its head. What Jesus meant by “king” is something so far away from the Roman concept of King and Emperor. Jesus’s concept is totally out of this world. A cosmic idea of King, of Ruler of the whole universe.

Our Gospel reading today tells us what Jesus is not. He is not an earthly King. He does not hold absolute, manipulative, soul-sucking power-over the other humans in the world. The reading from Revelation 1 lets us know exactly who Jesus is, and what He does.

Jesus did call Himself a king when talking to Pilate. He did mention His royal power is not of this world. He communicates the other-worldly nature of the reign of Christ, that cosmic King of Kings who is, and was, and is to come. A commentator mentioned that “The sovereign essence of God is amplified by such epithets as “the Alpha and the Omega,… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty (Revelation 1:8). These names and titles of God subvert claims of Roman Emperors. Contemporary readers of Revelation are also summoned to be aware of the dangers of imperial portraits seen in advertisements, political propaganda, and political party promises.” [1] Thus, the reign of Christ is subversive, in the eyes of this world. I rarely mention politics directly in my sermons, but these two bible passages today are specifically political. We can view the Rabbi Jesus as the reactionary leader of a downtrodden minority rabble, arrested at midnight and in handcuffs in front of a kangaroo court early one morning. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, to proclaim Jesus Christ as King of Kings is a subversive act.

A seminary professor related, “One of my students is an Anglican priest from South Africa. Not long ago he shared a story about what it was like to believe Jesus was King during the days of apartheid. “Our whole congregation was arrested,” he said, “for refusing to obey the government.” I thought I misheard him, but he went on to say that all 240 members of the congregation were arrested and put in jail — from babies to a 90-year-old man. “At least babies and mothers were kept together,” he added. The pastor himself was imprisoned for a year. To claim that Jesus is King can be dangerous.” [2]

That is exactly what I proclaim here. Jesus Christ is King of Kings, Ruler of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Who is, and who was, and who is to come.

“Jesus is a king who never rose so high that He couldn’t see those who were down low. Even today, we see Jesus in tent cities where people live together after losing their homes to foreclosure. We see Jesus in public housing where people are still waiting for the power to come on after the storm. We see Jesus in shelters where women have sought refuge from abusers.

If we would see Jesus, we will look in places kings seldom go.” [3]

It is not enough to see Jesus. He calls us to follow Him, too.

Be subversive! Tell people about Jesus, the reactionary Rabbi, King of Kings. Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2825

Commentary, Revelation 1:4b-8, Isarel Kamudzandu, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-kay-lundblad/john-18-33-37-a-different-kind-of-king_b_2166819.html

“A Different Kind of King,” Barbara K. Lundblad, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!