My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

Stealing Your Way Into Heaven

thou shalt not steal 1 edit

 

GOSPEL OF LUKE 16.1-13

 

Couched in between two of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus, we discover one of Jesus’ most unassuming and most difficult parables throughout the pages of the Gospel. I suppose this parable, the parable of the Unjust Steward…did you hear that…the parable of the UNJUST steward, not the good steward, but an UNJUST steward, gets squeezed from both sides of the text. This parable gets flattened beside its more famous friends.

Like the 3 three famous Kardashian sisters who constantly in the news: a famous one, a pretty one and an ugly one…this parable is the ugly sister that doesn’t get much attention. And rightfully so. It’s not a very helpful parable on our first reading.

Here Jesus’ 4 points in this parable:
1. Manage your money shrewdly like non-believers manager their money and Jesus will praise you for it. Jesus exact words, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
2. Make friends with others by means of unrighteous wealth, dishonest wealth.
3. If you can’t use dishonest wealth, how can you use true riches?
4. You can’t serve two masters. You can’t live to make money and also live to serve God.

Talk about a confusing sermon. Jesus just outdid himself here.

As I come to this parable, the entire scene makes sense to me…at first.
The characters in this parable are not far removed from the characters and narratives I have encountered in the business world these past 7 years.

For a business to be successful it must have managers that manage resources. It must have supervisors to oversee their management of those resources. And it must have people that the managers can manage to procure the good or product that is consistent with the mission of the business. When the managers or supervisor doesn’t do their part of the job…the LORD, the master of the house, is quick to hold them accountable as we see in this parable. Businesses and estates exist to make money and to solidify their status as deposits of wealth. This must be carefully guarded and the Lord in this parable is simply looking out for what best for his own business or estate. When he knew he was being cheated he cannot continue to support this Stewards behavior. This parable is a reflection of how the steward responded to that act accountability.

Several years ago, in our own business, we experimented with whether or not to include Asst. Managers in our bonus program. As a business, we felt that it was in the best interest of our customers, our future growth and our profit margins, to give the Asst. manager position a greater sense of ownership in how well the business does. Up until this point, the General Managers of our stores had been the principal beneficiaries of the profit of our business through means of a bonus program that we had structured around various goals. But we wanted to give the General Managers of our stores the benefit of a manager that would work hard at helping them accomplish store goals and really function as a 2 person team inside each local store.

To this end, we experimented with involving Asst. Managers in the bonus program.
We pulled our lone asst manager into our office, disclosed to her our plans and she was excited about the opportunity. She thanked us for the job, the potential earnings, and the sense of appreciation we had for her. We thought we had made a smart move and encouraged good stewardship with our business by extended an added benefit that wouldn’t really require much additional work.

We were wrong.

The next morning as I was going through our old school paperwork, the kind of paper work that is produced by type key registers and detail tape, I noticed we were short $450 from the night before. I was shocked. More than half this money, as I could tell, was missing from the shift that was run by our asst manager, the same one whom we had just included into our manager bonus program for performance. After we had announced to her our plans, she drove to our store, shook our hands and thanked us again for the opportunity…then she drove to work and over saw a major shortage for which she had no explanation.

You see, she had intentionally cancelled orders from our registers and taken the money for her own personal use…so the store didn’t even look like it was short because those funds had already been deducted from the day’s totals. I wouldn’t have found this out if I hadn’t actually dug through register transaction tape and seen canceled orders without justification. I called other ownership, told him finding, and he said he’d get back to me.

Needless to say, we eventually called her into our office, shook her hand and congratulated her on trying to trick us out of money. We knew she had been hard up for cash and was really struggling and she had figured out a loophole that would almost allow her to steal money without getting caught…and we saw the genius in her attempt and commended her for this shrewdness, we actually promoted her to a store manager and she went on to make huge bonus checks.

And that makes absolutely no sense, Right?

Well something similar is what Jesus is asking us to believe about this parable.

Jesus commends a dishonest manager, who after he is caught stealing, continues to be shrewd and outwit the Lord of the house, or business, in order to secure to him his own future after he is officially fired for stealing. The master of the house learns of this plan also, and rather than demanding he be thrown in jail, he praises his shrewdness, perhaps the same type of shrewdness that put him in hot water to begin with, and he commends him for what he was just firing him for…and then Jesus goes on to say…

“His Master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness so that when it fails, they will receive you into eternal dwellings.”

So we get Jesus’ first two points: Be shrewd managers when handling money. Don’t be gullible. And use dishonest money to make friends for yourself so that you will inherent heaven or eternal dwelling places.
What is going on here?

This parable is utterly ridiculous. It makes us as hearers of it want to recoil and argue with Jesus. Jesus stands up in the midst of his disciples, after just having told to us the parable of the Prodigal son…a parable that is the epitome of bad stewardship, and then tells us some nonsense about how being unjust and using dishonest money can be to our benefit and should offer us an example how we should relate to money and wealth.

If it sounds ridiculous to us, we are in good company. The early church wasn’t sure how to handle it either. Even St. Augustine, one of the churches greatest preachers and theologians, didn’t want a real piece of this parable as he interpreted it in a purely allegorical fashion.

The ancient church wasn’t much clearer on what to do with this parable. If you’ll notice verses 9-13…these are all answers by Jesus, to account for this difficult parable originally told by Jesus, answers or interpretations that had been remembered in the church. Luke gives us answer after answer beginning in v9 and then he concludes with v13 to basically summarize that regardless of the tensions in this parable, the end game, is that we cannot serve two masters.

Luke picks up on Matthew 6.24 where this saying is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is busy teaching his disciples about how they should relate to wealth and things.

But Luke’s summary statement still doesn’t help us resolve the tensions of this parable. It doesn’t help us make sense of its dense content and seemingly contradictory advice. It is precisely the tension that Luke wants to evoke in us…Luke is intentional in placing this parable here, right before one of the parables that commands our imaginations about death and how it relates to our relationship to wealth.

He wants us to stand up after hearing this parable, those of us who are disciples, and say, “No, Jesus! That’s not right!” He wants those of us who have made our livings working for banks and owning our own businesses to react against this parable and say “no”! Us, the group of disciples, are many and different. We have come from many different backgrounds and made our livings in many different ways…we can relate to this usual set of circumstances. What we can’t relate to is Jesus’ handling of these circumstances and his lessons from them.

It’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote regarding scripture. “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.”

And here we almost see too clearly what Jesus is doing and what Luke is doing by crafting this vision of Jesus through these parables.

One of the themes that Luke has been working on in this Gospel is wealth. Not just a proper use of wealth, but understanding our relationship to wealth. Luke hammers the theme of wealth, its proper place, our use of it and he condemns on multiple occasions visions of wealth offered by the world that are not consistent with the kingdom of God.

In Luke, Jesus hammers wealth over and over…one is left asking the question, “Is Jesus really opposed to wealth, is it evil, or is Jesus warning of its dangers for some other reason?” And in this particular parable, “Is Jesus telling us to obtain wealth dishonestly and makes friends with ill gotten means to save our own skin?”
What this parable epitomizes is the breakdown of social barriers and the construal of wealth as an object to be used as a part of God’s sovereign kingdom…it is a means, not an ends. Notice, Jesus does not praise the unjust steward for his relationship with God; Jesus praises him for his use of money and shrewdness…his relationship with God and the Master (who may be the same in this parable) is withstanding.

For Luke’s Jesus, wealth is a problem (the very immediate context of this passage being the prodigal that uses wealth for pleasure, and the rich man after this parable that dresses and lives in comfort while the world and people Like Lazarus suffer immeasurably) because “it presents itself as a temptation to prestige and security apart from God and for this reason it is suspect” (NTT, Joel Green, 113).

And if we will look at our world and ourselves…and be honest, it is surely the case that wealth does tempt us and it does estrange us from God and one another. Who needs the Kingdom of God when you have your own perfect kingdom on your acre of land, money in the bank and closets overflowing with stuff?
Our wealth determines our social customs and interactions.

In the ancient world, giving and sharing to the poor is not the same as writing a check to a non-profit or doing good works through Nazarene Compassionate Ministry. When you shared your wealth you were very literally engaging with those to whom it was being given, bringing them into your active social sphere. To share with someone, or to relieve someone of debt, was to treat them as family or kin. They were no longer an object from which you extracted wealth, they were partakers in it.

Now if we understand this parable from this lens, then what the unjust steward is doing is extremely shrewd and to be emulated.

Think of this manager as the tax collector Levi, aka Matthew, that we find in this Gospel chapter 5. He was hated and despised because of his job. Jesus was accused of being a sinner because he had an entourage of people like this around him. Levi was in a position of authority as a Roman tax collector because of what he could extract and give to Rome. He was given the assignment of collecting polls for an occupying military force and then given the freedom to expend more for his own use.

Do you suppose Levi ate with people whom owed him taxes? Do you suppose Levi ever cut their bill in half or told them to take half of it off? Well, if he did, he was a rare tax collector and that certainly wasn’t the reputation of tax collectors. It would have been a shock to the system, a vision of a new kind of kingdom or authority, if Levi had ever acted that way prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus.

Returning to this parable, the manager was being reprimanded because he had already shown that he was squandering resources from his master. He was being unjust. He was taking advantage of his position. As a manager in charge of collecting debts, he most likely did not have those whom were indebted to his master within his inner circles. They were debtors…he was a collector. The two didn’t mix, yet when the master finds out his sin, he has to act shrewdly and act kindly toward those from whom he usually collected dues and he needed to do so quickly. There was no time to waste.

So he frantically devises a plan to extend forgiveness to them, yes, his wiping away of their debt before he was fired was his way of forgiving them. It’s reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lord forgive us our trespasses , as we forgive those who trespass against us…”may also be translated “Lord forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”

He has now brought himself into a new kind of relationship with these debtors through his shrewd and even sinful activity. He has created a relationship where there was originally no relationship and rather than taking their money and squandering it…he has finally done something good with money. He has decided to not squander it, but to restore people to a sense of wholeness by forgiving them of that which kept them bound to their toils. He uses his shrewdness to forgive debt rather than squander its abundances and usury charges.

Yes, he stands to benefit from the forgiveness (just like those who received his forgiveness), but in so doing he is changing the shape of the world, especially the world of those who find themselves receiving forgiveness.

This time of crisis in his life evoked a radical response from this once complacent and deceitful manager…and rather than use his deceit for selfishness he uses it for restorative purposes, both to restore himself and those that were beneficiaries of his act.

And here is where Luke really reinforces a proper understanding of wealth. Wealth has the reputation of creating boundaries and separating people, yet in this parable, boundaries are broken down as the manager creates a new social class with his debtors and even Jesus advises us based on his actions to make friends with wealth of the world, to use unrighteous wealth for the benefit of becoming friends with others, so that when we are dead, we will be able to find entrance into the dwelling place of God, essentially saying we can steal our way into heaven.

But what is the crisis, the imminent crisis that evokes our radical response to the way we use money as a means rather than an ends? It is a means whereby we are shown to be faithful to God and his creation, rather than becoming an end for which we strive to give ourselves more things…things that we see will later put us on the side of the Rich Man who stares at Lazarus in paradise.

What is this crisis moment and why does the parable take place in this context of suddenness and light footed expectation?

For the steward, the crisis was his pending job loss and he needed to prepare for the result of that final judgment.

Luke has couched this parable, this ugly sister of the three, in the middle of parables that capture our imaginations about the end of the world and the kingdom of God.

The crisis moment for Luke and for Jesus is the pending expectation and threats that they will have to handle courageously, wisely and resolutely to prepare for the future. The Christian mission has fell on deaf ears at the time of Luke’s Gospel and now the mission is pushing into pagan Greek areas as resistance makes itself known in Jerusalem and from the people of the original promise. The future is breaking into our present; the Master has found creation wanting in its squandering of love and goodness. The Kingdom of God is upon Jesus, Luke and their hearers.

Jesus is preparing us for living in the shadow of the crises that is the image of the risen Jesus overtaking creation as he emerges from his earthen tomb…a crises that requires prudent action and the extension of forgiveness to those who have done nothing to deserve it…even if forgiving them is also beneficial for us…in other words, even if we make friends…cause at the end of the day, when the money is spent, it is the relationships we have built that will last beyond our own lives.

The ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the crises moment that requires we not sit idly back, but that we act prudently as sons and daughters of this world and begin extending forgiveness to others who will soon stand in the shadow of Jesus the resurrected one.

And for this reason, Jesus can say, the sons of this world are more prudent than the sons of light.
You see, as sons and daughters of light…we are complacent. We don’t always act prudently and for the future. We expect God to be the one that shapes the future and we’re just along for the ride. We want to be like John the Baptist or the Essenes at Qumran and await God’s final vindication as we remove ourselves from the fray, from being shrewd, from making friends with the wealth of unrighteousness.

That’s one way to go about it.

The other is to see our mundane daily activities with Money and others…as caught in the constant expectation that God is busy about recreating the world through us and to act with the same sense of urgency and haste that even unjust stewards possess.

In the end, it may not be the sons of light that offer us examples on how to live, it may be the ones that we’ve often called sinner that can teach us the greatest lessons about the kingdom…cause it’s the sinner who usually find themselves most closely standing in the shadow of one that has become sin for us all.

Advent Sermon: God Comes into the Lights of Evil

lantern

Did you see it?  Did you see them?

All around us, in the darkness, there are lanterns.  Lanterns in the darkness that surround us.

We peer into the darkness, squinting our eyes, attempting to make out a shape or hear a sound.  We peer into the darkness trying to see who’s there.  We peer into the darkness trying to see what is there.

We look and look…we seeing nothing, but specks of light in an ocean of darkness.

The walls of our lives are high…there are times we feel totally safe, as if the walls of our lives cannot be taken.  Yet, as we keep watch in the tower that rises above these walls, we can’t help but notice the lights in the distance, those lanterns, flickering outside the walls of our lives.  We are safe in here…yet out there, darkness creeps closer, and pressing against our lives…the darkness merges ever closer attempting to confuse the cities of our lives with the presence of the darkness.

We see the lanterns.  Still flickering.  Still burning.

In the darkness is the reminder that there is something pressing against us that we cannot make out, that we cannot see, that we cannot hear.  Yet, there is it…it’s presence of the ominous light of silence.  The lantern in the darkness letting us know all might not be well.

“Hear the Word of the Lord given to Isaiah the prophet, “Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, the son of Judah, that Rezin the King of Aram and Pekah the son of Ramaliah, King of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it.  When it was reported to the House of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim, his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.  The Lord said to Isaiah, say to Ahaz, Take care and be calm , have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands because they have said let us go against Judah and terrorize it, and make for ourselves a breach in its walls.  Thus says the Lord, “it shall not come to pass.”  Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, make it as low as hell and as high as heaven.  But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”  Then he said, “Listen now, of House of David, is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that will try the patience of God as well?  Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.  For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”  Isaiah 7.10-16

We did not come here today care free.  Not one of us came to this place with a perfect life, without problem, without deficiency.  Not one of us came here unaware that there is something, someone, some opposing and broken force, camped outside of our cities that seek to press against us and overcome us.  We’ve seen the light flickering in the darkness and it fills us with fear and anxiety because we know the lights will move closer and those things holding the lights will seek to breach the walls of ourselves and our homes as they seek to terrorize us and destroy us…

Some of us may already see ladders mounted on the walls and we can only imagine what is it at their bottom, attempting to make their way up and occupy our cities.

What is attempting to occupy you?  What is it that is attempting to overcome you?  What do those lanterns in the darkness mean to you as they move closer, and closer…ever closer to our presumed safety?  What is that makes you shake as a tree in the wind when you hear its marching, see its presence moving closer, maybe begin to hear the faint war songs of those things that seek to take away all hope, all future, and all attempts of salvation?  What are those realities in our lives that announce to each of us…let us go up and terrorize them!

Let us breach their walls and overcome them!

The absence of love.

In our families, between husbands and wives who have forgotten how to love, and have instead chosen to co-exist.

Between children and parents, who take one another for granted, ungrateful for the gift that they are to one another.

Relationships that are shipwrecked on selfishness and torn apart by stubbornness.  The absence of love…people who are so lost in each other’s presence that they are not even sure how to have a simple conversation anymore.

The absence of economic certainty.

Funny thing, in times of economic turmoil and strife, we often take our frustrations out on one another, when one another is all we have to make it through.  Do you have enough or is “not enough” threatening your family?  Is not enough the thing that keeps you from being happy?  Do our pursuits for economic certainty get in the way of us finding ourselves, seeing our loved ones, or cast a vision of the world that simply creates another version of, not enough?

The absence of contentment. 

Discontent seeks to overtake all of us.  Discontentment…it eats us alive and pushes us to create another future wherein we can ensure our contentment.  We are not satisfied with who we are, where we are, what we are and the reason we are here is because of everyone else around us…

The presence of temptation. 

What temptation haunts you?  What thing is it that no one else knows about, that is constantly there, whispering your name, whispering for you to enter?  What thing is that you have never been able to overcome and it has paralyzed you physically and spiritually so that you have even begun to question whether God can forgive you or that you can even resist this stranglehold it has one you?  What is it that seeks to press up against you, from out of the darkness…

What carries the lantern and reminds you that it is always there?

“And I will give you a sign, behold, a virgin, a son, Immanuel.”

invading army

As we stand here, in our cities, worried about what is drawing near and camping all around us, seeking to overtake us at any moment and throw our lives into the abyss, we hear a word of the Lord.  And the word of the Lord is…have patience.

Immanuel.

You may see these things lurking outside your walls.  You may be hearing them try to convince you that there is no deliverance…there is no hope…there is no answer to the problems that fill our lives and threaten to break our relationships.

The Good News of Immanuel, of the sign of God, is that these things do not have the final say.  They are not able to overcome you…they will not breach your walls, they will not have victory, they are nothing but smoldering firebrands whose days are numbered…and by the time the Son comes, by the time Immanuel is in our presence, they will be things of the past and would have given way to a future whose motto is no longer, “us all alone”, but “God with us!”

And here is the beautiful thing about Advent:  Advent happens in the midst of occupation; in the midst of a threat to our lives!

Advent is God’s statement that when the world seems bleak, when your life seems to be threatened, when you have more questions than you have answers, when brokenness and loneliness is attempting to fill your home, when temptation is seeking to become a permanent fixture in your daily existence…when it seems like the terror you’ve been living with has no end…just then, at that moment, when you are unsure about even asking God for a sign…God gives us one anyway and his name is Immanuel.

God.  With. Us.

God is coming to dwell with us Church.  When it would be easier for God to leave us alone to the mess we’ve made, our God makes himself known not as one that determines our lives in some far off place, but as a God that knows that only one answer will do: Immanuel.

In reflecting on the Immanuel passage in a sermon Saint Augustine writes:

“You must remember, brothers and sisters, what a tremendous desire possessed the Saints of old to see the Christ.  They knew he was going to come, and all those who were living devout and blameless lives would say, “Oh, if only that birth may find me still here!  Oh, if only I may see with my own eyes what I believe from God’s Scriptures!” The saints knew who from the Holy Scripture that a virgin was going to give birth as you heard when Isaiah was read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”  What Emmanuel means the Gospel declares to us, saying, “which is interpreted God with us.”  So do not let it surprise you, unbelieving soul, whoever you are, do not let it strike you as impossible that a virgin should give birth and in giving birth remain a virgin.  Realize that it was God who was born, and you will not be surprised at a virgin giving birth.  So then, to prove to you how the saints and just men and women of old longed to see what was granted to this old man Simeon, our Lord Jesus Christ said, when speaking to his disciples , “Many just men and prophets have wished to see what you see and have not seen it; and to hear what you hear and have not heard it.”

I propose the words of Jesus to his disciples are not only to them, but to us also…and the words of Augustine are not merely for his church, but for us in the present…

For indeed, many just men, women and prophets have wished to see what we see and to hear what we have heard…lives spent in anticipation and expectation longing to see what we see and hear what we have heard and experience what we have, and are, going to experience.

The question this advent becomes for us all: when we see, will we believe?  When we hear will we listen? “Therefore, the Lord said to you Church, “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Emmanuel…which translated means, God with us.”

As the lanterns burn around the camps of our lives: Emmanuel.  God with us.  Amen.

Sermon Pentecost 2013: Fire From the Tomb

Pentecost

This is a sermon I preached this past Sunday in my local Church of the Nazarene setting.  My tradition has a precarious and intimate relationship to this text, especially as it concerns ideas of the holy spirit, holiness and Christian experience.  As I began to look more carefully exegetically at this passage, particularly within its Luke-Acts literary corpus, I began to see and pick up on some motifs that I believe my tradition and many evangelical traditions are sadly overlooking…and that is: the Pentecostal descending of the Holy Spirit on the early Church is not a prescriptive event that serves to edify the walk of an individual believer.  Pentecost occurs, rather, in order that those witnesses that heretofore were unable to witness to the Resurrection of Jesus might now be able to do so.  Pentecost is not a “movement” or a “stage” that Christians traverse as they become more “holy,”…Instead it seems that Luke-Acts insists this happens so that those already sanctified in their following of Christ might now be able to proclaim the nonsense of a dead carpenter…who is now not so dead…is the Messiah of God.  Further, not only does Luke-Acts make this argument, it further goes on to nuance how this events is interpreted as a “last days” event within the prophetic text of Joel and therein reinterprets how we today MUST also rethink our idea of “last days,’…but you’re gonna have to read the sermon if you want to see how this works out.

As an aside, the first several paragraphs are a rehearsal of the Christian calendar as we have only recently started being very intentional about the Christian seasons in my ministry context.  I felt that since Pentecost is the climax of Easter celebration and beginning of ordinary time, or what I like to call life as usual, that this rehearsal was in order to help the congregation re-member where we have been.  Should you not need the reminder of the seasons please move to the paragraph that begins discussing Pentecost.

So…with this said, I hope this sermon on Pentecost is helpful as you continue in your pursuits to narrate your life around this resurrected one we call Jesus the Christ.

Title: “Fire from the Tomb”

Text: Acts 2.1-21

Theme: Pentecost as Fulfillment of Easter

Topic: Easter Resurrects the Christ, Pentecost ushers the Church into the Power of Resurrection Proclamation

                We have been busy following the journey of Christ this year, following the calendar that marks events in the life of Jesus and dares us to participate in those events.  It has been a journey that is now about to both end, and begin.  This day is marked by colors of red, faint sounds of whirlwinds and descriptions of fiery tongues that descend upon those who are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.   The journey of Jesus the Christ has brought us to this peculiarly strange place this Sunday known as Pentecost.  It has taken us a while to get here.

We started in that season of Great expectation, a season of awaiting the coming Messiah and his birth.  It was a season in which we anticipated not only the birth of Christ, but also the return of the living Christ again with great heavenly choruses’ to announce his entrance on the white horse, just as they announced his birth in Bethlehem.  It was the season of Advent.

From advent, we moved to Christmas…a 12 day period that began with Christmas day.  This is a 2 week long season in which we concentrate on the arrival of the Christ.  This season is then closely followed by what we call Epiphany.  The Season of Epiphany is that time when we cease simply knowing that Christ has been born amongst us, and we actually realize who he is and we trek to see him, offering gifts of adoration and praise just as the Wise-men demonstrate to us what it looks like to be those who have had the ultimate “aha” moment.

After these seasons of expectation, rejoicing and realization…we enter into a place that begins on Ash Wednesday…we journeyed with Christ into the desert during a time we call Lent.  During lent we wandered the desert with Christ, we faced our own mortality, we became aware of the ministry of Jesus that at times perhaps made him long for those lonely desert moments in Luke 4 over the trials and obstinacy of people who did not believe his message.  When Jesus left the desert he went and preached his first sermon in his hometown…and if you will remember, it was not warmly received.  We have followed Christ through those Lenten places that led him to that most precarious of all weeks in his life…the Week we now call Holy week.

We followed Jesus down the Hill of Mt Olives from the Garden of Gethsemane and ushered him into the city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover feast.  We went with him to the temple, we heard him exchange with beggars, we were there when he broke bread and gave us wine…and our hearts were broken and confused when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified during this week.  The events that we now call Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were events we wished hadn’t occurred, yet we find ourselves on this journey with Christ so we walk where he walks, even if we learn things about ourselves along the journey that we don’t particularly like.

But then, the journey takes us unexpectedly to a place known as Easter…Easter morning we arise still grieving the death of Jesus only to be awakened by women screaming at the top of their lungs that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that Christ is not there, that something strange has happened.  We stand shocked, worried, strangely happy…as we then entered Eastertide.  Eastertide was a 49 day period in which we focused on the reality of the Risen Christ, what that risenness is, what it looks likes, what it means…and we were there with Jesus when he appeared to us in the Gospel of John, when he made us breakfast on the seashore, when he appeared to the 500 and when he came and walked amongst us as we were leaving Jerusalem talking amongst ourselves about the strange things that have overtaken the city…the event of Easter has changed everything…but the journey is not over just yet.

We then remembered Jesus as he had a final farewell moment with his disciples.  We were there when we walked with us after his resurrection, longing for the continual presence of the resurrected Jesus…yet he was giving us his final last words.  He spoke to us, then he Ascended from our midst…he left us…standing there as we gazed intently into the sky.  But what might Christ have meant in Acts chapter 1 when he said, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem…and to the remotest part of the earth.”  This journey is not over…

The story of Jesus has not yet finished and we have not yet fully received what Jesus told us we will receive.  As we were walking along the road with him conversing on way to a place called Emmaus, Jesus who we now call the Christ because of his resurrection, gave us a hint of this day we would soon experience.  He was leading us to the place known as Pentecost with these words,

“Thus it is written  that he Messiah should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses to these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24.45-49)

But this is something we should have been expecting along this journey, for much earlier than these words of the resurrected Jesus, Luke tells us of the words of John the Baptist in Luke chapter 3, “As for me, I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is mightier than I and I am not even fit to untie his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Back in Luke chapter 3 the prophetic words of John the Baptist didnt’t make much sense…but now, as we are further along on this journey with Christ Luke is bringing his Gospel message full circle.  What Luke began in his Gospel he is bringing to completion in his telling of this story in Acts chapter 2…this story we call Pentecost…the place that the journey of Jesus has now brought us to.

But what is Pentecost?  Why has the journey brought us here and where do we go from here?  If we follow the life of Jesus this event marks its end.  After today, we enter to a place that we call Ordinary time.  It is a time where nothing special happens in the life of Christ: no hark the herald angels sings, no wisemen, no miracles, no resurrection, and no more Pentecost’s…what does this mean for us that our journey has ended here, today, in this way, with this story…yet this ending is also a new beginning of sorts.

If we follow the text closely and if we pay attention to what Luke is doing in his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, 2 works that are separated in our bibles but were composed wholes by Luke originally, we find that despite the fact that we celebrate the big three events in the life of Jesus separately.  Despite the fact that we celebrate Easter, then Ascension, then Pentecost…and we do so with a 50 day period in between them…despite all this Pentecost and the falling of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is not a singular event.  These are not a series of events that are to be understood separately…rather they are all three events that function together in order proclaim one singular message and that is the Resurrection of Jesus.  The Resurrection is the catalyst that gives birth to the Ascension and Events of Pentecost.  It is a singular event marked by three distinct moments in the life of Jesus.  What this means is that to try to understand Pentecost apart from Easter is misleading and to understand Easter without an empowering Spirit would be an empty proclamation.  But this needs to be understood because often we separate these events to such a degree that days like Pentecost become removed from their Easter context and Pentecost becomes a time about my experience with God rather than my experience for God.  In other words, Pentecost is not an event that happens so that the disciples can have a great personal spiritual experience.  Are you listening?  If we pay attention to Luke and his Gospel and his Book of Acts, the event of the Pentecostal empowering of the disciples is not about their own personal spirituality, conscience or assurance that they are right with God.   It is, however,  part of the journey that makes Easter proclamation possible.

I know this is how this event is taught and preached…we are encouraged to have a Pentecostal experience, to speak in tongues, to be ecstatic and that this is what defines the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Some of us may even remember with fondness that Nazarenes were often referred to as “noise-a-renes” since our tradition has been so influenced by Pentecostal fervor and forms of worship.  This chapter is used by all manner of folks to describe the type of experience we ought to have with God…all the while this event only happens here and nowhere else…it doesn’t even happen exactly like this again in the Book of Acts or in Paul…or any other book that might be in the Bible.

Our tradition has unfortunately linked this event to something we like to call sanctification.  We have taken Acts 2 as a paradigm or a model for what it means to be sanctified by God, set apart for his purpose and granted the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit…only us evangelical Baptist and Nazarene types like to leave out the speaking in tongues part that is strangely described as tongues of fire floating upon the disciples and filling up their very beings.  All the while, this passage says nothing of sanctification…the language that we find in other places of the NT to talk about sanctification is not in this passage even though we like to imagine that it is.   Not only does this passage not say anything about sanctification but it also says nothing about our personal spirituality as the goal of this event…the event that is described for many of us through the great hymn, “How the Fire Fell.”

Traditionally, all of these events: Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, were are all closely celebrated together because they are all movements of one unified narrative, one unified story that is not complete one without the other.  By separating them on the calendar, which is understandable since we can’t celebrate everything the same day or the same week, we have unfortunately lost what Luke is doing with the this text and what Acts is doing by positioning this story in Chapter 2.  Pentecost is not about giving us a new sort of experience with God and it’s not even about just empowering us in our own personal spiritual lives.  Pentecost is about Easter because Pentecostal power happens in order for Easter proclamation to take place.  Pentecost does not offer us a model of Christian experience that should be prayed for and replicated by others…if offers us the story of why the Spirit came, how it came and what it came for!  Pentecost came to fulfill the words of Jesus, “It is written that Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations…YOU ARE MY WITNESSES.”  We are witnesses of what??  We are resurrection witnesses!  Pentecost happens and the spirit falls upon those that are still left under the shadow of the clouds of the Ascension so that those that saw these things, those that have been witnesses will be able to proclaim the resurrection!

Pentecost is exists so that Resurrection proclamation can occur!  In the Gospels, we do not see mass spreading of the stories of Jesus after his resurrection.  The community of faith keeps this reality to itself.  It sounds crazy, it can’t be, its impossible, the Jewish and Roman authorities are already suspect of those that used to follow this dead carpenter from Nazareth.  The resurrection gospel of Jesus Christ that now he has been raised and so too will your dead body be raised from its dead state and the wages of sin that Kill us all have now been broken is not being shared after the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels!  Why?  Because they do not have the power, the unction, or the witnessing ability to do so.  They are stuck in fear, amazement, thankfulness, but lost about what to do now that the proof that Jesus is not dead has just ascended into the clouds.  Now who’s going to believe them?

Pentecost is the event that sets this faith in motion and empowers the disciples to take the Gospel to places it would have otherwise not reached.  Pentecost is an extension of Easter in that it is the event that enables the Easter proclamation to go forth into creation.  Its not about a new experience for me or you or the disciples, its about empowering our ability to proclaim what we have already experiencing by rushing into the tomb and finding it hollow and empty…the body of Jesus the Christ no longer there.  That’s why tongues of fire fall on us…so that we can proclaim nonsense with boldness!

If Pentecost is the power of God to proclaim the events of Easter to creation, then Pentecost is also marks the end of the world, the end times, the last days.  I know this is not a popular conception of what the last days is all about but if Pentecost is about proclaiming the resurrection of Christ…then it is about proclaiming this resurrection because the ends times is upon us..and there is nothing more ends times and eerie than the resurrection of Jesus.   That’s not normal and we need to quit making it normal.

Jesus came proclaiming that the KOG was about to break upon creation.  He came, along with John the Baptist, forgiving sins and telling people that his work was an extension of Gods signs that the end of the time and the renewal of creation were imminent.  Then, in a shocking turn of events Jesus is crucified and killed…yet something apocalyptic happens…Jesus is raised!  This was a common Jewish conception of the time that the last days would be marked by the resurrection of the dead and the church dared to proclaim that the last days had finally begun to occur in the very resurrection of Jesus, or what the Apostle Paul liked to proclaim as the “first fruits of the dead…” Jesus’ body being the first harvest of the pending collection of bodies that will be renewed…along with creation by God.  SO by virtue of Pentecostal tongues of fire falling on the disciples so that they might be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost must then be interpreted by us as something that occurred in the last days…and so long as we continue to have faith in Jesus Christ we must believe and proclaim that we are living as an extension of those last days that began with the events of Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.

But our text goes further to argue that the message of Jesus is a message for the last days…the last days being those that exist from the Ascension of Jesus until his pending return…After the tongues of fire fall on the disciples and a scene that is reminiscent of a theophany in the Old Testament: A scene characterized by wind, noise and fire…the kinds of elements that God likes to use when his Spirit shows up on the scence…we see that Peter even changes the text of the Prophet Joel to interpret this event as an end times event.   That’s right, Peter in his sermon doesn’t just quote Joel, he changes the text to interpret this event as the event that Joel was talking about…so let’s see interesting twist.

The crowd hears the commotion of the men who have been baptized by fire as John the Baptist warned and as Jesus instructed them to wait for.  The disciples have obviously come out of the room or the place in which they were waiting and they are proclaiming this resurrection reality of Jesus to Jews from all the known nations.  Typical of folks who don’t understand those filled with the Holy Spirit, and also typical of the way many Christians act, the crowd thinks that these men are drunk…even though it is only 9am.  In a shocking turn of events, Peter gets up and proclaims the Prophet Joel to explain to the crowd what is occurring.  Peter declares in Pentecostal power,

“This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, that I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind.  And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions and you old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women I will in those days pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.  And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath, blood and fire and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord and everyone that calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Interestingly, Luke tells us that Peter has changed Joel in order to interpret these events as applicable to Jesus…this outpouring of God’s Spirit for Easter Proclamation is a mark of these last days…which means that the new creation has in some way begun in the fact that Jesus Body was made new and resurrected…the order of nature has been reversed and creation has begun to see newness and revival from the clutches of death!  In Joel, the passage does not start out “In the last days, it starts out… “And it will come about after this…”

What is the “after this” in Joel?  Well, if you go and read Joel 2 it’s a lot of destruction and judgment…only after all that will the last days enter…yet in Acts we see Luke interpreting Joel differently and the events of the Resurrection and Pentecostal proclamation are not something that are preceded or followed by destruction.  In fact, if you read Luke-Acts the opposite is the case…what lies ahead is not dreadful news of destruction but the good-news of forgiveness and repentance because Jesus has brought the end of time into our present through his resurrection and thereby extended forgiveness in which we too may also participate in this new creation!  (repeat) Now this is good news!  This is Gospel!  As one writer aptly stated it,

“In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it.  The surprise of Pentecost is that the eschatological last days do not bring destruction , but rather bring mission and redemption for the world!”

In Pentecost Jesus is coming good on his promise to empower them with speech that will allow them to be his witnesses and that when this event occurs it will simply be an extension of the last days that was already begun when God decided to resurrect Jesus from the place from which no one has ever returned before or since.  It is only the paranormal strange event of resurrection and the powerful falling of the Holy Spirit on silent disciples that can galvanize such bold and ridiculous proclamation to the world.  It is only by this power that Peter could get up and proclaim as he does to the crowd in Acts 2 this powerful prophetic utterance of Joel…because the last time we heard Peter speak in Luke-Acts he was busy denying Jesus to a servant girl!  Yes, I know Peter is the one that took the initiative to choose another disciple in Acts 1, but let’s not think for a minute that his urging of this is not to distract from his own failings of denying Jesus.  Only in comparison to Judas does Peter look good, and it is only the power of the Pentecostal spirit that can empower such a man to even think of proclaiming something he so easily dismissed just a few chapters back.

If Peter can experience Pentecost and tongues of fire that force him to speak that which he otherwise couldn’t  then I have goodnews for all of us!  Easter is not over…Easter is living!  Christ is risen and on this day we celebrate when the Spirit came to give us the ability to witness to the Christ event that has initiated those things we call the last days…that the last days actually take place in what most of us call ordinary time, ordinary life, life as usual!

So go and be witnesses!…leave this place with the same power of those tongues of fire…If Peter’s prophetic imagination can be reawakened…so can all of our denying of Jesus on this day be turned into a powerful witness of resurrection.  At Easter Jesus was resurrected from his tomb.  On Pentecost, we are , the Church is, resurrected from our/its tomb(s) with the power of Christ!

Go and witness to this power!   May the Spirit of Pentecostal Resurrection be with you all.  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”