Category: Sermons

Sermon: God Present With Us

I have posted the podcast of this sermon I preached last Sunday from Psalm 23, titled “God Present With Us.” If you prefer to read it, here’s the manuscript. The Twenty-third Psalm continues to be a rich source of inspiration and guidance, as fresh as it was when King David penned its words.

God Present With Us

Psalm 23 KJV

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

My Brief Career as a Shepherd

I’ve had three experiences in my lifetime of trying to herd animals from one place to another. The first was when I was about 10 years old and staying with my mother’s relatives in south Georgia. My grandfather owned a lot of land in south Georgia, and he did a variety of different things. He owned stands of pine trees from which he harvested the sap for turpentine. He had hogs and chickens, and a family garden, but the main thing he did was raise cattle. And he raised cattle that won several prizes. I remember seeing photographs of his prize-winning bulls on the wall in his office at the farm.

One afternoon on my visit, my cousin and I were supposed to go open the gate for the cows to move from one part of the pasture to another part. But, to do so they had to cross the sandy road that ran through his farm. That road is paved today, but when I was 10 it was unpaved sand and would develop what looked and felt like “washboard” type ruts. But despite the washboard effect, the folks who traveled on that road drove fast. I mean really fast!

You can see where this is going, can’t you? So, my cousin, Terry, and I open the gate, and the cows are doing what cows do — walking slowly in single file from the pasture, across the road, to the other pasture. All this is going pretty well, until we hear the rumble of a car tearing down the sandy road. So, we did what all 10 year old boys do — we panicked and started flapping our arms and shouting at the cows and running behind them to move them off the road.

Cows, being the skittish creatures they are, responded to two wild-eyed 10 year old boys flapping their arms and shouting by also panicking. Now when cows panic, they break ranks and run every which way. And, that’s exactly what they did. Mostly they ran into the woods. So now we had a big problem. How do you get cows to come out of the woods into which they have just fled?

After calling the cows, which we had no idea how to do, and the cows had no idea what we were doing, we gave up. Slowly we made our way to the house to tell my uncle that the cows were in the woods. I had visions of him rounding up all the farm hands, cranking up all the tractors, and putting a full-scale cow rescue plan into effect.

So, sheepishly we explained what happened. My uncle just looked at us like we were the most worthless two city boys he had ever seen. Which we were. On the farm at least. Then he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait for the cows to come back home.” Who knew cows would come back of their own accord? And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.

My other two experiences of herding involved goats and chickens, and those went a little better, although I am glad that there is no video of my doing either one of those chores.

A Beautiful Poem from an Amazing Life

All of that brings us to our text for today, the Twenty-third Psalm. Psalm 23 undoubtedly is the most familiar and most beloved psalm among all 150 psalms. That’s why I chose the King James’ Version today. We love this psalm because it is beautiful poetry in its own right. But, it is also a reassuring psalm, which is why it is often read at funerals.

This wonderful work is attributed to King David. Of course you remember that David himself had been a shepherd boy. Now a grown man, and responsible for the united nations of both Israel and Judah, David has faced a lot of difficulty throughout his life.

We don’t know at what point in David’s life this psalm was written. It might have been when David had been anointed king while the increasingly unstable Saul was still king. Saul had a love-hate relationship with David. Saul’s jealousy of David, and Saul’s declining mental state set the stage for Saul to attempt to kill David on more than one occasion.

But, after Saul passes off the scene, David continues to have his own set of problems. His adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah, mark the lowest point in David’s life. But God brings David through this valley and back into faithful relationship with God.

Maybe David writes this poem when his own son Absalom is trying to overthrow him. David’s forces are victorious in defeating Absalom’s forces, but Absalom is killed in the battle, and David mourns for this lost son.

We don’t know when David wrote this psalm, but I think it was later in his life. I believe that David is reflecting on his life, and the extraordinary events that brought him from being a shepherd boy, to being the greatest king the Jewish people had ever, or would ever, know.

God as the Shepherd-King

David begins this poem simply and directly:

“The Lord is my shepherd….”

The “Lord” is the name for God that Jews in the Old Testament period used instead of the unspeakable name of God, YHWH. “Lord” is also an acknowledgement of one who is superior and in charge, one to whom everyone one else bows down. Also, in the ancient world, kings were often also referred to as “shepherd” of their people because the king’s responsibility was to protect and provide for his subjects. All of those ideas are present in David’s simple, yet profound confession, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

I grew up in church, and the only translation available to us then was the King James’ Version. So, when I memorized scripture, I memorized the King James’ Version of whatever passage we were working on. That was true of this psalm as well. But, sometimes when you’re a kid, you get things mixed up. So, when I memorized, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” I thought that meant that David didn’t want God to be his shepherd. Which I thought was puzzling, but there it was. I’m not sure at what point that got cleared up for me, but I eventually understood that David meant, “I don’t want (lack) for anything.”

The idea that with God as his shepherd David had all he needed is one of the central themes of this psalm. But, David doesn’t leave that idea without explanation.

“He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

With these examples, David is telling us what exactly God does for him. The good shepherd finds good food, calm water, and safe paths for his sheep. That’s everything a sheep needs — food, water, and safety. In addition, the shepherd revives the tired sheep, perhaps through the comforting provision of his presence.

God’s Presence and Provision

However, David isn’t finished describing this good shepherd yet. David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

David acknowledges that despite the shepherd’s provision of food, water, and safety, there are times of difficulty and danger — “the valley of the shadow of death.” In this image, one can see the herd as it makes its way through a narrow canyon with the valley walls looming on either side. Predators, both animal and human, lurked in the caves and behind rocks in that kind of terrain. Sheep were easy prey and David knew well that the shepherd had to protect his sheep. David had told King Saul that when a lion or bear tried to take one of his sheep, David had fought the lion or bear and killed it. David knew the dangers present in the valley of the shadow of death.

The comforting presence of the shepherd’s rod and staff give reassurance to the sheep. The rod was used to guide the sheep; and, the staff, with its crooked head, was used to rescue sheep in difficulty. David knew that God both guided and rescued his people because David had been on the receiving end of God’s direction and compassion himself.

In verse 5, the scene shifts from the outdoor pasture setting to a banquet scene. David says, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Here God has prepared a banquet, and it is an extravagant and luxurious event. A properly set table, and the anointing of the guests’ heads with oil, along with the abundance of food and drink were all hallmarks of an elaborate feast — a feast fit for a king.

The fact that this extravagant, luxurious feast takes place when David is surrounded by his enemies is further assurance of God’s protection and provision. This feast is the opposite of what a king surrounded by enemies would normally do. The fact that God sets this feast for David reminds David that God not only provides more than he needs, but that God protects David as well.

The Surprising Finish

With all this talk of enemies, the valley of the shadow of death, and evil, David obviously thinks someone is out to get him. But, here the psalm finishes with a wonderful surprise.

While David thought that malevolent forces were out to kill him, he discovers God’s goodness and mercy is really pursuing him. Enemies may be following David, but so is God. And God is pursuing David with more goodness and mercy than David can ever imagine. Have you ever bought something in a store, and then walked out leaving your purchase behind, only to hear behind you the clerk running to catch up to you? That’s the idea here, I think. God pursues us with goodness and mercy. All we have to do is stop and turn around to receive it.

But, that’s not all. Not only is God pursuing us with goodness and mercy, there’s a new place for us to live, too. Remember, this is the King David who built himself a fine palace. A really nice palace apparently. For some time, scholars had speculated that David might have been more legend than fact. The thinking was that David was really a minor warlord, and Jerusalem a sleepy village when he was king.

However, in 2006, Eliat Mazar, an Israeli archaeologist, published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review with the title, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” We don’t have time for a full explanation, but the gist of it is that Mazar expanded on the work of previous archaeologists, and using the Bible as a source, unearthed a massive building site situated exactly where the Bible locates the palace of King David.

So, my point is that David had a huge, and probably luxurious palace in which to live. But, where does David want to live forever? Not in his palace, but in the “house of the Lord.” Remember, David built his palace before the permanent Temple gets built by his son Solomon. So, David is saying “I had rather live in the Tent of the Lord than in my own palace.” Why? Because God was thought to be present in the Tabernacle.

But Wait There’s More

Have you seen those TV ads which offer to sell you a set of Ginsu knives for the low, low price of whatever? Just as you are about to decide you don’t need any Ginsu knives, the narrator excitedly tells you, “But wait, there’s more!”

And that’s what happens with our story of the Twenty-third Psalm. Because there is more. In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

Then, he continues in verse 14 —

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Of course, Jesus knew the story of David and he knew the Twenty-third Psalm. And it is no accident or coincidence that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.

For us this means that the same God who was present to protect and provide for King David, is present with us today. And just like David, the Good Shepherd is present in the valley and on the mountain top; in the midst of danger and in times of joy.

The story of the Bible is God present with God’s people. The Twenty-third Psalm reminds us that our Shepherd-King, Jesus, protects, provides, and pursues us with his goodness and mercy, and we will indeed dwell in his presence forever. Amen.

 

Two sermons for this Sunday

 

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“The Disciples on the Road to Emmaus” -Pupil of Rembrandt, corrected by Rembrandt. Courtesy PubHist.com. 

This Sunday’s Gospel reading brings us to Luke 24:13-35. It’s the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus on resurrection Sunday evening. The road to Emmaus account rates as one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. I’m working on my sermon for this coming Sunday, April 30, 2017. It’s titled, “When Jesus Opens Our Blind Eyes.” I’ll post it when I’m done.

But, in the meantime, if you need another sermon about the Road to Emmaus, here’s one I wrote six years ago titled, “When the Bread was Broken.” Same story, but a slightly different approach than what I’m planning for this Sunday. What a wonderful story to share with our congregations this Sunday, or anytime!

Podcast: The Resurrection Changes Everything

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“Icon courtesy of http://www.eikonografos.com used with permission”

Easter Sunday 2017 was a glorious day at Chatham Baptist Church. We enjoyed wonderful music, great attendance with many friends and family present, and the celebration of communion together. Here’s the sermon I preached from John 20:1-18, titled, “The Resurrection Changes Everything:”

Podcast: The One Thing We Can Know

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Last week for the third Sunday of Lent, I preached on the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel the 9th chapter. It’s an interesting story of bad theology, judgmental assumptions and an inexplicable miracle. And, it has an important lesson for us today. Here’s the podcast from that message:

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:

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Taking the Light Down from the Mountain

Last Sunday I preached on the Transfiguration of Jesus. But the lectionary reading this year couples the story of the mountaintop Transfiguration of Jesus with the healing of a young boy down in the valley. The common interpretive wisdom on this passage (Luke 9:28-42) is that you have to leave the spiritual high of the mountain to go down to the valley where the real work of ministry is done. But, I think these two stories say something different. Could it be that the Light of Transfiguration on the mountaintop changes everything in the valley, too? Here’s the podcast. Let me know what you think.

Podcast: Trusting God and Giving All

Jan Luyken's The Widow's Mite, wikimedia commons.
Jan Luyken’s The Widow’s Mite, wikimedia commons.

Last Sunday, November 8, 2015, I preached from Mark 12:38-44 about the widow who gave everything she had. Here’s the audio of that message titled, Trusting God and Giving All.

Podcast: The Problem of Power, Privilege and Prestige

Here’s the audio of the sermon I preached from Mark 10:35-45 last Sunday. The disciple brothers, James and John, boldly ask Jesus if he will grant them the privilege to sit on his right and left hand when he comes into his glory. Jesus addresses their ambition and desire for power, privilege, and prestige. Our 21st century problem is identical to their 1st century problem. Here’s my take on Jesus’ reply:

Sermon: Who Can Be Saved?

My sermon for October 11, 2015, from the Gospel reading. This is a familiar story of a very rich young man who finds out that he has to turn from his life of privilege to following Jesus if he wants to experience the kingdom of God.

Who Can Be Saved?

Mark 10:17-31 NIV

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

An Important Question

We know this story — the story about the “rich, young ruler” — because we have heard it since we were  children. It’s the story about a young man who seemed to have it all, and yet this young man also had wisdom beyond his years.

So despite his wealth and social standing, which were without dispute, this young man comes to Jesus and asks a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That is a very important question. And we have to applaud this rich, young, and powerful man for being concerned with spiritual things, and not just his material wealth and social standing. So far, so good.

But, Jesus treats him rather badly. First, Jesus upbraids the young man for his courteous address. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” So much for courtesy. Can you imagine how this rich and powerful young man must have felt to be corrected like that publicly by this itinerant teacher named Jesus?

But whatever his feelings, Jesus doesn’t give him the chance to start over. Rather, Jesus then begins to answer his question. “You know the commandments,” Jesus replies. And Jesus, just to make sure the young man does know them, begins to name them: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

Okay, right here we need to stop and really listen to what Jesus has just said. Jesus points the young man to the commandments, but curiously when Jesus begins to name the commandments that are necessary to have eternal life, he starts halfway down the list. Jesus totally skips the commandments that have to do with God: Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath.

Instead, Jesus lists the commandments that have to do with our relationship with our fellow human beings: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud (which actually should be don’t covet, but that’s a discussion for another time), and honor you father and mother. So, Jesus covers all 6 of the Ten Commandments related to how we deal with others, but none of them about how we deal with God. Isn’t that curious?

Maybe Jesus knows that this young man is scrupulous, as are all Pharisees if he is one, about attending to his own personal, spiritual life. He prays, he goes to Temple, he offers sacrifices, he dares not utter the four letter, unpronounceable name of God, he certainly doesn’t make or worship idols or attempt to render God’s image in physical terms. His personal, spiritual life may be so in order that it bears no perfecting. I doubt it, but there is a reason Jesus says what he says.

I think Jesus is probing to see what the young man’s self-assessment is going to be? So, he lists the six things that govern how we deal with each other. Of course, Jesus redefines the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”

Using this formula, Jesus reinterprets the commands about murder, adultery, truth-telling, and love for enemies. Maybe Jesus wants the rich young ruler to do a bit of self-examination on the spot.

Whatever the test is, the rich young man fails. He reveals his own blindness to his spiritual condition by saying, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Wow. Sounds pretty arrogant now, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus. For with his self-justifying statement, the rich young man just told Jesus everything he needed to know. This man is unaware of his faults, his failings, his weaknesses, his shortcomings, and thinks he has already done all he needs to do.

So, maybe the rich young ruler’s question about “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was really a veiled, passive-aggressive attempt to get Jesus to compliment him. I imagine he had already set the scene in his head: He asks Jesus a question. Jesus replies with what he needs to do. He assures Jesus he’s already done it. Jesus pats him on the back and tells him, Well then, you’re just fine!

Only, that is not what happens because then Jesus drops a bombshell on him. “One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.”

And with those words, the young man’s world comes crashing down. All his piety, all his ritual, all his social standing, all his own self-perception, all of it was wrong! Jesus kicks the props out from under his pseudo-spirituality.

Of course, this sounds harsh to us, too. But, what Jesus was addressing was the long-standing idea that if you were rich, that in itself was a de facto indication of God’s blessing.

Which is why Jesus’ disciples are astounded that Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. “If the rich can’t get in,” the disciples are thinking,”then, who can be saved?” If there’s no hope for the rich — the people God is obviously blessing — then there’s no hope for anybody!

Another Wrong Answer

Jesus replies to the disciples’ concern about who can be saved (if a rich man can’t), with a strange answer — “With man this is impossible, but now with God; all things are possible with God.”

Peter, ever the one to pretend he gets it first, thinks he gets it. And, characteristically he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Of course, Peter skips over the part about selling everything they had and giving it to the poor, but he wants to get Jesus’ approval, so he gives his version. And, he and Andrew, and James and John, and all the Twelve had left their families (although they still saw them frequently), had left their business of fishing (although they would return to it from time to time), and had left their homes (although they still own them). But, of course, Peter hopes Jesus overlooks the technical details and praises him for his sacrifice.

But, Peter doesn’t get the reply he wants, any more than the rich young ruler got the reply he sought. Jesus says,

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

So, the disciples who have given up some things, will receive those things back 100-times in this present age — brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields!

Wow. So, even if you give up something, you get much more in return. In this life. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, this is real stuff here and now.

Oh, with one addition — persecutions! Ouch and wow. Couldn’t Jesus have left that out?

Oh, and in the age to come, eternal life. Finally, we get to the answer to the question the rich young ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

So, Peter’s attempt to justify himself backfires.

Who Can Be Saved?

All of this brings us back to the rich young ruler’s question and the question of the disciples — Who can be saved?

Here’s the answer: many who are first (here and now, in religious practice, in social standing, in Forbes’ list of billionaires), will be last; and, many who are last (in wealth, in social standing, in outward religious practice) will be first.

This first-will-be-last, last-will-be-first stuff has been called “the upside-down kingdom.”

So, let’s answer the question, Who can be saved?

When I was a kid, my mother read to me the story of the Little Red Hen. The Little Red Hen. Remember that story? It goes like this: The little red hen planted some grains of wheat. When the wheat germinated and grew, it came time for harvest.

“Who will help me harvest the wheat?” said the Little Red Hen. “I won’t” said the dog. “I won’t” said the pig. “I won’t” said the cow.

“Very well,” said the Little Red Hen, “I’ll do it myself.”

And, the story goes on like that for the grinding, and then the baking. Nobody wanted to help the Little Red Hen.

But when the bread was baked, the Little Red Hen asked, “Who will help me eat this loaf of bread?” Suddenly, the dog, the pig, and the cow had different answers. “I will,” said the dog. “I will,” said the pig. “I will,” said the cow.

But the Little Red Hen had a surprise. “No one wanted to help me plant the seed, or harvest the grain, or grind the flour, or bake the bread. So, now you don’t get to help me eat the bread.” And the Little Red Hen ate the whole loaf all by herself.

Now, this is a Russian folktale, which might explain the harshness of the Little Red Hen, but here’s the point:

Jesus wanted the rich young ruler and his disciples to know that 1) whatever you give up to get to God is nothing compared to God; and, 2) whatever stands in your way of wanting to get to God will keep you from God.

Or think of it like this: If eternal life is existence in the presence of God, maybe we ought to get ready for it now. So, if we value (and cling to) anything other than the presence of God, then we’ll miss it.

No matter how much we do other stuff, no matter how much we think of ourselves, no matter what our standing in life, no matter what others think of us — none of that matters.

What matters is how much we want to know God. And our willingness to give up everything that keeps us from God.

What are those things? Well, for the rich young ruler, it was money, status, power, and prestige. We still struggle with those things today.

For the disciples, it was their own self-righteous because they thought, “We’re not like the rich young ruler because we gave up everything to follow Jesus” — except their egos, and their pride, and their arrogance.

Conversion Means Turning From One Thing and Turning To Something Else

So, again, who can be saved?

Well, the answer lies in the idea of conversion, which is at the heart of our Christian faith.

Jesus’ call to any who would be disciples was always a call to leave one way of life and turn to another way, the kingdom way. The Greek word is “metanoia” which means to “change one’s mind.” For those interested in knowing God, we have to change our mind about ourselves, our lives, the lifestyle we are participating in — we have to decide to leave all of that and turn to Jesus.

The rich young ruler’s problem was that he just wanted to add something to what he was already doing. His opinion of himself and of his own life indicated that he thought he was self-sufficient spiritually. It wasn’t about the money. It was about his unwillingness to give up one thing for something even better.

But, that’s too hard, you might object. It is hard, and that’s the point. What God calls us to is not the easy way of no sacrifice.

God called Abraham to turn from his homeland and the possibility of family, but God promised him so many descendants he wouldn’t be able to count them.

God called Moses to give up a life of obscurity in the back country to lead his people out of bondage into freedom, and promised to be with him.

God called David to be king over Israel, leaving the pastoral life of the shepherd which he obviously cherished.

Whatever we leave, give up, abandon, turn our backs on, in order to follow Jesus is nothing in return for what we gain — with persecution!

Don’t we wish that Jesus had just said, “You’ll get 100-times more in this life and in the life to come.” And that he had stopped there, without throwing the idea of persecution into the mix?

Why does persecution go with this life of turning from our old life and turning to Jesus? Because then we’re not like other people. We live a different life for different reasons devoted to a different purpose than the world around us.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of the sick chicken that gets pecked to death by the flock because it’s different.

Who Can Be Saved?

Back to our original question: Who can be saved? Let me tell you first who can’t be saved.

Those who depend on themselves without recognizing their own shortcomings can’t be saved.

Those who do not want to be transformed, can’t be saved.

Those who believe their life is god enough for them, can’t be saved.

Who can be saved?

Those who turn from self-sufficiency to God.

Those who recognize that God is God, and we are not.

Those who understand that the Creator of the universe has a better plan than ours.

Those who know that they need to change, to be changed, in order to know God.

The Bible tells us that Jesus loved the rich young ruler. He loved him for his piety, his interest in the kingdom of God, his desire to live a righteous life. But the rich young ruler himself went away sad because he knew, too, that simply adding something to his life was not the way to enter the kingdom of God.

Who can be saved? All who turn from life without God, to life in the kingdom of God.