Tag: christ

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.

The Ethics of Outreach

‘No Muslim Parking’ Sign Angers US MuslimsI have read lots of articles on church outreach in my thirty years of ministry. I’ve even written a few myself. However, I have never read an article on the ethics of outreach. Maybe it’s time for a look at the ethics of outreach. Here’s why.

In Hibbing, Minnesota, according to the KSMP-TV, the local Fox affiliate, a Muslim woman who had registered for a September 28 conference was asked to leave when she showed up for the meeting wearing a hijab. Previously the women’s conference advertising had stated, “All women are invited,” according to the station.

Ironically, the event organizers were People of the Book Ministries, a Christian outreach ministry to Muslims. Cynthia Khan, presenter for the conference, said that videos and material “offensive” to Muslims would be distributed. For that reason Khan asked that Rania Elsweisy, the hijab-wearing Muslim woman, be escorted from the conference.

As a result of Ms. Elsweisy’s ejection, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a discrimination lawsuit against People of the Book Ministries.

“The only reason I was kicked out of the event was because of my religion, Islam,” said Elsweisy. “It is truly hurtful to be treated like you are lesser than somebody or that you don’t qualify to be talked to and treated equally as others,” according to the station’s website.

While the public discrimination suit will be worked out in civil courts, there is something ironic about a Christian ministry ejecting a member of the very group they claim to be trying to reach.

While I do not question the intentions of People of the Book, I do take issue with the ethics, or lack of ethics, involved here. Add to this incident a Texas megachurch that offered cars, flat-screen TVs, bikes, and other prizes for attending church on Easter, and my conclusion is that Christians do have an ethical problem with some forms of outreach.

All of this brings up the question, “Is there an ethical standard for Christian outreach programs and ministries?” Let me suggest five ethical standards that Christian outreach programs should adhere to:

1. Outreach must be open and transparent to all, including those being reached. In the Minnesota example, presenters knew that their material was offensive to Muslims, and probably for self-evident reasons, did not want Muslims present. However, Christians must ask themselves if our attitudes, strategies, and materials aimed toward those we are trying to reach are hostile, demeaning, or degrading, should we use them at all. Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbied to have the label “heathen” dropped when referring to the Chinese people she ministered to.

2. Outreach must exhibit a genuine love and respect for individuals and their cultures. Demonizing the “other,” especially in the fraught relationships between the Muslim and Western worlds, may be an effective fundraising technique but is a poor strategy for loving neighbors who may not be like us. Jesus used the “other” — a Samaritan — as example of neighborliness in his parable we call the Good Samaritan. That’s quite a difference from presenting material that is known to be offensive to another culture.

3. Outreach must be grounded in the Deuteronomic command to “love God” and to “love your neighbor.” Jesus taught that these two commandments summarized all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all we need to know and practice as followers of Jesus is love for God and love for others.

4. Outreach ends do not justify unscrupulous means. Evangelism methodologies continue to struggle with the idea that Christians must do “whatever it takes” to reach the world for Christ. However, the means we use to reach the world must be consistent with the message we present to the world. Christians cannot trick, deceive, misrepresent or mislead others into the Kingdom of God. Neither can we buy the attention of non-Christians through games of chance, lucky numbers, or attendance incentives. Jesus fed people, but he fed them after they listened all day, not to get them to listen.

5. Finally, although this is the first ethical principle, outreach must be modeled on the Trinitarian action of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theology of the Triune God must inform our purpose, our practice, and our presence to those who do not know the good news of God. Trinitarian outreach is characterized by love, self-giving, incarnation, sacrifice, humility, patience, winsomeness, and hospitality.

Pastors and church leaders are assailed weekly with the news that church attendance is declining, baptisms are at all-time lows, and young adults are leaving the church in droves. That news, distressing as it may be, cannot become the pretext for desperate and unethical outreach strategies that discredit the Gospel and further damage the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The New Living Dead

night40dvdb

First it was vampires, now zombies. Our appetite for the bizarre and scary seems to know no end. Of course film-wise, it all started in 1968 when George Romero directed the cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Even the Library of Congress has recognized that film as a giant in its genre, and selected it for the National Film Registry.

However the Apostle Paul may have been the first to write seriously about the living dead. In Colossians 3:1-11, Paul reminds the Colossian Christians that they not only “have been raised with Christ” but they have also died to their previous way of life. In other words, first century Christians were the new living dead–alive to Christ, but dead to the world out of which they had been saved.

Paul lists specific behaviors to which the Colossians should have been dead: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed. If those aren’t enough, he adds more like anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language. When we look at that list, our spiritual pride tells us we are not as bad as the Colossians. But before we get too self-righteous, we need to realize that Paul was simply reminding the Colossian Christians that before they came to Christ they acted like everybody else in their society. In Roman culture, sexual mores were lax by Christian standards, and society prized the strong, the rich, and the powerful. The Colossian Christians weren’t worse than we are, like us they had just been doing what everyone else was doing.

For Christians then and now, to be dead to our old life means to stop living like the culture around us lives. To be alive in Christ means to live as Christ enables, with new values, new ethics, and new behaviors.  In this new society driven by the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, there are no ethnic, political, or social divisions — “no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.”

Christians are the new living dead in the 21st century. It doesn’t take long to realize that our Western culture glorifies casual sex, worships at the cult of personality, and values material possessions as trophies of success. As the new living dead, Christians should be like dead people to the culture in which we find ourselves. We might be immersed in it, but we should not be enmeshed in a culture that is at odds with the Kingdom of God.

However, just because Christians are dead to culture doesn’t mean we are not a pervasive presence. Our living essence is salt and light, preserving and illuminating the world that God created and is redeeming.

The next time you watch a zombie flick, just remember: there are some experiences more amazing than horror film accounts of the dead who come back to life. The real living dead are followers of Jesus Christ who have been raised with Christ, but who are dead as mackerels to the culture around them.  Pretty incredible stuff when you think about it.

Continuing to Live in Christ

The challenge for Christians, both new and old, is to continue to follow Christ long after our initial profession of faith in Him. This must be hard because thousands of books have been written about how to faithfully follow Jesus as a disciple.

The apostle Paul gives us a big clue about how we follow Christ in his letter to the first-century church in Colossae. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him…” (Colossians 2:6a NIV).

In other words, Paul says, we follow Jesus in the same way we came to him. The question then is, “How did we receive Christ?” Here’s my take on what it means to continue to live in Christ just like we began with him:

1. Like the Colossians, we don’t trust the popular gods of our culture.

Roman culture in the first century embraced a pantheon of gods headed up by Jupiter and his wife, Juno. A host of lesser deities hung out on Mount Olympus. Romans called first-century Christians atheists because they didn’t believe in these rather fractious divinities. The Christians at Colossae rejected the gods of popular culture, affirming that Jesus Christ was the son of the One True God.

Today our cultural gods are power, money, and technology. Interestingly, like the gods on Olympus, our new gods often hang out together, too. Even though we all use power, money and technology, twenty-first century Christians are challenged not to place ultimate trust in these gods as the solution to our social and spiritual problems. Following Jesus like we received him means we continue to trust in him, and him alone, as the creator, sustainer, and savior of the world.

2. Like the Colossians, our politics is Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

In the Roman empire, citizens were required to affirm their loyalty to the emperor by stating, “Caesar is lord.” Paul radically altered the politics of his day by asserting “Jesus is Lord.”

We have difficulty appreciating what a bold confession “Jesus is Lord” becomes. To replace Caesar, who was believed to be the son of god and ruler of the universe, with a crucified itinerant Jew placed first century Christians outside the social norms of the day. Under emperors like Nero and Domitian, Christians suffered persecution as a radical, subversive sect who refused to acknowledge the emperor cult of their day.

Our political statement as 21st century Christians is still Jesus is Lord. That statement strips us of our primary allegiance to political parties, or even political ideologies as the ultimate guide in our lives. Our political leaders are neither the creators of the universe, nor are they the center around which all things revolve, despite the self-importance of those who live and work in Washington, DC.

3. Like the Colossians, we came to Christ and we continue to live in Christ because our relationship with God is personal.

In the Christian faith, we believe that God loves us, sent his son Jesus to die and rise again for us, and that we continue to know God personally. Unlike the gods on Olympus, who weren’t loving or personal, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus has always related directly and personally to His people.

Baptists, of course, have made a big deal of a personal relationship with God. Our Baptist forebears called this possibility the “priesthood of the believer” or “soul-competency.” Both of those phrases mean that individuals are capable of relating to God, and of receiving Jesus Christ as their Lord. Maintaining an awareness of our personal relationship with Christ models the same way we received Him as our personal Lord and Savior.

4. Finally, we continue to live in Christ because He is present with us.

For the first-century Colossian Christians the decision to follow Christ was a costly one. By rejecting by the popular gods of their culture, they cut themselves off from their families and friends who continued to seek the capricious favor of the gods of Rome. By refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord, and by embracing Jesus as Lord, the Colossian Christians isolated themselves socially, politically, and economically.

However, the Colossian Christians were sustained by the presence of Christ in their midst. Stripped of social and political community, Colossian Christians experienced the presence of God each time they gathered together. The gods of Olympus never pretended to be present daily with their subjects. But the God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the God who delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt, the God who brought Israel back from exile, and the God who sent Jesus was ever-present with the first-century church, too.

Elie Wiesel writes of the presence of God with his people in his book, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

“Here is what the Midrash tells us. When the Holy One, blessed be His name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him “Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?” And the Holy One, blessed be His name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him “Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?” “Know this,” replied the king, “that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone.” So the Holy One, blessed be His name, tells the children of Israel: “Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you.”

Wiesel continues:

“God accompanies his children into exile. This is a central theme of Midrashic and mystical thought in Jewish tradition. Just as the people of Israel‘s solitude mirrors the Lord’s, so the suffering of men finds its extension in that of their Creator. Though imposed by God, the punishment goes beyond those upon whom it falls, encompassing the Judge himself. And it is God who wills it so. The Father may reveal Himself through His wrath; He may even sharpen His severity, but He will never be absent. Present at the Creation, God forms part of it. Let atar panui mineiis the key phrase of the Book of Splendor, the Zohar: No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering…” — Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

Paul reminds us that we follow Christ in the same way in which we came to him. By rejecting the popular gods of culture; by our political confession that Jesus is Lord; by our personal relationship with God through Christ; and, by the presence of God, we continue to live in Christ in the same manner in which we received Him.

Who Do You Trust?

2879575882

The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

Sermon: Creation Care Isn’t All Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows


Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on the first Sunday in Lent for 2012. This reading is from the revised common lectionary, Year B, Genesis 9:8-17. In conjunction with this reading, we are also reading from the epistles, 1 Peter 3:18-22. Creation care deserves our lenten attention as we focus on God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants, and all the creatures of the earth.

Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows, or Maybe Not

Genesis 9:8-17 NIV/84:

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

Lent and Creation Care

Remember Lesley Gore? No, she’s not Al Gore’s daughter, although I am talking about the environment some today.  Leslie Gore was a pop singer in the 1960s whose most famous song was “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To.” Now you remember her I’m sure.

Well, Lesley didn’t stop with “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To.” Nope, she also recorded that rock classic, “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.” (See the YouTube clip at the top of this post.) I borrowed Lesley’s song title for today’s message, but with a caveat. So today we’re talking about “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows Or Maybe Not.” I’ll get to the “maybe not” shortly.

Which brings us back to rainbows, which appear in today’s reading from Genesis. This is the first Sunday in Lent, so why are we reading the story of Noah, the biblical flood, and rainbows? Because Lent is a season of reflection – a time when we consider our own spiritual lives in light of Christ’s coming death on the cross, and victorious resurrection.

Part of our task during Lent is to consider how our lives might be lived more in keeping with God’s intention, which might require some sacrifice on our part. That’s why many Christians, not just Catholics, give up something for Lent. I tried giving up broccoli one year, but since I don’t like broccoli anyway, Debbie told me that I got no spiritual points for that particular sacrifice. Incidentally, I was in good company with the broccoli-thing as George Herbert Walker Bush also had a disdain for broccoli, and thought because he was President of the United States he could do anything he wanted. It seems that America’s broccoli farmers took some offense at President Bush’s disparaging remarks about broccoli. Which just goes to show you that even if you are the President of the United States, someone is going to tell you to eat your broccoli.

But back to Lent. If this is a time of reflection, and if we are examining our lives to see what sacrifices we might make, not for the sake of sacrifice, but to remind us vividly of Christ’s sacrifice, I can’t think of any area in which we have thought less as Christians than in the care of creation.

In 2008, Yale University and George Mason University began a survey of Americans’ attitudes toward the issue of climate change. In that survey, which has been updated 4 times and most recently in 2011, researchers found that Americans were divided into six camps concerning climate change.

Researchers called these the “six Americas” and surprisingly these groups are not grouped by demographics, but each of the “six Americas” is found across demographic groups.

The six Americas include the Alarmed (12%); the Concerned (27%); the Cautious (25%); the Disengaged (10%); the Doubtful (15%); and, the Dismissive (10%). Which means that on the extreme ends of the spectrum 39% of Americans are alarmed or concerned about climate change, while 25% are doubtful or dismissive.

Clearly we need to look at the Bible again to understand how we should care for God’s creation.

The Story of Noah, the Flood, and God’s Covenant Sign

You know the story of Noah which forms the backdrop for our thoughts today. To say that humankind had gone in the wrong direction in Noah’s day is an understatement. The story of humanity’s wickedness and God’s destructive punishment begins in Genesis 6 and continues through Genesis 10. The book of Genesis devotes 5 chapters to this story, which is the turning point in the history of creation. This story is important, true, and we need to understand exactly what is being said when God makes covenant with mankind and places a rainbow in the heavens to confirm that covenant.

The Bible says in Genesis 6:5-8 NIV/84 –

5 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”

Contrast this image of creation with the God’s observation just after God had finished creating the earth, the plants and animals, and humankind in the persons of Adam and Eve:

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” – Genesis 1:31 NIV/84

We’re not sure exactly what happened between Genesis 1 and Genesis 6, because there is very cryptic language about the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” and the Nephilim. Frankly, although there are many opinions about what these descriptions mean, nobody knows exactly what the writer of Genesis meant. But the result is clear, and that is what matters. Humanity had become a wicked, evil lot, and God was tired of the whole mess.

Verse 8 gives us hope, however. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” We will discover much later that Noah and his children are no Sunday School class themselves, but perhaps Noah was the best choice God had. And Noah was obedient to God.

You know this story. God commands Noah to build an ark that is by some estimates 450’ long.  Now that is a pretty good size boat today, but then it was tremendous. God told Noah to build the ark because God was going to flood the earth and wipe out every living thing. Everything, that is, except Noah’s family, and the animals Noah was to bring into the ark so that the earth could be repopulated.

Now, remember the point of this story is theological. The writer is explaining the problem of evil, and God’s first solution to evil on a global scale. I think it’s also important to point out that many cultures have a story of a great flood, which for me gives credibility to the biblical account. But the writer is not a reporter for The Weather Channel, and this is not a meteorological account. This story is about God and creation, and how God deals very early with the problem of evil.

The story comes to a conclusion several months after the rains begin. Noah and his family eventually leave the ark, along with all the animals, and the repopulation of the earth begins.

God’s New Covenant With Creation

So, we’re back to Genesis 9 where we started. In Genesis 9, God gives humanity some responsibility as their part of the covenant. Covenants are always between two parties, and both parties have responsibilities.

Humanity’s responsibilities are to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  And, while humankind was going about that, human beings could eat anything. At creation, humanity was granted all the plants to eat, but now after the flood the menu widens to include animals, too.

But, even as God gives permission for people to kill and eat animals, there is a condition: respect for life. Life was symbolized by the blood coursing through an animal’s veins. God prohibited the eating of animals without properly recognizing their sacrificial death and without proper preparation.

But then God adds a special caveat about shedding human blood.

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed: for in his own image God made humankind.” – Genesis 9:6 NRSV

In other words, life is sacred, human beings are made in God’s image still, and don’t forget that, God is saying. Just because some bad characters have been removed from the earth, doesn’t mean that Noah and his family, and succeeding generations can or should forget that people are made in God’s image and their lives are to be protected with great care and reverence.

What’s God’s side of the covenant? God promises never to destroy the earth with water again. And as a token of that promise, God set a “bow in the clouds.” The interesting thing about this rainbow is that it is a reminder to God, not us, that God will never destroy the earth with flood waters again.

So, everything is wonderful, right? Not quite, which is why I’m saying that we can’t take Leslie Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” as the description of the post-flood world.

Let’s look at God’s side of the covenant again.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Look closely at this covenant statement. God is establishing this covenant with Noah, his descendants, AND every living creature that was with you in the ark – every living creature on earth.

Which says to me that God cares about all of his creation, not just us. God will never again kill people, or animals, with flood waters again. Clearly, God is concerned about all of his creation.

In verse 13, God says – “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

This covenant is not just a covenant between God and humanity, it is a covenant God makes with all of God’s creation.

Okay, what’s my point? My point is that God cares deeply about his creation, and as part of our covenantal responsibility, so should we.

Christ and Creation

Let’s turn to the New Testament quickly. With God’s covenant with the earth in mind, let’s look at some familiar places in the New Testament where Christ and creation are tied together.

In John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This obvious restatement of the creation story has a new element – the presence of Christ at creation as God’s creative “Word.” Remember that God spoke every aspect of creation into being. Genesis tells the story that on each day, “God said, Let there be light…” and so on, until by the end of the sixth day God’s Word had spoken inot existence everything there was.

Secondly, Paul says that Christ was not only present at creation, he continues to hold it all together. In Colossians, Christ is the one “in whom all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he repeatedly used as examples the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the grass of the earth, the sea, the river, water, trees, fruit, rocks, night, day, rain, drought, seasons, and natural disasters.

Jesus connected with the basics of creation and everyday life as he multiplied bread and fish to feed thousands; erased the ravages of disease; calmed the winds and waves; defied the laws of physics by walking on water and appearing in rooms with locked doors; and, ascending into heaven.

It was as though that Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, and his use of the elements of creation were of one and the same piece. In the Kingdom of God there is an abundance, and so an inadequate amount of bread and fish become enough for all. In the Kingdom of God, diseases and accidents that have taken life and health are all dispelled. In the Kingdom of God, the last are first, and poor are rich, and the meek inherit a peaceful earth living as God intended it, in God’s shalom.

How Should We Care for Creation?

We don’t have time today to begin to imagine all the ways that we can and should be caring for creation. But, we do need to consider this: for almost 200 years the dominant eschatology (which means the study of last things) was that the earth was going to be destroyed by God, not by water, but in some raging inferno of destructive fire.

That reading comes largely from the Book of Revelation, but it is a misreading to think that, in my opinion. Theologians from Jurgen Moltmann to N. T. Wright to Brian McLaren now are suggesting that the earth will be remade, that creation will be salvaged, redeemed, just like people are redeemed. That the same sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and his triumphal resurrection that changes us, also transforms God’s creation.

That vision comes also from the Book of Revelation, but from the last chapters, Revelation 21-22.

 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.

Moltmann contends that God doesn’t say he’s making all new things, but rather that he is making “everything new.” That, difference, Moltmann believes signifies that God is redeeming and restoring creation to its rightful place, with God at its center, and God’s shalom as its pervading presence.

Revelation 22 confirms that vision by giving us a picture of the recreated Garden of Eden, this time expanded, enlarged, and more abundant than ever.

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.

So, at the end of the Bible we are back where we started – in a garden, with living water, the presence of God, and not one tree of life, but enough trees to bear 12 crops – one crop every month of the year. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No curse, no darkness, no evil, nothing but God and humankind in a paradise of creation.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we do have a covenantal responsibility to God’s creation. During this season of Lent, think about what that might mean, and how we might also contribute to creation as an expression of the Kingdom of God.

Entertaining Angels: The Servants of Christ

Entertaining Angels:  The Servants of Christ

Second in the sermon series Entertaining Angels
January 10, 2010

The Angels Sing ‘Worthy is the Lamb”
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

6Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9And they sang a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

11Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.12In a loud voice they sang:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Revelation 5:1-14 NIV

Angels and Other Wacky Beings

When I was about 10 years old, our family bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias.  I think my grandmother was selling them, actually, so we probably got a good deal.  But I remember the day those red hardbound books arrived.  We unpacked them and I began to look through them, amazed that any subject I could think of was included in the World Book.  Well, now we have the internet, which is a lot like a set of encyclopedias, except with lots of bad information.  Unlike the trustworthy World Book, the internet is full of both accurate, true, and totally ridiculous stuff.

If you google — and for those of you who don’t know the word “google,” it was named the word of the decade by the American Dialect Society — if you google, or search the internet, for the subject “angels” you get a lot of really interesting information. One entry I ran across mentioned both angels and ascended masters.  Angels I was familiar with, but I had never heard of “ascended masters.”

As I read along in the article for that website, they listed the ascended masters.  Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ wife on the earth and their two children, Buddha, and some other folks I hadn’t heard of.  The ascended masters, apparently had been angels, retired from their stints as heavenly beings, came to earth, married, and so on.  In other words, a pretty New Age sort of belief system, with no reference to Scripture, or even other ancient texts.

One entry on that same website responded to the question, “Am I a Christian?”  The answer was that the writer grew up in the Christian faith, but now with this new knowledge of angels, ascended masters, and some other sort of revelation had transcended the orthodox version of Christianity.  Love was mentioned a lot, too, I recall.

Now, my point in telling you all of this about ascended masters, none of which is either Biblical or true, is that some people want to latch onto angels in a sort of New Age spiritualism that separates angels from God the Father who created them, and Jesus Christ, in whose service they are engaged.

Let me say it more simply:  You can’t talk about angels if you don’t talk about Jesus.  Angels serve the Christ of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah.  So, any attempt to separate angels from the ministry of Christ is an erroneous effort to separate angels from their purpose.

Angels in the Life of Jesus

Last Wednesday night I handed out a partial list of the Biblical references to angels in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Let’s run down their presence in Jesus’ earthly ministry quickly:

1.  An angel announces the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. Now this is my favorite angel passage because in it we get a glimpse into the sense of humor of the angels, and in this instance Gabriel the Archangel no less.  As Gabriel announces to John’s father the news that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son and they are to name him John, Zechariah, who is a priest in the Temple of God, begins to question Gabriel.  Here’s the exchange:

11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.[b] 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”  — Luke 1:11-20 NIV

Don’t you just love Gabriel’s answer — “I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.”

2.  Luke records Gabriel’s appearance to Mary announcing that she will bear the savior of the world, and Matthew records an angel’s appearance in a dream to Joseph assuring him that it is okay to marry Mary.

3.  Angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds.

4.  Angels send Joseph, Mary and Jesus off to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the king, who is seeking to kill this newborn King of the Jews.  When the danger is over, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream again and tells him to go back home.

5.  After Jesus’ baptism, which we celebrate on this Sunday, Jesus goes into the wilderness where Satan tempts him.  After Jesus meets that challenge, and after he is exhausted from 40-days of fasting and praying, the angels come to minister to him in the desert.

6.  Angels comfort him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Luke 22:41-43)

41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.

7.  Angels open Jesus’ grave at the resurrection. (Matt 28:2)

2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.

8.  Angels witness his resurrection. (Luke 24:5-7)

4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen!

9.  Angels explain his ascension. (Acts 1:10-11)

10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

10. Angels sing his praises in heaven. (Rev 5:11-12)

11.  Angels accompany Him at his coming. (Matt 25:31)

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
And, it doesn’t end there because the Book of Revelation is full of scenes in heaven where angels sing, praise, confirm, and worship Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
When you speak of angels you have to speak about Jesus because the angels belong to him.

Jesus Talks About Angels

But angels don’t just appear to Jesus. Jesus also speaks of angels as he ministers to people. Most of what Jesus said involved angels gathering the people for the final judgment, or acting as the messenger of Christ to summon them into the presence of God, like in this passage from Matthew 16:27 —
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”

But Jesus also gives us some other clues about angels.

In speaking of little children, Jesus said ” See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” — Matthew 18:10

From that passage we get the idea of guardian angels, assigned to us, and little children in particular, to watch over and care for us.

And, in a question about marriage, Jesus says that those who have died…”At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” — Matthew 22:30

We’ll talk more about angels at death later in this series, but Jesus does give us clues as to the characteristics of angels in these and other verses.

Making Angels Happy

But the most important thing Jesus tells us about angels isn’t about how angels travel, or about what angels look like. The most important thing Jesus tells us about angels is what makes them happy. Listen to what Jesus says —

8″Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” — Luke 15:8-10

Angels are happy when people come to God. The mission of angels is to carry the message of God, and imagine how glad they are when that message is heard and received. When the message they deliver through their care, their ministry, their obedience, brings a positive response, the angels rejoice.

Angels are first of all concerned about our relationship with their Lord and ours, Jesus. Nothing else matters. Angels stand ready to do the work of God, and that work is reclaiming God’s creation.

That is why the angels in heaven are singing. But it was not always so. John the Revelator writes, in the passage we read today, that for a moment in heaven which may have lasted 10-million years, for one moment the angels are silenced. The angels have carried the message of God for uncounted millennia. But now John says there is a message, a scroll in the hand of God. The angels see the scroll, but it is sealed with seven seals.

In the first century Roman world, when the emperor sent a message, he sealed it with his ring, and if it were of special importance, he sealed it more than once. That message could only be opened by the one intended to receive it upon penalty of death. And the angels know this scroll in the hand of God is not for them. For the first time in the history of heaven, God has a message that the angels cannot deliver.

And so the Bible says, “a mighty angel” cries out “Who is worthy to open the seals?” And no on is found. And John says, “I wept and wept.” John, even as he sees this vision and lives this revelation, John understands that if no one can open the scroll that the final word of God will never be heard. But one of the elders, one of only four, says “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Finally, after searching through all of creation for one who is worthy to open the seals on the scroll, finally, at last, One is found.

The Lamb of God who stands in the middle of the throne, symbolizing his preeminence and centrality. This Lamb is worthy because he has been slain, and with his blood has purchased for God men and women, boys and girls, “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” His death, his resurrection, his victory makes him worthy to open the scroll of God, to pronounce the message of God, to finish the Word of God that the angels cannot speak.

And so the angels sing a new song. But….
This is not the song of bondage for the chains have been broken.
This is not the song of poverty for heaven is enriched with his presence.
This is not the song of sorrow for night has passed away and there is no more sorrow, no more tears, no more death.
This is not the song of longing for in Christ all the longing of mankind has been satisfied.
This is not the song of the past for the past has gone, and everything has been made new.

No, the angels sing a new song, a song that has never been sung before because there was no one to sing it to. But now they sing a new song —

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

You cannot speak of angels without speaking of Jesus.

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”