Tag: creation

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.

Sermon for Sunday, Mar 9, 2008: Can These Bones Live?

Can These Bones Live?
Ezekiel 37:1-141 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ “

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “

Back From The Grave

In 1974, peasants digging a well near the city of Xian, China, broke through the dirt into a pit where the scene before them was amazing. Scores of clay soldiers, the size of full-grown men, filled the dirt before them. Little did they know that they had uncovered the burial ground of the first emperor of China and his army of 7,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. The now-famous Xian Terracotta Warriors are from the Qin dynasty, and accompanied the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi to his burial. Shi Huangdi was a powerful ruler who united the warlords in China, unified the Chinese language, and connected ancient fortifications into what is now called the Great Wall of China.

The terracotta army now boasts more members, as archaeologists have opened other excavations which have unearthed more soldiers, bronze chariots, horses, weaponry, and other artifacts. The excavation site is so extensive that the Xian Terracotta Soldiers are called by many the eighth wonder of the world.

Like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Qin Shi Huangdi aspired to immortality. And, to insure that his next-world success was equal to his achievement in this world, he commissioned artisans to sculpt this vast army of soldiers to march with him from this life into the next. The detailing is so fine that the treads on the bottom of their footwear are still visible, and every face in this vast army is unique and wears a different expression.

Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones

But, about 350 years before the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the prophet Ezekiel sees his own vast army spread out before him. Only in Ezekiel’s vision, the army is in disarray. Individual warriors are dismembered, the flesh has disappeared from their bones, and this disjointed valley of dry bones is all that is left of the once mighty army. Quite a contrast to the emperor’s fully-armed terracotta brigades.

The setting is the Babylonian captivity of Israel. In 597 BC, Ezekiel was taken from his homeland and exiled to Babylon under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. In 593 BC, God called Ezekiel to prophesy to his fellow exiles that things would get worse before they got better. God’s call to Ezekiel was this –

1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” 2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

9 Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, 10 which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. Ezekiel 2:1-10 NIV

Ezekiel’s message was not “the prosperity gospel” or “I’m OK, you’re OK!” Ezekiel preached that if the people thought things were bad now, just wait, they will get worse. He prophesied that Jerusalem, the home of the magnificent Temple of God, built by Solomon, would be destroyed. Ezekiel even acted out this judgment with a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem. The people were outraged until Ezekiel’s words came true in 586 and 587 BC, when Jerusalem was totally destroyed. In Ezekiel chapter 10, Ezekiel recounts his vision of the departure of the glory of the Lord from the Temple itself.

But with chapter 37, Ezekiel begins to prophesy of the restoration of the nation, and that’s what we have in this vision of the valley of dry bones — a vision of restoration, life from death, a revivification of God’s people.

Can These Bones Live?

So, this is the nation of Israel, depicted as dry bones scattered throughout the floor of a valley. God leads Ezekiel back-and-forth among the bones. Ezekiel records “I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” In the midst of that scene of death and hopelessness, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely replies, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel is right, only God knows if life is possible again. Up to this point, Ezekiel’s messages have been those of doom and gloom. Sermons explaining why God is judging Israel, sermons predicting that Jerusalem will be destroyed. Sermons that also speak judgment against the very nations that God is using to chasten Israel. No one escapes Ezekiel’s vision of God’s work.

Then God says to Ezekiel –

“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” Ezekiel 37:4-6

Remember creation? What happens there? God’s words speak creation into being. The writer of Genesis writes, “And God said…” and the earth is formed, the sun and moon hung in place, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and animals appear on land, and man takes his place in God’s good world. All because God’s word spoke it into being. And, at the end of every creative day, God looks at his work and pronounces it good.

John begins his gospel in similar fashion, as he tells the story of Jesus in a unique manner:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

So, Jesus becomes the living word, the logos of God, the word of God to the world he has created. The word of life, and the word of hope, and the word of love.

This valley of dry bones that Ezekiel sees is dead. There is no life in it. No possibility of self-healing, or spontaneous organization, or of natural restoration. But, God says, “Hear the word of the Lord!” These bones that cannot hear, can now hear God. These bones that do not form a living organic system, of which ears are an organ, can now hear God. These bones that cannot gather themselves together in a coherent, functioning body, can now hear this creative word of the Lord. For they know this voice. It is part of their DNA. It is in the cells of their being. It is that voice which gave them life in the beginning. It is the only voice they can hear. It is the only voice they can obey.

And what does God say? What is the word of the Lord to these dry bones?

“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”

Just as God breathed into Adam the breath of life, so He breathes into these dry bones that creative breath that gives life. This is creation all over again. This is God’s recreative act for the nation of Israel. Old bones, new life. The word of the Lord, the people of God, the life-giving breath, all together again.

But, God goes on:

I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ “

Not only is God reviving them, he is making them new. Recreating them as they were intended to be. Not dry bones that can hear. Not dry bones that can move around, but bones that now have muscle and tendon and flesh attached to them. Bones that are covered with skin. Bones that become the building blocks for God’s people, again.

So, Ezekiel preaches that message. And guess what happens? Ezekiel says, “there was as noise, a rattling sound” and the bones come together. Now this is where the song, Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones, takes its lyrics.

The toe bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connnected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
Now hear the word of the Lord.

And hear they do, until all the bones have come together, until muscle and tendon and flesh cover them, until breath enters these recreated bodies, and they stand, in Ezekiel’s words, as a vast army. And then God explains to Ezekiel, what must be all too obvious now.

These bones are the house of Israel — without hope, without life, cut off from God, defeated, and dead. But, God says, “I’m going to open their graves. I’m going to bring them up from the pit. I’m going to bring them back to the land of Israel.” God goes on, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it!”

And sure enough, about 70-years after they are taken captive, the nation returns to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to repair the Temple, and to occupy its land again — the land that God gave them, and brought them back to.

A Lesson for Lent

Now what does all that have to do with Lent? you might ask. Well, let me tell you a story:

In Japan, there is a Shinto temple, called a shrine, that is about 2000-years old. The shrine is located in the city of Ise, and is often called the most sacred shrine in all of Japan. Several years ago, the Japanese government submitted the shrine to UNESCO, the United Nations agency that catalogs ancient historic sites around the world. The Japanese were proud of the shrine, believing it to be the oldest continually existing religious shrine in the world.

But, here’s the amazing part. UNESCO didn’t believe their claims because the shrine is built of wood. They said, “this can’t be the same building that was originally constructed. It would have deteriorated by now.” So, the Japanese had to explain about the buildings.

It seems that every 20-years, the entire shrine is torn down and rebuilt. This process has been going on since 690 AD, when the first rebuilding took place. The entire wooden shrine is taken down, and wood is cut from the same forest that furnished wood for the original shrine building, hundreds of years ago. The last time the shrine was rebuilt was 1993, and it is slated for rebuilding in 2013, again.

UNESCO was not impressed. They said the building was what they were interested in, not the on-going religious life of the community, and so they denied the government’s request to list the shrine in their records.

UNESCO’s viewpoint is very much like Israel’s and our own today. Israel’s confidence was in the place — the land, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple of God. They believed that as long as they had the Temple, they had God on their side regardless of their political alliances, idolatry, or other breaches of their covenant relationship with God. God showed them otherwise.

We find it very easy to criticize the Jews — “Of course, the Temple and God aren’t the same” we are quick to point out. But, then we become attached to buildings, traditions, history, and practice, as though those things were more important than our relationship with God.

Periodically, God takes apart the church and remakes it, just to remind us that our relationship is with Him, and it is the Word of the Lord that gives life, not our plans, and pride, and priorities. It is God’s Spirit that moves where it wills, breathing life into dead bodies, and revitalizing the people of God.

The history of the Christian church contains many examples of God’s tearing down and rebuilding his people. A few of the high points in that process include:

  • The Desert Fathers and Mothers who fled the institutional church of North Africa and Egypt, left the cities, and found refuge in the desert. There they recovered a spirituality based, not on politics, but on prayer.
  • The Celtic Christian church from about 500-1,000 AD, flourished as first Patrick and then others preached the good news of God to receptive Irishmen, who were already worshipping the creation, and who then embraced the Creator.
  • The Friends of God emerged in the 13th century to reclaim a spirituality that was both mystical and devoted to God, in the midst of the political intrigue of the organized Church.
  • The Reformation in 1517, when scripture was given a place of primacy over tradition, and faith was emphasized over works as the path to salvation.
  • The Great Awakenings of both England and the United States in the early colonial period roused working people to become followers of Christ, and created movements like the Methodists and Baptists with their revivalistic approaches.

Today, God is still in the business of taking apart and remaking his church — of gathering the dry bones and putting flesh on them, and breathing life into them, again. And, that is what Lent is about. This time of reflection and confession and repentance. It is about getting ready for God’s creative breath to blow over us, again. To raise us from our own graves, to fill us with his spirit, to revive us again. Not to be the same people, but to be new people, recreated, remade, redeemed, and revived.

But, unlike our Japanese friends who take down and rebuild their own temple every 20-years, God is both the demolition and construction crew on his on-going project called the Church. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, this is his work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

A Personal Story

Let me tell you a more personal story. Several months ago, when things weren’t going too well, I wondered if I was the pastor you needed. In my attempts to lead the church in a new direction, I realized that I had pushed too fast and too hard, and had changed too much. In addition, people had left the church, and few new members had joined. This was of great concern to me, because I do love this church, I love this town, and I know that God brought us here. Debbie and I prayed many days together about what we should do. Now, don’t worry, we’re still here and have no plans to go anywhere else. But, let me continue.

Now this is where the story gets weird. I want you to know that I think this part is weird, so you will realize that this doesn’t happen to me all the time. In our praying about what we should do, Debbie kept telling me to be patient that the “sheep were coming.” It didn’t look like the sheep were coming to me, but she assured me they were.

One night, I had a dream. I saw the letters S-A-U-B-R-I-G in big block letters, like they had been printed on a large sheet of paper. That was it — “saubrig.” When I woke up, I wrote the letters down, because I felt there was some significance to them. But what?

So, I did what anybody does now — I turned on my computer and googled, S-A-U-B-R-I-G. What I got back were a bunch of references in some foreign language that I did not recognize. But, one entry was in English. It was an article about ancient Yorkshire surnames and place names. Not exciting reading, but as I scrolled down through the article, there it was, the word saubrig. Only it was two words — sau brig. Let me read you the article at this point –

Sau (pronounced sow) in Scandinavian is sheep. Brig is a dock, or trading post area. Perhaps it [sau brig] was an old way of describing a ‘sheeptown’s dock’ or, gathering point – the Saubrig…

Isn’t that amazing? And that settled it for me. I knew that in spite of my mistakes that God was still at work. And, that this is the sheeptown’s dock, the gathering point. I believe the sheep are coming. I believe they are coming here to this place, to this town, to this church, to our community, to this congregation.

And, what God is doing, is taking down the old, and rebuilding the new. What God is doing is breathing new life into our tired dry bones. That which looks like death and disorganization to us, looks like hope, and joy, and love to God. The Spirit of God is breathing into this church the breath of life. God is putting muscle and tendon on bones and covering them with flesh.

One day we will rise from the valley of our uncertainty, and from the grave of our discouragement. One day we will stand like a mighty army, not made from clay, but made from the hand of God. That day is not long from us, for God is at work now.

Can these bones live? O Sovereign Lord, you know!

A simple life

edenspathhhouse2.jpg Eden’s Path – detail of our house from a painting by Debbie.

Debbie and I created a new blog to record our journey toward a simpler life. Eden’s Path features the practical things we are doing to spend less, enjoy life more, and live in the rhythm of God’s grace.

The name, Eden’s Path, comes from an old Celtic Christian saying that life on this earth is like living with “one foot in Eden.” We believe that God’s creation is good, that we live with the earth, not just on it. We’re also trying to consume less, despite the encouragement of our government for us to spend more. Evermore growth will not solve our spiritual, social, or economic problems. Being better stewards of God’s gifts to us will, we believe.

So, if you have time, stop over. We mostly are telling the stories about what we’re doing to find the simple life of faith, hope, and dreams. I’m not sure if it will take us to Eden, but at least we’ll be on the path.

Sermon for Sunday, Feb 17, 2008: Born From Above

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 17, 2008, the second Sunday in Lent. The text is John 3:1-17, and the title is “Born From Above.” Hope you have a great day tomorrow!

Born From AboveJohn 3:1-17 (NRSV)

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

What We Think We Know About This Text

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and we come to a very familiar Gospel reading today. This passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3, contains what is probably the most famous verse in the New Testament — John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Immediately, we think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I know what that means. God loves me, Jesus died for me, and I have accepted him, so I’m saved.” And, certainly those ideas are there in John 3:16. But, the verses that surround this most famous verse give us the real clues to what this conversation was really all about. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, maybe because he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, or maybe he waited for a time when the crowds around Jesus had drifted back to their homes for the evening. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus is certainly the nicest Pharisee we meet on the pages of the New Testament. Now, before we get into the story, I want to offer a disclaimer, and here it is: I’m using the phrase “born from above” intentionally, rather than “born again.” The text can be translated either way, but the term “born again” has taken on meanings that aren’t here in the text.

“Born again” has come to mean a person has had an experience of being saved. But, it has also come to mean “born again” Christians from evangelical churches versus mainline Christians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and other expressions of our faith that do not place the emphasis on the “crisis experience” of becoming a Christian, but also allow for a more gradual “growing into” faith. I don’t want us to think about those distinctions today, so I’m using the term “born from above,” and I think you’ll see why as we look at this passage more closely.

The Conversation in Four Parts

Have you ever spent an evening talking to a friend, and the conversation flows from one topic to another, until finally someone says, “Well, how did we get off on that?” This conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus has that kind of flow, moving from one idea to the next related idea, until we wind up in a totally new place. Here’s the first part of the conversation:

Part 1: Born from Above

As I said a moment ago, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus one evening and says –

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

This statement in itself is amazing. Here is a Pharisee, and a leading Pharisee at that, saying that “they” know Jesus is a teacher come from God. And, Nicodemus goes on to reinforce that statement by saying, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This is the only time a Pharisee will come anywhere close to saying that Jesus ministry is of God. At every other encounter with Jesus, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus, challenge him on his observance of the Law of God, and prevent him from becoming more popular with the people.

So, just the act of sitting down with Jesus is a big stretch for a Pharisee, but Nicodemus not only sits with Jesus, he acknowledges that Jesus is from God, and doing the work of God.

Now at this point, you might think that Jesus would say, “Well, thank you, Nicodemus, that’s the first time a Pharisee has ever said that to me.” But, Jesus makes a strange reply that at first glance seems to have nothing to do with Nicodemus’ statement. Jesus says,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

What does that have to do with Nicodemus’ statement to Jesus. Nicodemus is not asking “how can one see the Kingdom of God?” Nicodemus is making a statement to Jesus that he believes that Jesus is from God, and that God is with Jesus as he performs signs of God’s presence. But, in reply Jesus says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

The conversation then continues on the topic of being “born” with the following exchange:

  • Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after they are old? Can they enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
  • Jesus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

So, the first part of the conversation is about being born from above, and Jesus explains the difference in being born “of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit.” But, back to Nicodemus’ question — how does one get “born from above?” Jesus has the answer –

“It’s like the wind which blows where it will, and you hear the sound of the wind, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes.” And to make this even clearer, Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Let’s stop and recap here:

  • Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God.
  • Jesus says to see the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.
  • Nicodemus doesn’t understand.
  • Jesus says, being born from above is like the effect of the wind — you hear it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.
  • Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, and asks, “How can these things be?”

Here’s my take on this:

  • Unlike every other Pharisee, Nicodemus recognizes and confesses who Jesus is.
  • Jesus’s comment to Nicodemus is much like his comment to Peter later when Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say I am?” To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To which Jesus replies, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father has.”

I think Jesus is saying the same thing to Nicodemus. I think Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you have it exactly right. You’ve been born from above by the Spirit of God. That’ how you know who I am and what I’m about.”

Of course, all this talk about being born from above, born anew, is confusing to Nicodemus. He can’t hear what Jesus is saying to him, because he’s stuck back at the concept of being re-born. But it is the Spirit of God who has blown over Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t fully realize it yet, but the evidence — his words — show that God’s Spirit has re-made him, given him new life, changed his perspective, opened his eyes, given him fresh insight into who Jesus really is. That is the work of the Spririt of God.

I know that this isn’t how most folks see this conversation, but it’s the only interpretation that makes sense out of what Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about. But, let’s look at the second part of the conversation and see if the flow continues.

Part 2: Earth and Heaven, Flesh and Spirit Meet

Jesus appears to change the subject when he says –

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

Jesus is referring to the conversation about being born of the flesh and born of the Spirit — one earthly, the other heavenly. Nicodemus obviously did not comprehend that point, so Jesus simply asks, “If you don’t believe what I’m telling you about what happens here, how can you believe about what happens in heaven?”

I heard a preacher not too long ago, I think it was David Jeremiah, who said something like, “If we believe God can save us and take us to heaven, we need to start believing that God is at work in our lives here.” Same idea. Jesus has explained to Nicodemus that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes place here on this earth. But, Nicodemus doesn’t understand how God can do that. Jesus point is — if you don’t understand how God is at work in your life here and now, how can you possibly understand how God is at work in heaven, in eternity, in the future?

We have the same problem today. We trust God to save us in the future and take us to heaven, but we’re short on what God is doing in our lives now. Then, continuing this line of thought, Jesus says,

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended, from heaven, the Son of Man.

In other words, Jesus is saying I’ve been there, in the presence of God, and now I’m here to show you what that means. Which is another way of saying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, says that in Jesus, heaven and earth meet. And, also flesh and Spirit meet. Jesus is the intersection of God and Man, flesh and Spirit. He has been born of both physical birth, and Spiritual birth. Jesus is the new Adam, born both in the body and in the Spirit.

But, as they say in the Ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait! There’s more!”

Part 3: What Kills Us Saves Us

Jesus doesn’t stop with the notions of earth and heaven, he uses a real life example. He says,

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

What does this statement have to do with being born from above? Well, to understand that we have to understand the story that Jesus refers to, the story of the poisonous serpents, found in Numbers 21. The nation of Israel has left captivity in Egypt (the Passover), and is on their way to the Promised Land. But, the story of their getting to the Promised Land is a story of disobedience to God over and over again. We’ve been talking about that on Wednesday nights as we moved through the first books of the Old Testament. On one occasion, after having to fight their way through a particularly aggressive army, the people begin to complain to Moses — “Why have you brought out here in the wilderness to die? There’s no food, no water, and we hate this manna!”

This did not please God, and so poisonous snakes invaded the camp. If you were bitten by a snake, and many were, there was no cure. You died. Well, the people got the message real quick, and realized that their impatient complaints to Moses were disobedience to God. So, they came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Then they asked Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents.

But God does an interesting thing — God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole. If anyone is bitten, all he has to do is look at the serpent and he’ll live. So, God doesn’t remove the snakes, but sends a way to be saved from them. Look and live!

So, that’s the story. But, what has always bothered me about that story is “Why make a bronze serpent?” Why not something else? Why did God use the thing that was killing them as their salvation? Reading this passage from John this week, I think I understand it now. And it has to do with being born of the flesh and being born of the Spirit.

Remember I said that Jesus is the only person who has been born of both flesh and Spirit? Jesus is the only one who has come down from heaven to show us what the unity of flesh and Spirit looks like? Okay, remember that point.

Now, what is the cause of our own death? Not serpents. It’s our flesh, our humanity, our willfulness, our sin. So, if the same thing that kills us saves us, what is that? Again, not a bronze serpent. Are you ready for this? If our humanity is what kills us, and it is, then we need another human to save us. But, that’s not possible. Until we have a human who is both human and divine — both flesh and Spirit.

And that’s why Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Part 4: For the World

Born of flesh and born of Spirit, Jesus becomes the only one who can save us. And, then he tells us why he came –

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God so loved the world. Not just the people in the world, but creation. All of it, including us. And God’s love for His creation led him to save us in it, so we could again be stewards of it. Listen to what Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, and Christian, writes –

The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.

Healing is impossible in loneliness…To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.

He goes on –

The soul, in its loneliness, hopes for “salvation.” And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity among soul and body and community and world?

The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.

So, our being born from above, our being born of flesh and spirit, our being born anew because God so loved the world is so that we can love the world, too. It is so that we can unite that which sin has sundered — ourselves, others, God, creation — so that all can be made new as God intended. Being born from above changes everything, even if like Nicodemus, we don’t understand it yet.

St. Kevin of Glendalough was a Celtic Christian hermit, who loved God’s creation. He said, “All the wild creatures on these mountains are my house mates, gentle and familiar with me.” St. Kevin’s calling was to live alone with God’s creation, and pray for Creation’s care. Here is a prayer taken from the Celtic tradition that St. Kevin might have prayed –

Jesu! meet it were to praise Him,
There is no plant in the ground
But is full of His virtue,
There is no form in the strand
but is full of his blessing.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no life in the sea,
There is no creature in the river,
There is naught in the firmament,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no bird on the wing,
There is not star in the sky,
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu! meet it were to praise Him.
Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints, Mary C. Earle & Sylvia Maddox, pg 58.

For God so loved the world, that He sent his only son…