Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pentecost 18

At Pentecost we remember God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to Jesus’ spiritual body the church. We are baptized in God’s Holy Spirit to become God’s holy people and to proclaim Jesus’ salvation to Avery County and to the world. God grant the world may say of us, “we hear them tell in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

Pentecost is the Greek word for the Jewish feast of Shavuot - 50 days after Passover. In Judea the barley harvest began in April at Passover, the winter wheat harvest began in late May at Shavout or Pentecost.  The Exodus is remembered at Passover, and God’s giving the Law on Sinai is remembered at Shavout or Pentecost. God has blessed the people of the Law, both Jews and Christians, with knowledge of God’s perfect will eternally expressed in his unchanged and unchanging Law, knowledge and power received by God’s grace through the faith God gives.

On Pentecost in Jesus’ time and now devout  Jewish men spend the night studying the Bible and eating dairy foods - lots of cheesecake – to remember the manna in the desert while the women prepare a feast for family and visitors. The Passover seder meal ends, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Devout Jews in the many countries to which the people of Israel have been dispersed dream of celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time it was a long, expensive, difficult trip: people came in March for Passover and stayed the 7 weeks visiting family, worshipping in the Temple, seeing the sights, until the weather got hot. Then they ate the Pentecost feast and headed home.

Jesus’ disciples gathered for the Pentecost feast with the many new believers in Jesus. They talked about Jesus and his free and freeing teaching about the Law. Traditional interpretation had made the Law complicated and difficult to observe. The disciples remembered that Jesus had quoting the summary of the Law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) This is the first and great commandment And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We confess that we do not keep even these two commandments, nor the 10 commandments of Sinai, nor the 613 commandments the Jewish scholars found in scripture. We know that our efforts to obey the Law do not save us from sin and spiritual death. We are saved by God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus, grace received in faith. We are justified by God in Jesus without the Law, and then God the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth shows us how to return thanks to God for the gifts of justification and salvation. We return thanks as we seek to obey the law and to become the holy people God calls us to be. We cannot obey God in our own spiritual strength, but with God’s power and God’s strength given by his Holy Spirit we can grow in faith to love God and obey him.

On the first Pentecost the disciples remembered that Jesus had promised them the Spirit of Truth. They had come to know the truth of Jesus. They remembered Jesus had promised them the Spirit of Power. They knew Jesus’ power because he had defeated the great enemy death by rising from the dead. And at the Pentecost feast they remembered the giving of the law at Sinai, Moses on the mountain top, the fire lighting up the sky, the powerful wind almost blowing the people away.

They remembered Jesus teaching at the Ascension 10 days before when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”   They remembered Jesus’ teaching and so on that first Pentecost they studied Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit. What was this Spirit going to be like? How would life be different with Jesus no longer physically present with them?

Then suddenly came a sound from heaven like a mighty rushing wind, . . . tongues as of fire appeared among them, and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” From Iran in the east to Lybia in north Africa, from the north coast of Turkey to south Yemen and all the places in between, “we hear them tell in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

Professor Bruce Rigdon tells of being in Russia to make a movie about the Christian church under Communism. Mikael was their minder, arranging interviews, getting churches opened, making the project possible. After the last night’s farewell party Mikael told Rigdon, “You showed me parts of my Russian heritage I never knew; I had never been in a church until you came to make this movie.” He fell silent. Rigdon moved toward the door, tired and ready for bed. Mikael stopped him and said, “You are a Christian?” He knew Rigdon was ordained and a seminary professor, but he had to ask, “You are a Christian?” Rigdon said, “Yes, I am a Christian.” Mikael said, “It was not true when I said I’ve never been in a church. I was once but I don’t remember it. My parents are atheists and party members, but my grandmother was a Christian. One day when I was an infant she took me to church and I was baptized. Tell me now, I’m just curious, you understand, but for curiosity’s sake, tell me, do you think anything happened when I was baptized?” 

The Jewish custom is to spend the night of Pentecost in study of the bible and prayer. Rigdon and Mikael spent that Pentecost night in study of the bible and prayer. An American Christian in Russia with a young man raised in Communist atheism, “We hear them tell in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

The same Holy Spirit who came to the disciples at Pentecost comes to us when we are baptized and believe.

St. Paul wrote to the contentious church at Corinth that the Holy Spirit gives many gifts, but they are given in the one body of Jesus Christ.

We are all baptized into one body, filled with one Holy Spirit just as the disciples were on that first Pentecost.   

We are filled with the Holy Spirit to remember Jesus’ teaching, “Love God, love neighbor.”  

We are filled with the Holy Spirit to keep the commandments and grow into the holy people God calls us to be. We are filled with the Holy Spirit to know the truth of Jesus and witness to that truth in the world Jesus redeemed by his death and resurrection.

We are filled with the Holy Spirit to witness to the power of Jesus who defeated death and gives us new life.

We are filled with the Holy Spirit so that the whole world, and everyone we know may truly say, “we hear them tell in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” Amen.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Easter 3 Repentance to forgiveness

Today’s gospel ends, “Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
In both gospels, St. John and St. Luke, Jesus appears to offer “Peace” and the forgiveness of sins. We share the peace of Christ, and in Christ’s peace receive his grace and his power to be forgiven and to forgive. Our justification by grace through faith includes both receiving and offering forgiveness. We are forgiven sinners and because we are forgiven we receive the truth and power of the Holy Spirit to be repentant sinners.

In his lectures on the Epistle to the Galatians, Luther said, “Thus a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time (simul iustus et peccator), holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.” Luther calls this a paradox. A paradox is a true statement that appears to be logically inconsistent.  The Christian church affirms that Jesus is both fully and completely God and fully and completely human. We affirm that we worship one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Spiritual paradoxes remind us that life includes more than one dimension of existence. Literal-minded people find life difficult; things are never quite what they seem. I talked last week about forgiveness, and I want to do that again.

The Biblical Hebrew and Greek words we translate forgive have the common meaning of “take off” or “let go.” For a children’s talk I used to put a backpack on a child and one by one fill it with bricks until the child could barely stand. Then I’d lift the back pack off and ask the child, “How does it feel?” One child obliged with, “I feel like I could fly!”  That’s the feeling we hope for in being forgiven ourselves, and in forgiving others.
Christian forgiveness is turning over to God. We give up feelings of condemnation, both self-condemnation when we are forgiven and condemning others when we forgive them. 

Let’s not confuse forgiving with condoning. By God’s grace we can forgive bad behavior, our own bad behavior and others’ bad behavior, but by God’s justice bad behavior remains bad behavior, subject to divine and human righteous judgment. Because God is infinite, God offers us immediately a restored relationship of love and trust. But we are limited, limited by time and space. Restoring human relationships takes time and effort. Trust, once broken, is not easily or quickly restored. We have the obligation of prudence in restoring relationships. We do no one any good by confusing forgiving bad behavior and condoning bad behavior.  We have done what we have done and we have to live with the natural consequences of our behavior – and the natural consequences of others’ behavior toward us. 
Repairing relationships requires repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin and turning to God and to God’s will for our lives. Repentance is the proper response to forgiveness. We are forgiven sinners and therefore we are repentant sinners.  I close with a story.

In Jerusalem the Holocaust museum YadVaShem is surrounded by trees, “the Garden of the Righteous.” Each tree has a plaque with names of those who sought to save Jews. One so honored is a Dutch woman, Corrie Ten Boom. Her family hid Jews, were betrayed by a neighbor, and sent to Ravensbruck where Corrie’s sister Betsie died. After the war Corrie offered a home for former prisoners and wrote a book, The Hiding Place, from which I quote (pp 214-215).

“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain blanched face.

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fräulein”, he said “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.” 

Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Easter 2 18 Peace and forgiving

“These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 
In Easter Season our first lesson is from the Acts of the Apostles. The second lesson this year is from the First Epistle of St. John - last year from St. Peter, next year from the Revelation to St. John.  The theme of St. John’s epistles is light and love. “God is light” and “God is love.”  “. . . if we walk in the light . . . we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.”

“But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” In the old Prayer Book tradition this is one of the Comfortable Words after Confession and Absolution. Jesus Christ is our advocate, the one who speaks for us on judgment day. Jesus speaks for us - we are guilty and pardoned. By his death Jesus has set us free from sin and God’s judgment for all our sins – “for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Jesus’ death and resurrection was not only for Jesus’ disciples, but for every one in every place and every age who admits sin and claims the pardon. I’ve sat in court and heard the state’s attorney offer a plea bargain. The defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offence and the more serious charges are dismissed. The judge says to the defendant, “Do you accept this agreement, and are you in fact guilty of the crime to which you plead?” The required answer is “yes, I am guilty.” So say we all. We all are guilty of willful disobedience of God’s law in some respect at some time. But “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

One of the major problems of our society and church is pervasive denial of the reality of personal sin. We all want to focus on our good intentions and ignore our morally ambivalent and sometimes egregiously evil actions.  The Jesus Prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Only as we become aware of our own sinfulness can we accept the wonderful grace of our risen Savior. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

In today’s gospel Jesus comes to the disciples gathered traditionally in the upper room where they had celebrated the last supper. The doors were locked; the mob was still out there looking for more blood. Jesus comes; he offers the disciples his peace, and in that peace Jesus shares his power to forgive sins.

By Jesus’ death and resurrection, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, our sins, and the sins of the whole world, have been put away forever. Our sins are washed away by the blood shed by Jesus on the cross.

Baptism is the beginning. The water of baptism washes away sins and every time we confess our sins we renew the spiritual effect of our baptism. And where water baptism is not possible we recognize a “baptism by desire.”.

The risen Jesus shared with the disciples his authority of the cross to forgive sins against God, and he  shares with all Christians his essential power to forgive sins committed against ourselves. “If you forgive the sins of any (against you), they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any (against you), they are retained (to you).” We all sin against God’s presence in our own lives, and we sin against God’s presence in the lives of others. We are all sometimes sinned against. Evil has been done to the dignity and honor of God’s creation in our lives. Jesus gives us the choice. We can hold to the memory of being sinned against, or we can forgive. We can continue to resent, or we can forgive. We say in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The contemporary version of the prayer has “sins” – “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

The gift of being able to forgive sins against us, to let go of resentments, is a gift of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected Jesus. It is also hard spiritual work.  G.K. Chesterton once said, “Jesus commands us to forgive our neighbors and forgive our enemies. Frequently they are the same persons.”  We need to forgive over and over again, as often as the resentment comes back to bother us. When we have forgiven the sins committed by others against us we also can forgive the sins we have committed against ourselves, the things we have done to harm ourselves even when we knew they were wrong when we did them, When we forgive God gives us his peace, and in his peace  the wisdom, the grace, and the power to change, to do things differently. For that we thank God.

          The peace of God in Jesus made possible Thomas’ radical change from skepticism to belief, from “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” to “my Lord and my God!”

           “These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Easter 10,000 x 10,000

Easter 18  10,000 x 10,000

Stephen Hawking was born January 8, 1942 and departed this life March 14. His funeral was Saturday and in June his ashes will be placed in westminster Abbey. Hawking was an English theoretical physicist, an expert on black holes and quantum mechanics. For over 50 years he lived with a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis "ALS" or Lou Gehrig disease that gradually paralyzed him. He once through a computerized speech-generating device, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

From a Christian perspective we can say, “Surprise, Dr. Hawking!” You now have a new spiritual body and now you know all the answers to those questions about the universe you spent your life raising.

Stephen Hawking was blessed with a wife, Jane, two sons and a daughter. Robert works for Microsoft, Timothy works for Lego, and Lucy writes children’s books   Jane Hawking is a Christian. She once wrote that faith in God had sustained her in the hard times of her marriage.

Stephen Hawking was baptized in the Church of England. At his baptism the celebrant said, “We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.” 
In his later life Hawking called himself an atheist. He also said his life quest was "trying to understand the mind of God." 

I don’t know when Hawking gave up on God, but I do know that God never gave up on Stephen Hawking. God is not finished with him, and God is not finished with any of us. God loves us; God wants for us what is best for us;
God offers us by the resurrection of his son Jesus Christ eternal life in his love and service.  “Surprise, Dr. Hawking!”

 One of my favorite Easter hymns is 10,000 x 10,000. It is in the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal and the 1955 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, but is not in either the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal or Evangelical Lutheran Worship. The text is this:
Ten thousand times ten thousand In sparkling raiment bright, The armies of the ransomed saints Throng up the steeps of light: 'Tis finished, all is finished, Their fight with death and sin: Fling open wide the golden gates, And let the victors in.
2 What rush of alleluias Fills all the earth and sky! What ringing of a thousand harps bespeaks the triumph nigh! O day, for which creation and all its tribes were made! O joy, for all its former woes A thousand fold repaid!
3 O then what raptured greetings On Canaan's happy shore; what knitting severed friendships up, where partings are no more! Then eyes with joy shall sparkle, that brimmed with tears of late; Orphans no longer fatherless, nor widows desolate.
4 Bring near Thy great salvation, Thou Lamb for sinners slain; Fill up the roll of Thine elect, Then take Thy power and reign: Appear, Desire of nations, Thine exiles long for home; Show in the heavens Thy promised sign; Thou Prince and Saviour, come.

The hymn was written by the Rev. Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, and sung at his funeral in 1871. Alford wrote over 60 hymns including one we sing at Thanksgiving, “Come, ye thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home.” 

The third verse of 10,000 x 10,000 expresses our personal hope in the resurrection:
O then what raptured greetings
On Canaan's happy shore;
what knitting severed friendships up,
where partings are no more!
Then eyes with joy shall sparkle,
that brimmed with tears of late;
Orphans no longer fatherless,
nor widows desolate.

We have all had friendships severed by death. Many of us know what it is to be orphaned by the death of parents, and we know something of the desolation of losing to death someone whom we love. 

The good news of Easter is that in Jesus’ resurrection we and they are given new life in him, today, tomorrow, and for ever more!   Amen! 
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Lent 5 Passion

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. The Palm Sunday service has two gospel readings, one for the blessing of the palms and the other the reading of the Passion. We will read the full passion from St. Mark 14 and 15. It is long, and the custom is a dramatic reading – narrator, Jesus, Peter, Judas, Servant-girl, Pilate, Centurion. high priests, disciples, bystanders and crowd.

We can read the Bible for spiritual growth as we imagine ourselves being part of the story, as we imagine the reactions and feelings of people in the story. Over the years the church has found that the dramatic reading of the Passion can help us grow in our spiritual life. It is not easy. Our natural tendency is first denial. We are rightfully uncomfortable as we begin to put ourselves spiritually into the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

One spiritual effect of this personal participation in the Passion of Our Lord is that us recognize our own guilt, our own participation in the sin that brought Jesus to his painful death on the cross. When we hear Jesus say to the disciples at the Last Supper,, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me,” we begin with the disciples “to be distressed and” we want “to say to him . . .,   “Surely, not I?”  But Jesus says to us, “It is . . .  one who is dipping bread . . .  with me” 

In our time and in our country we are blessed. We are not in the situation of the Syrian Christians in our own time facing decapitation from ISIS or the 17th century Japanese forced to stamp on a crucifix or Jan Hus burned at Constance, or Martin Luther in protective custody at Wartburg, or Bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley burned at Oxford. Our denials tend to be  little ones, mostly sins of omission, failing to give an account of the faith that in in us, keeping silent when we should speak up in witness.   

Next Sunday we ask the congregation to read three parts: the parts of the priests and of the disciples, and of the crowd, who cried, “Crucify him, crucify him!”  In Jesus’ time the responsibility for maintaining stable political and economic structures was assigned to the priests. We are all in some way or another implicated in maintaining the injustice and sin of the political and economic structures of our time, so we get to share in the priests’ response to Jesus.  And we call ourselves disciples, spiritual descendants of the 12 whom Jesus called to follow and serve him, so we get to share the disciples’ response to Jesus. And finally we are all spiritual descendants of the bystanders and the crowd that called for Jesus’ crucifixion and jeered at him on the cross. We don’t escape our participation in the sin of the world that brought Jesus to the cross because we share in the joy of his salvation.

Sin is both individual and collective. We have each fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) in some way, and the society of which we are a part has also fallen short of the glory of God. As Article II of the Augsburg Confession teaches, “all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God.”  The Prayer Book Catechism tells us, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with others, and with all creation.” 

So as we read the Passion we are spiritually convicted of our sin and convinced of our need for the redemption Jesus Christ secured for us and for all the world by his death on the cross.  We live in thanksgiving for Jesus’ redemption.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah immediately follows his prophecy (31:29-30), “29 In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant, written not on tablets of stone like the Sinai covenant but on our hearts, not an external law we obey out of fear, but an internal law of love, a law of gratitude.  We are so grateful for God’s covenant of love and continuing presence that we seek to love and serve him in our lives,.

And when we sin, as we will (it is our nature) by God’s grace we are able to repent and return again and again to our Lord Jesus who receives us with open arms, as he did in Galilee, and on the cross, and in the resurrection, and as he receives us forgiven sinners at his table today.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lent 3 Moses

Lent 3 B 18 Moses

This morning’s sermon has two parts: First two points of explanation to help us understand today’s Gospel reading about the cleansing of the Temple and second a reflection on the covenant of Sinai and the 10 Commandments. So (1) about the people selling cattle and (2) the money changers. (1) selling cattle:

How many of us have been to Jerusalem? On the east edge of the Old City is the Temple Mount – 37 acres (roughly as big as 30 football fields, 5 down and 6 across). Toward the center in Jesus’ time was a relatively small but tall building for the empty room of the Holy of Holies. It was surrounded by the Court of the Priests where animal sacrifices were made, then the Court of the Israelites reserved for ritually clean male Jews, then the Court of the Women for all Jews, and finally the much larger Court of the Gentiles. For the convenience of those who came to make the sacrifices a supply of ritually approved animals was provided in the otherwise empty Court of the Gentiles - the highest and best use of otherwise unused property.

 (2) According to Exodus 30:12, all Jews paid a tax for the support of the Temple – half a shekel, about 14 grams of silver, about $7.50 in our money. It had to be paid in pure silver and the best available was in coins originally minted in the Lebanese port of Tyre and later by the Temple authorities. So you changed your Roman money into Temple money – at an exchange rate set by the Temple authorities. 

You can see how both of these might become a racket. And God is a God of truth. He despises dishonesty and rackets.

And Jesus says the true temple of God is not a building in Jerusalem, but the person, created by God, in whom God dwells by his Holy Spirit. Jesus is the true temple of God, and by his spirit we also are God’s temple.

First Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:19-20 remind us: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? . . .God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” And “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

Our question today is how much of the temple of our lives is dedicated to God and how much is taken up with cattle and money changers – with the rackets and ordinary dishonesty of life?  That is an individual question and one that we can reflect on this week and this Lent? Jesus cleansed the physical temple in Jerusalem; Jesus can cleanse the temple of our lives, and he will if we invite him to. That’s the first half of today’s sermon.

The second part of today’s sermon is about the covenant of Sinai and the 10 Commandments. For a long time the recitation of the Ten Commandments has been an examination of conscience and a reminded of our need for salvation by God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which we receive by faith alone and not by works. That is a true and Godly use of the Commandments.

But there is another use of the Commandments and that is as a sign of God’s covenanted love and a guide to a Godly life in thanksgiving for our salvation by God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ received by faith alone and not by works. Our Godly life, our good works, do not cause our salvation. Our salvation is God’s free gift received by faith. The commandments show us what a Godly life looks like. 

The commandments are in the negative: “Thou shalt not”  – have, make take, murder, adultery, steal, false witness covet. Turn these around. Imagine how life would be if God alone were central in our lives. Imagine us free from worship of the idols of money, property, prestige. Imagine what our world would be like when children honor parents, parents honor children, husbands honor wives and wives honor husbands (Ephesians), when public servants seek to honor and serve the people, first and always. Imagine a society in which people are safe and secure in their lives, in their intimate relationships, in their property, in their reputations and honor. Imagine a world free from the corrosive sin of envy, a world in which everyone is able to meet all their needs without depriving another.  In short imagine a world where truly God’s “will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

That’s the world God promises in his covenant with the people of Israel, the covenant we Gentiles are grafted into, the true and eternal covenant on Mount Sinai, the true and eternal covenant made sure on the Mount of Olives and on Golgotha hill, the true and eternal covenant we enjoy in the High Country, and everywhere Jesus Christ is proclaimed as Lord.     

Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, and give us the power of  your Holy Spirit to love and serve you in that covenant, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

Lent 4 Manna

Lent 4B 18 Manna

Numbers tells how the people of Israel came from Sinai up the east side of the Dead Sea to cross the Jordan at Jericho. Numbers includes the Aaronic blessing “The Lord bless you” 6:22-26 said in the Lutheran service. It also has lot of complaining and rebellion.

Six weeks after the Exodus the people started to complain (Exodus 16), “In Egypt we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” That is one of the signs of the spiritual continuity between Israel and the church. The Lord provided manna. Manna tasted like a honey cake, but even honey cakes can get old in time; 35 years of manna every day is enough for people to “detest this miserable food.” 

Manna has been variously identified as tamarisk resin, lichen, plant lice secretions, and mushrooms. The rabbis said manna was a unique and special food, part of God’s provision for his faithful people.

But as the Celebrate notes tell us, not all the people are faithful; many “whine and grumble.” Numbers says God sent poisonous snakes to bite people who complain. Many of us have known at least a few venomous people. We know about the bad consequences of bad behavior. And we have learned the healing power of repentance and confession.

I don’t understand how the snake-bit children of Israel were cured by looking at a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole, but that was the remembered experience of the people. St John says Jesus used the experience in the desert teaching to tell Nicodemus that so “must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The bronze serpent on the pole was sacramental. It was an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, the grace of forgiveness which heals the poison of venom in the soul.
Another sacramental is the wedding ring – the unbroken ring a sign of eternal love. And the great sacraments use ordinary things as signs of God’s eternal love and grace. Water washes away dirt – and sin. A small piece of bread and a sip of wine are our spiritual food, our manna in our wilderness of sin.   

Jesus continued with the familiar verse, “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.”  That is the core of the new covenant. All the covenants – Noah, Abraham, Moses, Numbers, Jeremiah – all are assurances of God’s continued love and presence in this life.  The new covenant is the new assurance of eternal life, life that continues through death into the fullness of God’s presence.

Jesus continued, “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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

These verses frequently raise questions like, “What about those who do not believe, Jews, Muslims, our friends and neighbors who don’t go to church? Does God condemn them?”  The short answer is, No. God does not condemn. “God so loved the world . . . “

So take a step back. Remember the airplane rule. “Put the oxygen mask on your own face first, then on others.” That seems contrary to the Christian ethic of concern for others. But truly, we are to work out our own salvation. The first question is, “Have I claimed for myself the new life Jesus offers? Do I know my own sins are forgiven? Am I a new creature? Have I put the mask on myself? We need to start with what we can deal with, and that is ourselves.  

As I look back on them I recognize my own doubts and fears were not theological, but moral. I was in college, strongly influenced by my hormones. I had not yet internalized the truth that the God who made me loves me. God wants what is best for me. And so I’d best seek to know and do his will. Once I made the commitment of obedience the theology fell into place.

The condemnation is human condemnation, not God’s. We live in lots of human judgment and condemnation. Talk politics; get people of one party talking about the moral failures of the leaders of the other party. Condemnation is human, not divine.  God is righteous and just; he calls us to share divine righteousness and justice. But condemnation is for our own sin, the sin for which Jesus died on the cross.  

“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. . . . 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.”