August 9, 2020

“The World in Conflict”

Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 25:19-23/Epistle Lesson:Romans 9:1-5

Have you ever gone to extremes?  Gone the limit?  Life often moves us to extremes whether we want to or not.  That moment of great triumph and success can too soon lead to that moment of deep depression and sorrow.  Mood swings are a human condition.  Now some of you men may think it’s only a female condition.  Ah, contrere’.  I used to think it was a mystery how men could stand coatless in the dead of winter.  But then things change.  Summertime is when I sleep with air-conditioning while the ceiling fan whirls above my head.  I dream of snow banks and glaciers.  About the time a woman’s thermostat changes, so does a man.  By that then they are looking for more clothes to put on and we can’t take off enough!  While she’s saying “is it hot in here” he’s saying “is it cold in here?”


You see it’s so easy to pass judgment when you’ve never walked in someone else’s shoes, whether those shoes entail dealing with a changing child, financial problems, facing disappointments, illness, or an aging body.  We always think it won’t happen to us.  And when it does, it’s amazing—suddenly we understand.  It has been said, “Adversity is the fertile ground where understanding grows.”  Maybe that’s why God allow us to experience change and adversity, because then we can relate better to people who share common experiences with us.  Experience is a wonderful thing.  It allows you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.


There is a wonderful book titled A View from the Zoo, by Gary Richmond.  It is full of animal illustrations that have spiritual truths.  One of them is about the giraffe.  The birth of the giraffe gives great insight to life’s trials and troubles.  When a baby giraffe is born, it falls 10 feet to the ground and lands on it’s back.  The mother hovers over the calf for a few minutes before she starts kicking the baby head over heels.  If the calf doesn’t get up, it gets another swift kick.  She repeats the process to stimulate the calf’s efforts.  Finally, when the little calf gets up on its wobbly, spindly legs, the mother kicks it off it’s feet again.  To us this seems cruel.  To the mother it is an expression of love.  This first lesson in life teaches the calf to develop skills it needs to move rapidly with the herd when a predator is near.  Sometime we feel like God has no sooner gotten us on our feet when he turns around and knocks us down.  The next time that happens, think about the newborn giraffe.  God may simply be strengthening you for your own protection in the future.


The highs of success are often followed by the lows of failure and doubt.  Having praised God for God’s limitless love in Romans 8, Paul now comes face-to-face with the reality of his own people’s distance from Christ.  What about the fate of the people who refuse to acknowledge, much less receive, God’s love in Jesus Christ?  Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is in anguish over the fate of his people, the Jews.  To wrestle with this text is to search some pretty troubling and provocative questions.  Believers live in two worlds, you know.  Two realities, two stories.  The two stories in which we live collide with each other.  One is the story of acquisition or acquirement, the other story is of generosity; one is the story of security, the other is the story of sacrifice.  Paul whose own personal struggle tumbles out of Rom. 7 where he says, “I don’t even understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.”  Remember that one?  But now in chapter 9 Paul confronts the struggles to reconcile the good news of Christ with the tradition and heritage of his own people.  Right in mid-sentence, Paul blurts out, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers and sisters, those of my own race.”  You see, we are overhearing a man, freed from his past, but still haunted by the implications of the gospel of the future.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”  At one level, Paul says, “No one—Nothing!” So, what am I supposed to do with that?


Paul was attempting to put things into perspective.  He was looking at his own successes and failures.  He said, “I’ve learned that whatever state I’m in, to be content.”  Ah!  And that was saying a lot considering Paul had been shipwrecked, whipped, beaten, stoned and imprisoned.  He realized that as long as he was doing what he was supposed to be doing, his being labeled a success or failure by others

really didn’t matter.


Picture this.  Paul is sitting at a desk in a room in one of the port cities of western Turkey.  At his feet are bags of money he has collected from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia—that is Modern Greece—money for the poor saints in Jerusalem.  On the desk is the parchment on which he is writing the Letter to the Romans.  By his own witness in the letter, he longs to go home to Rome, but he must take the money to Jerusalem for the saints.  He will send the letter to Rome by one of the ships anchored in the port.  He will board another ship anchored for Caesarea, and from there travel overland to Jerusalem.  He is literally torn between Rome and Jerusalem.


We are like Paul, we struggle with the demands of life, with the demands placed on us by the two worlds in which we live—we are constantly pulled in two directions.  As believers we are the children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom.  “Jesus is Lord,” is far more than a casual confession.  It is both the gospel reality into which we have been born again and the relationship through which we know God.  On the other hand, we live as residents of planet earth, members of a common humanity in rebellion against God.  We are, In Paul’s words, part of a reality that is in a “bondage of decay.”  We are crying out for God’s liberation and God’s peace.  Especially now in these days of uncertainty, fear and unrest.  Believers who take their confession, “Jesus is Lord” seriously, know Paul’s anguish.


The first line of the PCUSA’s Brief Statement of Faith (one of our 20th C. Confessions), is reminiscent of Jesus’ reassurance to the disciples.  It reads, simply, “In life and in death we belong to God.”  Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we really lived into the truth of this statement?  Maybe we would be far less interested in arguing “for” or “against” alternative ways to God and more concerned with bearing witness to the One who is the Way, the one who entered into the human condition and redeemed it.


When the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth was asked the question, “will people of other faiths be saved?”  He answered, “The Christian hopes that everyone will make it in the end, but preaches as though hell is real.”  This is certainly a very respectable Presbyterian response.  It upholds the sovereignty and the love of God by humbly recognizing both that the final determination is not ours to make and that we who know the Way are not to sit idly on the sidelines.


A man once said to a friend, “I hear you dismissed your pastor.  What was wrong?”  The friend said, “Well, he kept telling us we were going to hell.”  The first man asked “What does the new pastor say?”  “He says we are all going to hell, too.”  “So, what’s the difference?” the friend asked.  “Well, the difference is that when the previous pastor said it, he sounded like he was glad about it; but when the new pastor says it, she sounds like its breaking her heart.”  That is what Paul is saying in this passage.  This passage is so small, but jammed packed, isn’t it?  It is breaking his heart that he has to say harsh things to and about nonbelievers, especially is own kinsmen.


The text suggests that God is working to bring about the redemption of all creation, including those who reject the good news of Christ.  Paul’s litany of the Jewish people’s heritage in vs. 4-5 is a sobering reminder that God is not without a witness to God’s faithfulness.  He writes, “They are of Israel, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all.”  Paul is saying that God’s world bears witness to God’s power and majesty.  Here—through Israel, God continues to bear witness to God’s desire that all humanity be saved.  Caught up in his own rhetoric, Paul breaks into doxology: “God over all, forever praised! Amen.”  Even though Jews and Gentiles reject the good news of Christ, God’s love is eternally faithful.

W.H. Griffith Thomas wrote, “and so Paul loves, and longs, and prays and strives and writes, and works for Israel’s salvation.  Have we these marks of a soulwinner?  What a rebuke they are to our dullness, dryness, and deadness.  He said a pastor once asked a friend to find him a Curate, and said that he wanted a man ‘whose heart was aglow with the love of souls.’  Such was the Apostle, such ought we to be.  If we are not, shall we not seek to ‘abound in grace also?”


Remember those days we watched in horror the terror of 911?  At the same time an article appeared in USA Weekend on fear.  It included a poll ranking things Americans fear most, from being killed in a car crash or developing cancer, to loss of a job, inadequate social security, and a stock market crash.  Today we are experiencing new fears we had not dreamed possible until now.  Covid -19, giant killer bees, fires scorching the beautiful mountains of the west, food that is unsafe, a replay of the depression we thought would never happen again, massive hurricanes, tornados and explosions with the magnitude of an earthquake, riots, global warming—well let me just sum it up, the furry of nature.  God is not happy with the world right now.  I am reminded of a repeat of ancient history called the plagues.

Our God is a God of nature, who can work through nature when our spirits are dead and take each darkness as nonchalant.  The point is we are living in a culture of fear, nurtured by our media and consumed by us as daily bread until we are numb.  The author of the article suggested that each night’s evening news should begin with a statement like this: “We’re surprised you made it through another day.  Here’s what happened to those who didn’t.”  The author focuses on the self-inflicted fears that plague us and genuine risks about which, we ought to be concerned.


In reading the connections between this USA Weekend article and 911, I found myself caught between two realities: one, that most of us in the US live in far more relative safety, day to day, than the millions of people in the developing world for whom war, famine and pestilence are daily realities; the other, that for every one of us, rich or poor, the death rate is still 100%.  We are all certain to die of something, whether it turns out to be old age, the ravages of disease, or something more violent.  So, the basic question becomes, how will we face it?  Will we live in denial of our finitude?  Will fear of our certain demise haunt us like a phantom?  Or will we find a way to go about our lives, trying to not to put ourselves at risk, but trusting that we can live and love and work and do good things and celebrate life in the assurance that our mortality has been addressed by One whose presence encompasses us at every moment?


That is fact. It is what the Resurrection of Christ is all about.  It’s not just an old story.  It’s not just a fundamental theological tenant.  It’s the source of fearless living.  It’s the ground of courage for those who give their lives to free the oppressed.  It’s the comfort of those who suffer.  It is the antidote to fear that we shall perish in some violent confrontation or event.


Paul has stated the nature of the heritage of Israel.  He has pointed out their past, especially in the divine purpose of things.  He is trying to show the way by which the Messiah has come, the steps by which God led his people to the point where they might be ready to accept his greatest gift.  It is the fulfilment of the OT in the NT which gives significance to Christians, but it is also this for Paul that constitutes the tragic irony of Israel.  He sees that all the experiences of his people presuppose a certain kind of climax; without the entire process would remain incomplete.  Then he sets forth a catalog of Israel’s blessings and concludes with God’s crowning gift.  To all this there is only one appropriate response: and exclamation of gratitude.  We sing the words of Charles Wesley: “then let us adore and give him his right, all glory all power, all wisdom and might, all honor and blessings with angels above, and thanks never ceasing and infinite love.”  The world is in conflict and it always will be until He comes.  But you don’t have to be.  God is in love with you.  May we praise God forever, Amen!


Closing prayer:  Holy God, it is your Spirit which searches all things and your love bears all things.  Come to us in truth and mercy today.  We are often blind to the ways that lead to the hearts and needs of others and to you.  Give us your light, O Lord, and take away our darkness.  And when we see ourselves as we are, let us not stand confused and helpless. Give us your grace, to take away our fears and to strengthen our sluggish hearts.  We pray your word will give us increased understanding of the scope of our task as servants of Christ.  Encourage us to seek new depths of dedication and inspire us to take more seriously our opportunities for preparation for the task of witnessing to your truths to a world that is hurting.  Teach us to forgive ourselves and others, for until we do, we cannot fully live and work in your love.  Then send us out into the world to bring peace to those in conflict, comfort to those who suffer, and aid to those who have less.  You know our hearts and needs and those for whom we have named.  Minister to them with your mighty hand.  May your Spirit revive them anew.  Make us instruments of your love and peace made known in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom we live and move and have our being.  We pray all this through your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever.  Amen.

August 16, 2020

“Learning Mercy”

Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 45:1-15/Gospel Lesson: Matthew 15:10-14, 21-28

August 23, 2020

“Small Imaginations”

Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah: 13-17/Gospel Lesson: Matthew 21:10-13

August 30, 2020   

“Hindrance or Wings”

Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 53:67-12/Gospel Lesson: Matthew 16:21-28