Christmas Warfare

December 19th, 2013 No comments

Christmas Warfare
Every year, I just have to chuckle a little bit about the pundits and pastors weeping and wailing over the so-called “War on Christmas.” Apparently businesses frantically trying to respect their clientele by saying “Happy Holidays” and government sensitivity to religious freedom and the separation of church and state are ruining Christmas for us all. Of course, not even Herod’s bloody War on Christmas was able to destroy Christmas, and the Powers that Be would later kill the Christ but still lose the War on Christmas. I don’t think today’s religious hyper-sensitivity will destroy Christmas, either.

But as I was reading through the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke this year, I was struck that Christmas really has much to do with warfare.

“Fear not, the Lord is with you”
In the Christmas stories, unlikely people are repeatedly given the promise, “Fear not. . . the Lord is with you.”1 In fact, the entire Gospel of Matthew is framed by this promise.2 This is more than mere pious platitude; it is, among other things, traditional holy war language. It is the ancient battle cry of the children of Israel.3 This is the cry with which Moses rallies the people of Israel in the quintessential Old Testament Holy War at the Exodus (Ex. 14:13-14).

Political Intrigue and Subversion
Curiously, both Matthew and Luke make mention of significant political authorities in their birth narratives. What could a baby born into rags have to do with kings and emperors? Matthew’s narrative revolves around the sinister machinations of Herod, Rome’s client “King of the Jews.” Herod became king when, with the backing of Rome, he besieged and captured Jerusalem and ordered the execution of the ruling “King of the Jews,” Antigonus II. The Magi from the east come searching specifically for the child born “King of the Jews.” Herod perceived the child as a rival king and therefore a military, political, and mortal threat. Thus Herod launched the horrific War on Christmas (Mt. 2:16).

Political themes whispered in Matthew are shouted in Luke. It is Caesar Augustus’s census decree that lands Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Augustus’s birth was hailed as “the beginning of the good tidings [“gospel”] of the world.” Because he established the Roman Peace (Pax Romana/Augusti), he was revered as a shining light, a Savior sent by Providence. Augustus was all too happy to oblige, eagerly claiming the title of “Son of the Divine.”4 Later Caesars would require their subjects to confess them as Lord and God.5 Strikingly, Luke refers to Jesus as Son of God (1:35), Savior, and Lord (2:11).6 His birth is hailed as “good tidings [“gospel”]. . . for all people” (2:10), which marks the “shining” of an age of peace (1:78-79; 2:13).

Mary’s prophetic song (1:46-55) makes all these undertones explicit: proud hearts are scattered; the powerful are dethroned; the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled; and the rich leave empty-handed. It is the subversive language of revolution. The true Lord has arrived in the frailty of a tiny newborn, wrapped not in royal robes, but rag cloths; laid not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because this baby was apparently not considered important enough for more refined accommodations. This, we are told, is the true King.

Angels
Often the Christian imagination conjures up images of Precious Moments angel children singing sweetly through the night. But the heavenly host of the Christmas stories are more like God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “army”) who combat the spiritual forces that oppose the purposes of God.7 Their message is not a pious table grace, but a triumphant battle cry. No wonder the shepherds were quaking in their sandals.

Gabriel in particular, whose name means roughly “God is my strength,” is mentioned only in Daniel and Luke. He is of some slightly lower or similar rank to his comrade, the illustrious archangel Michael, “one of the chief princes.” Both Gabriel and Michael join battle with the forces opposed to the purposes of God, identified with worldly kingdoms.8 In Daniel, he is “the man Gabriel” (9:21), “having the appearance of a man” (9:15). The presence of this battle-hardened messenger evokes fear (9:17). When the priest Zechariah dares to question Gabriel, Gabriel thunders indignantly, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!” (Luke 1:19). Zechariah was scared speechless! The angels come announcing the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior is at hand, the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, and Gabriel is the chief recruitment officer of heaven’s armies.

To War!
It would seem to be an incredibly bizarre way to frame the coming of a child born into rags. What could be more commonplace, more frail, more human? What does a baby have to do with battles and bloodshed? Yet this child’s advent is surrounded by a terrible war of cosmic proportion!

Depending on your view of holy war in the trajectory of biblical revelation, the New Testament completely replaces, rejects, redeems, upends, transposes, subverts, and/or fulfills OT holy war traditions. Following the lead lamb-of-godof Zech. 9:9-10, Jesus and his disciples make a pure mockery of military-royal pomposity in the (Anti-)Triumphal Entry. The Pauline writings spiritualize warfare (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Eph 6:12) and explicitly describe the “gospel of peace” as battle gear (Eph. 6:15)! In Revelation, Jesus’ weapon is his word of truth (19:15), and his robe is dipped in blood prior to battle. As John watches, suddenly the mighty pride fighter Lion shimmers into the Lamb Who Was Slain (5:5ff), the subversively true image of divine power and victory in battle. The faithful conquer by this Lamb’s blood, which they themselves also shed; by the courageous word of their testimony (martyria, 12:11); and by “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

The pathos of battle is retained in the mission and identity of God’s people, but its assault is redirected against the “spiritual forces of evil,” “principalities,” and “powers.” Its weaponry is remade into gear forged not of steel, but of truth, justice, gospel-peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word. Its tactics and strategies are prayer in the Spirit, service, sacrifice, martyrdom, peacemaking, patience, testimony, and obedience.

At any rate, if you want to know what holy warfare truly looks like, Christmas is the place to start. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing forever the victory of the Kingdom of God.

God is invading every corner of human life with grace and peace!

And the Infant King wants you! Join now the Child of Rags, the Lamb Who Was Slain, in the battle of the age against domination, violence, hatred, oppression, lust, deceit, bondage, Satan, Sin, and Death! Join now the Infant’s piercing cry of defiant hope! Join now invasion of justice, mercy, grace, and love! Join this Christmastide the whole host of the Kingdom of God in Bethlehem’s onslaught of peace and salvation! By the Lamb’s blood flowing in and from our veins will we conquer. By God’s word of truth will we overcome. By the gentle word of our testimony will we gain victory in the Spirit. By following the Lamb wherever he goes will we share his triumph. Do not be afraid! The child is named Immanuel, God with Us!

Notes:
1 Mt. 1:20, 23; Luke 1:13, 28, 30; 2:10-11
2 Mt. 1:20, 23; 28:5, 10, 20.
3 See, e.g. Deut. 20:1; Joshua 1:5, 9; Judges 6:12; Isa. 7:4, 14; 41:10-13; cf. Gen. 21:22; Num. 14:42-43; Ps. 23:4-5; 27:1; 27; 46; 118:6.
4 Also in reference to his popular posthumous adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had been divinized by the Senate.
5 Cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:9.
6 Here Jesus is also called Christ, the title by which the Romans believed the Jews called their rulers.
7 See also Joshua 5:13-15.
8 Dan. 10:13, 21; cf Jude 1:9; Rev. 12:7.

Categories: Bible, Essays Tags: , ,

The Good Samaritan Parable

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“The Good Samaritan Parable” (Luke 10:25-37)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
November 3, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Lawyer
I had heard much about Jesus of Nazareth before I actually met him. My friends have mixed feelings about him. Some of my friends tell me about how he eats with tax collectors and sinners, those who are clearly unclean. And one of my friends even told me about the time that he invited Jesus over to his house and Jesus allowed a woman who was clearly a sinner to touch him, to anoint his feet with her hair. I couldn’t believe it.

And of course, they say he seems to have no regard for the Sabbath Law at all. Some saw him pluck grain and eat it on the Sabbath. And some of my other friends told me about when he healed someone on the Sabbath. There was a man with a withered hand whom he healed in the synagogue. And while I’m amazed at his power to heal, he should have known better than to chose that day. For the Law of Moses has very clear Sabbath regulations, which he seems to disregard completely. And to be honest, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with that. I mean, we can’t simply pick and choose which parts of the Law to follow.

And yet there are these amazing things that I have heard that he has done. I hear that he has healed a centurion’s son and that he cast demons out of a man who had been possessed for a long time. Other friends of mine told me how he had fed a crowd of over 5,000 with only 5 loaves and 2 fish. And Jairus told me that Jesus had raised his own daughter from the dead.

And I wonder, how can he do these things apart from God’s power? Some of my friends are sure that it is because he has a demon, but I’m not convinced. Why would Satan be working against his own kingdom like that?

These are truly miraculous things! It is almost as if the words of the prophet Isaiah are being fulfilled through this man for those who have long been held captive through disease and demons have been set free, and those who have long been blind or ill have recovered their sight and been healed!

I don’t agree with everything that he does, but I have a good deal of respect for him. He seems to be a great teacher and he has gathered quite a group of followers (I mean, he recently sent out 70 people to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom). And if he would just change a few of his practices, I feel that he would become a great leader. And if he would just take the Law of Moses more seriously, this man who does such amazing things could be remembered for a long time.

But I was curious about how he felt about following God’s Law after hearing all these things, and so when I heard he was speaking in my village, I decided to test him to find out. I wanted to find out for myself whether or not he thought it important to follow God’s commandments.

So I asked him how one inherits eternal life, as any good teacher of the Law knows that one inherits eternal life through following God’s Law.

He responded to my question with a question of his own. It almost made me wonder, who is the one who is really being tested here?

But I answered him as I thought any good Jew should answer, straight from the Torah, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I mean, this pretty much sums up the 10 commandments, doesn’t it? The first four teach us how to love God and the last 6 teach us how to love our neighbor.

And he told me that I had responded correctly, as I knew that I had.

And so, wanting to let him know that I righteously followed the Law, I decided to ask him “And who is my neighbor?” I fully expected him to answer from the book of Leviticus, that “you shall not hate anyone of your own kin” and that “you shall not bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”1 I fully expected him to say “Your relative, your friend, your fellow Jew” whereas I would have responded faithfully, “I have fully loved these” and that he would have praised me for fulfilling the Law.

But instead he responded with a story, about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead, and about the three who came upon this man on the side of the road.

The Priest2
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho has always been a dangerous road. And so when I came upon a stripped and bloody man lying on the side of the road, I was not surprised. This was not the first beaten man I had come upon who had fallen prey to the robbers and bandits who lie in wait behind the rocks along this treacherous highway. One feels sorry for anyone who falls to such a fate. And one shudders to think how excruciating the last thoughts of such a man might be as he waits to die, bloody and alone in the ditch.

If the man wasn’t already dead when I passed by, he certainly would be soon. And I felt sorry for him; I really did. But there was little that I could do to help him. As a man who has been called by God to be a priest, there are very specific ways that we are called to live as befit such a high and holy calling. We are to avoid all contact with anything unclean to avoid being contaminated by the powers of sin; and we cannot perform our priestly and holy duties while we are in a state of uncleanness. You see, I cannot even come within 4 cubits of a corpse without defiling myself and so I could not even get close enough to the man to see if he needed my help without risking defilement especially since there was such a good chance that he was already dead and beyond my aid.

Do you know how humiliating it is to undergo the ritual of purification? I’m called to be a leader within the community, an example to others of what it means to live righteously. What would the people think if I stood with those who were unclean at the Eastern gate in front of the altar? Would they think that I had been influenced by the powers of sin? Would they think that I was no longer fit for my high calling?

Not only would I publicly humiliate myself in front of those who I am called to be a good example to, but I would need to complete the ritual of purification which involves finding and purchasing a red heifer to sacrifice upon the altar until it was reduced to ashes. This process of purification takes an entire week; it is very time consuming and very costly. And my family would suffer through the expense of the cow and through my not being able to perform my sacred duties during the time that I would remain unclean. They might even have to go without food because I would be unable to provide for them and we would not receive the food that I receive for performing my duties.

It is most unfortunate what happened to this man. And I hope that someone will take pity on him and at least give him a proper burial. But because God has called me to live a life that it set apart and holy, it could not be me. I cannot defile myself due to the holiness of the office that God has called me to. And who am I to go against the Law of Moses just to help this man who was most likely already dead and beyond my aid?

This is a very dangerous road. And it’s sad that yet another man had to fall victim to it.

May God have mercy on his soul.

The Levite
I saw a priest pass by a beaten man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. I can completely understand why he did this, as he could not risk contaminating his holy calling by coming in contact with a corpse or with a non-Jew. And since this man had been stripped of his clothing, there was no way for the priest to identify this man’s nationality.

But my own calling does not require that I follow such strict regulations of purity as the priest is called to do.3 And so I decided to stop and at least check on the state of this poor man4 whom fate decided should meet with such an unfortunate predicament. He appeared to be unconscious, but he was still breathing. But I wondered, “What should I do for this poor man?” His breathing was shallow and so perhaps death was close enough that, regardless of what I did, he would still die. Perhaps it was best not to prolong the inevitable.

Besides, even if I was able to clean and bandage his wounds, there would be no way for me to transport him to a safe place. I had no beast of my own to carry him and he was too heavy for me to carry a long distance and so I would have to wait until someone else would come by who would be willing to help transport this poor man. And chances were good that I myself would be attacked by robbers before someone would come along who would be willing to help. And then they would need to transport two men to safety, or even worse, bury two corpses.

I really felt sorry for the man, but what could I do, especially since there were no guarantees for his safety or for my own safety.

Or what if he was simply pretending to be hurt and that he was just waiting for some naive victim who was kind enough to help him, but then he in turn would rob and harm me?

Or what if he deserved what he got? Maybe he was flaunting his wealth and so he was bound to attract the attention of bandits. Or maybe he has been a terrible person, and God sought to punish him because of his unrighteous living and who am I to go against God and come to the aid of a sinner?

But again, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s right when I see people who are in need of help or who are begging for money or bread. I hate to see people suffering; I really do. But I’m just one person. There’s so much suffering that happens in this world, and what can I do to help alleviate all of the pain? Where does one even begin? One would get overwhelmed and burnt-out if we tried to help everyone who needed our aid.

And so I went on my way, hoping that someone else would come along who would help this man. For I did not feel that I was able to do so.

The Samaritan
I had seen both a priest and a Levite walk past a beaten man on the side of the road, and so I had assumed that he was dead. But as I got closer to him, I noticed that this was not the case, and that he was still breathing. And I felt moved with compassion for this poor man. I know that it was likely that he was not a fellow Samaritan, as we were in Judea, but no one should have to suffer such a fate, alone and forsaken, bleeding and broken, dying on the side of the road. What would his family say when he didn’t come home? What would happen to his wife and children? What would they think if they never knew the fate of their husband and father?

Perhaps it was a foolish thing, but I felt in my gut that I could not simply leave this man to die if there was anything that was within my power to save him.

And so I poured oil and wine over his wounds to clean them, and I bound his wounds with strips of cloth from my own garment. And I placed him on my own animal and took him to an inn, where I was able to continue taking care of him. And once I saw that he would be okay, I decided that it was time for me to be on my way. But not before making sure to pay for this man. After all, all that he had had been taken from him, and he would have no way of paying for himself. And I did not want to put him further in debt and make things worse. And then I was on my way, and I was glad that I could help a fellow human being in need. And that’s it. That’s all I did.

I do not judge the priest or the Levite for acting as they did. They did what they thought was right and they did what they had to do based upon their own callings. And I’m sure no one would blame them for acting as they did.

For myself, I helped him because, well, I would hope that someone would show the same kindness to me if I were in such dire need. And I did it because I follow God. I didn’t feel obligated to because of this; no one would blame me for not helping someone who was most likely an enemy. But I did it because of God’s deep love for us and because God saves us even when we do not deserve it.

And I’m not comparing myself to God. I mean, I certainly have my own flaws and am in no way perfect, let alone a hero. But I have experienced God’s love in my own life and I felt called to show God’s love and healing to someone who needed it. Maybe if it were a different day and I had saw this man lying on the side of the road then, I would have passed by. I don’t know. Please don’t assume that I have all the answers on what it means to follow God and live a righteous life. I just happened to see a fellow human being in need, and I took pity on him.

The Lawyer
I have pondered my encounter with Jesus for a long time now. And I am still struck by the things that he said to me.

First of all, a Samaritan? Really? Was he making a statement on how he feels about me and other religious leaders teachers and all of us fellow Jews who are faithfully trying to follow God’s Law? Was this why he made the Samaritan be the one who acted rightly? I mean, we’re all just trying to follow God’s Law as best we can.

I mean, the Law says that my neighbor is my fellow Jew, my kin. What Jesus is asking, well, it’s almost as if he’s asking me to love my enemy! And well, that’s impossible for mortals!

I’ve been taught from a young age that Samaritans are cursed and that they will not receive eternal life. I was so sure that the third person in his parable was going to be a righteous Jew. Even had the Jew been the one to help a Samaritan, that would have been easier for me to take at the time.

But I suppose that I’m not the one who ultimately sets limits on who God can and cannot work through. I mean, Abraham lied about his wife’s identity, and God still used him to become the ancestor of all of my people. Rahab was a prostitute, yet she played an influential role in helping my people enter into the Promised Land. Ruth was a foreigner from the land of Moab, and yet she became the great grandmother of King David. Who am I to say who God can and cannot work through?

But a Samaritan? Really? At the time I was so shocked, maybe even angry at who he had chosen to respond in the morally righteous way, that I couldn’t even bring myself to name the Samaritan for who he was. “The one who showed him mercy.” That’s what I said.

A Samaritan … is my neighbor …

But I guess I’m focusing too much on the question that I asked Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t really interested in answering my question, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wasn’t really interested in answering who’s in and who’s out, although perhaps he began to answer that question by choosing who he did for his parable.

But instead, Jesus was much more interested in the question, “To whom must I become a neighbor?”5

And it feels as though Jesus was trying to say to me that in order to fulfill God’s Law, I am called to reach out in costly compassion to all people, even to my enemies. Even if it seems impossible to us, all things are possible for God.6

We will all stand before God on that day. And I suppose that God won’t be focusing on whether or not I noticed who all was following God’s Law or who wasn’t, but that the focus will be upon my own life, how I myself lived and how I myself followed God’s commandments; how I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and how I loved my neighbor as myself.

So that’s really what I have been pondering here of late, as I walk along the road and see all the faces of the people I encounter as I journey, Jews and Samaritans, Male and Female, Slave and Free, Friend and Enemy, and I wonder: how can I go and be a neighbor to others?

Notes:
1. Leviticus 19:17-18.
2. All ideas on purity regulations are taken from Kenneth Bailey’s Through Peasant Eyes and his chapter on the Good Samaritan.
3. Above taken from Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes.
4. The text seems to suggest that the Levite does more than the priest. The priest “saw him, and passed by on the other side.” The Levite “came to the place and saw him.”
5. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 55.
6. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 55.

Love One Another

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“Love one another” (John 13:34-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 27, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Life of Division
The first couple of weeks of this month, several hundred thousand workers stayed home from work. Parks and monuments closed. Public service workers were put on hold as the United States government shut down. In the past couple of years around the world, thousands have lost jobs, savings, retirements, families, homes, and even their lives as competing factions have vied to establish political rule.

The gap between the rich and the poor is growing ever wider around the globe. Previous allies point fingers at one another and reveal their deep-seated mistrust, just as our friendships and long-standing partnerships so quickly come to an end over bitterness, jealousy, resentment, and fear.

Many anticipate the approaching holidays with trepidation. Will there be conflict at family reunions? Will hurtful words be spoken? Will cousins and siblings and parents and children refuse to talk to each other? Will they even show up?

Several congregations left our conference over the past year. The church the world over is as disparate and fractured now as it ever has been, as congregations and traditions and denominations compete for members to fill their sanctuaries.

We live in a world of division. We’re taught to fear those who are different than we are. We learn to be suspicious of those who don’t think like we do. Old wounds fester in us with a tenacity that fills us with bitterness and resentment that so quickly spills over to innocent bystanders and stalemates relationships in gridlock.

While sometimes it may be the best we can do in this broken world in order to contain evil, we learn to walk out so quickly on conversations, friends, families, marriages, even churches.

When we’re not the “favorite” in the family; When we don’t quite fit in with the “right” group at church; when our interests or friends don’t put us in the running for the popularity contest; when our work loses it significance or we’re asked to make decisions that compromise our integrity, we hide our true selves from each other and put on the masks that we think others want to see and become divided from our own souls, and, most fundamentally, from God.

We live in a world of division.

The still, small voice, the Christ within, speaks the truth. We hear it, yet pretend we do not. We deny the darkness within, “giving it more power” over us rather than letting the light of Christ reveal it, or we “project it onto other people, creating ‘enemies’ where none exist” and make true relationships with God and others impossible due to our own inauthenticity.1

In our divided lives, we “harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people. . . We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change. . . We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked.”2

We live in a world of division, separation, mistrust, suspicion, judgment, alienation.

The Bible has a whole collection of metaphors for this state of existence of division and separation and alienation that comes from its own historical experience: We are lost. We are wandering. We are in captivity. We are away from home. We are strangers in a foreign land. We are in exile. We are walking in darkness.

A very particular kind of love
Division, separation, and darkness begin descending over Jesus and his disciples in John 13. Jesus indicates Judas Iscariot as the one who will betray him. The band of disciples begins to fall apart. Jesus warns Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows. Even Jesus will soon be departing. Judas Iscariot gets up and rushes out. And, the text says, it was night.

The pall of darkness is descending as the group falls apart, riddled by betrayal, denial, and rivalry. Indeed, at the moment of Jesus’ death, there are only a few who are left. The commandment to love one another is a blazing light in a world of darkness, division, separation, and alienation.

Jesus has just modeled what that love looks like in an enacted parable of washing his disciples’ feet. This love, the love that heals division, leads the wayward home, looses the chains of captivity, and blazes in the darkness is a very particular kind of love. Wal-Mart doesn’t sell greeting cards about this kind of love. When you go to the Breadbasket and say, “Wow, I love verenike!” that is not this kind of love.

This kind of love does not come from us, but is a gift of God. Paul describes it as the “more excellent way.” In the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, which we so often hear at weddings, Paul is speaking of this love that Jesus commands his followers. The church in Corinth was immensely talented and gifted, but it seems that there were some who were showing off their spiritual gifts – even to the point of discouraging people in their faith and disrupting or dominating worship meetings like noisy gongs or clanging cymbals, and causing divisions in the church because of their preoccupation with pride and power and achievement.

By contrast, Paul says,

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Everything that we do can become self-serving and obnoxious and damaging if we do not do it for love and in love.

This is a love that serves. In 1 John, the author asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:17-18). This kind of love isn’t mere sentimentality. It is costly, even sacrificial. As 1 John goes on to say famously,

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as atonement for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12, NRSV)

The apostle Paul even proclaims, most startlingly, that Jesus, in his death on the cross has accomplished nothing less than the abolition of the dividing wall, the enmity that divides us, and that he has reconciled us to God in one body, through the cross, killing enmity through it (Eph. 2:16).

Jesus says that we are to love one another with that same deep, costly, self-giving love that even lays down one’s life for one’s friends. So radical is this love that comes from God that it is to be the main badge, the main identifier, the bright light that identifies the community of Christ’s followers.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – a visible display of the love of an invisible God. Our love for one another is to be a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which has broken down dividing walls, ended division, reconciled us, redeemed us, adopted us, and built us all together as a dwelling-place for God and God’s love.

On our own, we love only partially, so incompletely. We love when it serves our interests. We love with hearts that are begrudging. We love for show. We spend our love with the same frugality that we spend our money. Or we love by whim and fancy. When Jesus repeats the command to love one another in John 15, he says to them, “Abide in me, abide in my love.” We we abide in the vine, in the Word, in the life and light and truth of the world, in hope and in faith, then we’re drawing our strength from the complete, wholesome love that comes from God, not from us.

Seeing through a mirror, dimly
Many of you have lived much longer and given much more of yourselves to the church than I have, so you may disagree with me here, and that’s fine. But what I’ve observed is that there’s one thing that undermines mutual love and unity in the church more than just about anything else. And it’s not exactly greed or pride or envy or individualism or fear or difference of opinion and conviction, thought let’s be honest, all of those exist.

But one of our most basic problems is that we make assumptions rather than really, carefully listening to one another. As Paul said, we see through a mirror, dimly. We overhear one part of a conversation, we read one sentence of a note or an email, or catch one glance that seemed different, and our minds suddenly spin out elaborate explanations from a set of inferences and assumptions. All in a split second.

All of us do that. Every one of us. I know I do all the time. It’s how our minds work. It’s how our minds have to be able to work because we often have to make decisions based on partial information. But so often the assumptions and inferences we make about one another are more a dim reflection of our own fears or anxieties or hopes or needs, and not who the other truly is.

I learned a lot about what this love means when I was a student at Bethel College. On one occasion, there was a student whom I’ll call Charles, who really got under my skin. He had transferred into the computer science program from another school. He was a nice enough guy, but he was always late for class, and always late turning in assignments, and the programs he wrote worked, but were stylistically sloppy.

And I got assigned as his partner for a series of group programming projects in class. So we agreed on who would write which part of the project. I got mine done, and the due date was approaching, so in class I’d ask to see how it was coming, “Oh yeah, I’ll send it, I’ll send it.” But I didn’t get it, so I sent him an email – you know, the kind where you try to be polite but also communicate a sense of urgency?

“Hey, hope the project is coming along. It’s due tomorrow morning, so if you send it to me, I’ll get it turned in for us.” Well, I ended up staying up late finishing his part of the project because we were graded on the finished product and I wasn’t about to let my grade suffer. Same thing the next week, and the next. And I was getting really tired – literally – of staying up late doing his work.

And I was getting all worked up in a lather about it. So I had in mind to send him an email expressing my displeasure. You know, it’s easier to do that sort of thing over email than in person so you don’t have to look the person in the eye. Well, I was going to tell him how his approach to school wasn’t going to cut it in a place like this. And I was tired of doing his work for him. And he needed to get his act together. Along those lines.

That day, the campus pastor stopped me between classes. I was a student chaplain, and she said to me, “We just got a call from Charles’ mom. She says he’s severely depressed and really needs some help right now. Since you’re in his major, why don’t you go visit with him.” And my jaw just about hit the floor. He ended up dropping the class to ease his schedule so he could work with a mental health specialist and work out a plan and medication to manage the depression, and did just fine after that.

But my goodness, what damage could I have done if I’d sent him that email! He covered it so well with a cheerful, outgoing, friendly, charismatic personality. I had just assumed that he was irresponsible and had his priorities mixed up. I’d never thought to ask him how school was going and if there was anything I could do to help.

When I was in the college concert choir, which was often sort of like its own little church, our choir director would often share with the choir significant life events of the choir members: a death in the family, an achievement, a severe illness, an engagement. And every time before he would share such news with the choir, he would say, “Another reminder today of how each others’ lives are infinitely more complex than we can imagine. . .”

I’ve often reflected on that. We see in a mirror, dimly. There’s such an infinite range of possibilities of motivations and hopes and fears and emotions and experiences behind each person in each situation. It’s a simple grace we can offer to extend the benefit of the doubt to one another. And it’s a simple act of love to take the time to listen to one another for what others truly need, and not what we may think they need.

When I was growing up, there was a family in the community who lived in very poor conditions, a clay house with a shoddy roof and dirt floors. And so some of the churches in the area decided to do something about it, and they raised the money and the volunteer labor to build a house for this family. They thought it curious as they were building that the family didn’t help, and curiouser still that they weren’t terribly grateful when the work was finished, and then sold the house within a year and moved elsewhere.

Later on they realized that no one had ever really asked the family if they wanted or needed a new house, or to what their true needs were. So quickly our assumptions, even in the very best of intention, run us astray when we don’t take the time to listen attentively.

In Romans 12, Paul describes the path to love that is without hypocrisy: associating with the lowly and living in harmony and extending hospitality to strangers so as to cure ourselves from our tendency to think too much of our own thinking and thinking ourselves wiser than we really are. We see in a mirror, dimly.

We live in a world of division, separation, mistrust, suspicion, judgment, alienation. But abiding in Christ and in his mind and his life, regarding others as better than ourselves and looking to their interests before our own, we may love one another with the same love that Christ loved us and gave his life for us – love that overcomes division, love that reconciles, love that endures, love that forbears, love that cares, love that listens, love that is patient and kind and that gives and gives and gives out of the abundance given us. That is our witness for the world. May it be how our neighbors, how our friends, how our enemies, and indeed, how the world knows us. Amen.

Notes:
1. Palmer, 4. Palmer also lists several hallmarks of the divided life here.
2. Ibid., 6.

Take up your cross and follow

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“Take up your cross and follow” (Mark 8:34-36)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 29, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When we were in Israel and Palestine, on our last day before going to Jerusalem, we visited Caesarea Philippi, clear north of Galilee, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Patty, our leader, said to us, “Here begins the way of the cross, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering.” Here Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, and here Jesus speaks for the first time about his death, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” Here our minds move from human thoughts to divine thoughts. Here our eyes begin to open to who Jesus truly is, and who we are called to be.

It’s like what happened in the village called Bethsaida, just before Jesus went on to Caesarea Philippi. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and Jesus laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up, and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus had to lay his hands on the blind man’s eyes a second time, and then he could see clearly. At Caesaea Philippi, Jesus’ disciples begin to see, though not yet clearly.

I’ve often thought I have an idea how the partially blind followers of Jesus must have felt. Without corrective lenses, I have very poor eyesight. Without glasses or contacts, I can see, but it’s all fuzzy and blurry, like opening your eyes underwater. As a matter of fact, once when I was in high school playing summer league basketball in Hesston, I lost a contact lens during a play. And even though I still had one good eye, so disorienting was it that I actually passed the ball directly to the other team without even knowing it. And I stood dumbfounded as everyone started rushing to the other end of the court! It’s actually enough to make a person’s head hurt. Would that I had lost both contacts instead of just one and knew well enough not to pass the ball!

Well, my namesake Peter’s head was hurting, all right. He’d been with Jesus almost since the very beginning when Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. He had seen, with his own two eyes, the amazing works of power: casing out demons, healing a leper, restoring a paralytic, calming the storm and the seas with the word of his mouth, healing a woman who was sick for twelve years, raising a girl from the dead, feeding over 5000, walking on water, healing a deaf-mute man, feeding over 4000 more people, and restoring sight to the blind man at Bethsaida. And Peter’s eyes have seen it all.

Jesus has been going toe-to-toe with Satan, with sickness and disease of all kind, with the powers of evil, with death itself, and he as not blinked, but has emerged victorious at every turn. Here at last has the power and glory of God been revealed. Here at last has come the redemption of Israel, of the world. Here at last is the dawn of the victorious kingdom of God on earth. Here at last, for anyone with eyes to see, has come God’s Messiah, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth!

Anyone who can do all that will get quite a following, and Jesus did. Jesus’ works of power are so amazing that Peter has left his family fishing business. He has left his home. He would even later say to Jesus, “Lord we have left everything to follow you.” Peter has staked his whole future on the hope that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the anointed, the long-awaited Messiah.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter exclaims! And he is right. Of course he his right. Jesus is the Messiah. But Peter’s vision is yet blurred. He cannot see Jesus clearly. He’s pointing in the right direction, but he can’t see the person at whom he is pointing. Technically correct, but practically wrong.

Jesus rebukes them all for their completely correct yet woefully wrong answer, saying that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die, he’s supposed to put an end to all that! It’s like suddenly Peter gets a glimpse of perfect vision in one eye, and it’s so disorienting it’s making his head hurt.

Well, you know how the story goes. Peter actually rebukes Jesus, and Jesus says, in one of the most striking lines in Scripture, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting you mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

He then goes on to say to the disciples and the crowd around them, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let that one deny oneself and take up one’s cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What a complete headache! It’s enough to make anyone’s mind go in circles. Should not faith protect us from suffering? “The Lord is the stronghold of my life, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. He will not let your foot be moved!” (various Psalms)

Should not responding in faith draw us into the fortress of God’s protection and the victorious kingdom of God? Should it not be our life, our success, our abundance, our comfort, our help? Is there not enough suffering and rejection and alienation in human life without all this? This isn’t how you win the world and gain followers! Suffering, bearing crosses, losing one’s life – that’s not a recipe for success. Only people with the most warped minds would find that invitation appealing. Safety, refuge, protection, and a modest measure of success and blessing, is that not what we want and expect from God? It’s completely disorienting!

Jesus knows that only those who follow him to the cross will be able to see clearly who he is and what his kingdom looks like. If his disciples stop before getting to the cross, they will have only a blurry, distorted understanding of Jesus. Other miracle workers, other exorcists, other authoritative teachers, other political leaders, others claiming the title “Messiah” have come and gone.

Jesus spends three chapters in Mark’s gospel trying to get his disciples to see who he truly is and what distinguishes him as uniquely God’s son. Three times he predicts his death and resurrection. Three times it makes his disciples’ heads spin. The next time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, his disciples immediately start arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus replies. More headaches.

The third time, immediately after Jesus foretells his death, James and John actually come up to Jesus and have the audacity to request to be seated at his right and at his left when he comes into his kingdom.

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The disciples just cannot see. It’s such a backward idea.

In Mark’s gospel, no human being truly sees Jesus until he dies on the cross, and then it is one of his executioners, a centurion, who finally and truly sees perfectly, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Only at the cross can anyone truly see who Jesus is, as the suffering Son of God who gives and gives and gives even his life to wrest the many from Satan’s grip.

That’s the only way to see, to truly see. I got glasses when I was in sixth grade. It had gotten bad enough that I could not even read the chalkboard when I was sitting in the front row. And I remember that, as we drove home from the eye doctor, I could look out the window and see branches and leaves on the trees. I could see rows in the fields and clouds in the sky. When those lenses dropped in front of my eyes, I could finally see. The cross is the lens, the glasses through which we can truly see who Jesus is, indeed, who God is, and who Jesus is calling us to be.

Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I never Knew, writes about looking upon life through these glasses. He says that in his career as a journalist, he has interviewed famous people: NFL football greats, authors, actors, politicians and such – the people who dominate the national attention, but he found this group to be tormented by self-doubt and worse. He also spent time among those he calls “servants.” An Ivy League graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago, relief workers across the globe, and ordinary people who care for one another. What he found was that these “servants” possessed qualities of depth and richness and even joy that he found nowhere else. People who work for low pay, long hours, no applause, often “wasting” their time and talent on the poor and hopeless. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them. And so will we.

Only in denying ourselves, Jesus says, in taking up the cross, and following after the path Jesus has cut do we find the freed and abundant life of Jesus. Yes, it does mean leaving aside human thoughts of security, even survival, and even our ideas about justice. And it does mean facing a ghastly death, if necessary. But you see, Jesus foretold not only his suffering, rejection, and death, but also his resurrection. “The cross is a way of living, not just a way of dying.”1

If you read through the New Testament, you’ll find that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are constantly talking about following Jesus, or waking in his footsteps, or taking his example, or being transformed and conformed to his image, or imitating him, or letting him rule in our hearts, or making his life visible in our own life. . . the list could go on and on and on.2 But what all these have in common is being joined with Jesus, sharing his life, his death, his resurrection.

As the church spread and grew and told the stories of Jesus over and over, it discovered that the symbol that captured the very essence of Jesus’ passion, his life, his heart and mind, was the cross. It was and is a symbol of incredible self-giving love, radical forgiveness, faithfulness unto death, trusting God even in suffering for the kingdom, humbleness and care for the least among us, the triumph of love over hatred, violence, and death, and the ultimate victory of God. Jesus told his followers, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

The rest of the NT echoes this foundational invitation of Jesus himself.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved you and gave himself up for you, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 4:-5:2)

“If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).

“God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atonement for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God. . . emptied himself. . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him” (Php. 2:3-11)

When we take up the cross of Christ, we not only accept suffering for the sake of the Kingdom; we also join Jesus in trusting God’s ultimate vindication. We join Jesus in living a life not of retaliation but of costly, redemptive love. We join Jesus in forgiving even those who do us the most harm. “When reviled, we bless. When persecuted, we patiently endure. When slandered, we speak kindly” (1 Cor. 4:12-13). We join Jesus in placing ourselves completely into the hands of God. We join Jesus in proclaiming and demonstrating the good news, and living the servant’s life.

Because we join with Jesus, we find perseverance in renouncing selfish sinful passions and preoccupations. Because we join with Jesus, we experience fellowship in his body and blood across racial and ethnic and social lines, and whatever walls previously divided us.

Because we are joined with Jesus in the cross, we find reconciliation with God. Because we are joined with Jesus in carrying his cross, we are also joined with Jesus in experiencing resurrection life both now already and in the everlasting age to come.

This is the sort of Kingdom this suffering Messiah brings. Paul once famously said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me!” (Gal. 2:20).

We can’t purchase it. Indeed, what can we give in return for our life? But we can receive it, and we can find that there are unending stores of it. We can yield to the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and accept the cross of Christ. We can be followers, not by our own power, but by God’s.

The night he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Because when we join Jesus in accepting the cross, we experience God’s forgiveness and grace, and we can join Jesus in saying yes to God and obediently yielding our will to God’s will and ways, no matter what the cost, no matter what the cross.

If you have denied yourself, if you’ve given up human thoughts to seek after divine thoughts, if you’ve identified yourself with Jesus by taking up your cross, then the cross you take up isn’t exactly yours. If you want to be Jesus’ follower, you are realizing that the truest, fullest life, the true goal of all human striving, is not your life but his. We don’t go seeking for our “true self” as the teachers of this age opine.

It’s not really about living life as an ascetic, and it’s certainly not about senseless suffering; it’s about denying one’s self as the “controlling center”3 and seeking first Christ and his kingdom as our center and chief loyalties, and receiving our “self,” our life, from him. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ. Selfish human thoughts become transformed into the divine thoughts of costly love, joyful obedience, and unimaginable reward in glory. If we take up his cross upon our own shoulders, he will carry its weight.

Truly it is no longer we who live, but this Christ who lives within us and who promises us new life in him. When we are joined with Christ in the cross, we put to death our slavery to sin, we leave behind the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

What that means to me is that whenever I meet someone whom I may consider to be an enemy or an outsider or a stranger or when someone speaks impatiently or unkindly to me – whether that person is a part of my family of faith or not – I am called to have the very same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself even to the point of death on the cross. I’m called to participate in the divine nature (as Peter put it) – the nature of God revealed first and foremost at the cross, where we see the primary means of God’s dealing with enemies (and outsiders and strangers): by absorbing hatred, violence, injustice, suffering, slander, and even death itself by death on the cross.

Because I know that, though I fail often, utterly, and miserably, if there is ever any victory I can win, if there is any barrier or wall I can climb over, if there is ever any enemy I can overcome, if there is ever any stranger or alien I can embrace, if there is any tense or hostile situation I can diffuse, it is not by my will (and perhaps not even truly of my desire), not by my power or strength or wisdom or abilities or any argument I could muster, nor by any carnal weapon made of human hands I could ever wield against any enemy –

But if I ever overcome anything, it is only by the word of testimony to Jesus Christ, and by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12), the blood through which we have all been brought near to God (Eph. 2:13), the blood which I trust courses through my own veins by the power of Christ who lives within me (Gal. 2:20), the same blood that I myself am called not to keep to myself but to pour out for others as I also seek to carry in the body the death of Jesus, that his life may also be made visible in me (2 Cor 4:10) in reconciliation, in welcome, and in embrace.

It is the Christ who lives within me through whose death God seeks reconciliation with God’s enemies, and through whose life God saves (Rom. 5:10). It is this Christ who tears down hostile walls and who is himself the cornerstone of the household of God, in whom we are all joined together and grow in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God by the boundless love – even of enemies, strangers, outsiders, and aliens – of God, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

This is the Jesus who calls, “Come, follow me.” This is the Lord who is great because he was least. This is the Savior who has ransomed us from Satan’s grasp. This is the Christ who lives within us and with whom our lives rest secure. It is his cross that we are called to bear in joyful, humble obedience. May we all be conformed more and more to the image and likeness of Christ, that in us, his life may be made clearly and plainly visible. Amen!

Notes:
1. Timothy Geddert, Mark, 211.
2. E.g. Mt. 5:44-48; Mt. 6:12, 14-15; Mt. 16:24; Mt. 18:32-33; Mark 8:34; Mark 10:42-45; Mark 11:25 (undivided as God is); Luke 6:32-36; Luke 9:23; Luke 11:4; John 13:14-16; John 13:34-35; John 15:12-14; John 17:22-23; John 20:21; Rom. 5:5; Rom. 6; Rom. 8:11; Rom. 8:29; Rom. 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; 2 Cor. 8:7-9; Gal. 2:19-20; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:20-24; Eph. 4:32-5:2; Eph. 5:22-28; Php. 1:29; Php. 2:1-11; Php. 3:10; Php. 3:21; Col. 1:24; Col. 2:12; Col. 2:20; Col. 3:1; Col. 3:9-10, 13; 1 Thess. 1:6-7; 2 Tim. 3:12; Heb. 12:1-3; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 Peter 2:21-24; 1 Peter 3:14-18; 1 Peter 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:12-19; 2 Peter 1:4-7; 1 John 1:5-7; 1 John 3:1-3; 1 John 3:11-16; 1 John 4:7-10; 1 John 4:17; Rev. 12:11
3. Geddert, 205.

The Lord is my Shepherd

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 20, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I lack nothing that I need
The 23rd Psalm is dearly beloved. And with good reason. The imagery of sheep gazing on green pasture under the care of a watchful shepherd offers blessed comfort to a life of frenzy. The promise of God’s presence even in the valley of the the shadow of death has spoken God’s mercy and peace in the midst of grief at many a graveside.

The words are familiar, perhaps the most familiar in the Old Testament. That familiarity, that well-known cadence, is a formative rudder amid the storms of life and a light in the valley of shadows. An anchor of the tradition of an ancient and hard-won faith amid the seas of chaos and change. Little wonder that we have chosen it as one of our twelve foundational passages for Grace Hill.

We hear Psalm 23 most often at funerals, at hospital beds, in waiting rooms. Moments of crisis, grief, pain, and anxiety. And rightly so, for these are beautiful words of comfort. But these are also words from the ancient everyday life of shepherding and hosting and the struggle for survival that are formative for faith for every day. Beneath these familiar and comforting words lies a radical vision for the people of God.

The first line of Psalm 23 is often translated, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In a culture that teaches us to want everything and constantly bombards us with messages specifically designed to prompt us believe that we need the latest, the greatest, the newest, the fastest, to say with the Psalmist “I shall not want” sounds radical.

How often do the messages we receive teach us to confuse what we need with what we want? It’s how consumer-drive society works – by convincing us that we don’t have everything we need. That what we have is insufficient and the upgrade to the latest and greatest is what we will need to succeed in the long run. That we need to accumulate more and more, to keep up, to achieve.

But the shepherd provides food in green pasture. The shepherd provides drink at the still waters. The shepherd provides protection from pitfalls and predators along right paths. The phrase “restores my soul” really has to do with vitality, with life-force, and with a sense of return. The shepherd protects life by leading me back when I stray from the flock.

Food, water, protection, and guidance.

Sheep have few defensive abilities. They are not particularly fast like deer, or large and imposing like cattle. Their main defense is to stick together, as a herd, and their ability to follow a shepherd. The modern sense of the word “want,” doesn’t quite describe what the shepherd provides, as if the shepherd provides luxury upon luxury. The shepherd provides food, water, protection, and guidance. Precisely what the sheep need. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing that I need.

As sheep owe their life to the shepherd, so we owe our lives to our God, who provides what we need “for his name’s sake.” God provides for our life because that is fundamentally who God is. How hard is it in our culture consumption and confusion to hear the simple good news: The Lord is the absolute and only necessity of life.

My academic training is as a computer scientist – the technology field. It’s a field that changes so rapidly that yesterday’s technology is soon obsolete because of today’s advancements, and if you even want to compete, you have to buy the latest. Companies and universities often have entire rooms full of fully functional but obsolete technology.

As the writer Thomas Merton once observed, “Even though there’s a certain freedom in our society, it largely [an illusion]. . . It’s the freedom to choose your product, but not the freedom to do without it.”1 Indeed, how many of us are free to do without cell phones or laptops or cars? A little over a decade ago, then Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan testified before Congress, saying, “our national illness is. . . ‘infectious greed.’”2

If that is in fact true, then Psalm 23 provides just the good news we need to hear, that life isn’t a reward to be achieved or accumulated, but a precious gift to be received from a gracious God. The result is a life, not of greed, but of gratitude. A life freed of lust, greed, and aggressive ambition Indeed, in a culture such as ours, how radically true might it be to say, in the contemporary sense of the word, “I shall not want”? Enough. Trust that what God gives is enough for me. Imagine how the tides of God’s justice and righteousness would be loosed if only we learned to say enough! Imagine the abundance that would wash over God’s children!

The Lord is my King
We live in a culture where it is so hard to find the trust to say that what God gives is enough. We’re taught to assume the worst of others, to be constantly looking over our shoulder to see who is lurking in the shadows. And it’s true, we do live in a world of henchmen and stalkers and drunk drivers and unfaithful marriages and corrupt powers and self-seeking corporate and political and religious leaders.

So we must be wise as serpents as sheep among the wolves. :You can’t trust anyone but yourself.” To trust is to make ourselves vulnerable, open to being taken advantage of.

Perhaps it sounds naïve in this world to claim God is the only necessity of life. Simple-minded, hollow-sounding religious speak that doesn’t have much to do with the real world. Like when Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you , do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” It’s so hard to trust.

In the Ancient Near East, the word “shepherd” was a title for the king. Kings were thought of as shepherds of their people. Ezekiel describes the duty of the shepherds of Israel as being to “feed the sheep” and to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bring back the strayed, and seek the lost (Ezek. 34:4).

When human kings betrayed trust and failed their role as shepherd, choosing to feed themselves and not the sheep and growing fat, God promised:

I myself will shepherd my sheep. .. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the week, but the fat and the strong I will destroy, and I will feed them with justice! (Ezek. 34:11-15).

Perhaps what is truly naïve is to trust in worldly powers and nations where the powerful merely perpetuate their own power, feeding off of the sheep without feeding the sheep themselves, where the chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished grows ever wider. Perhaps what is truly naïve is to trust the system that says it’s all about me, that our lives are our own, a reward to achieve. When apart from the flock and without the shepherd, we are lost, wandering, and vulnerable to a life of greed and emptiness and destruction of self and others.

The Lord is my King and no other! I shall not lack anything I need. Living under the reign of God is the basic necessity of life, to seek first the kingdom of God and his food of justice. In its simple opening line, the Psalm is perfectly clear about the center and purpose, the goal and focus of life. The Lord and no other.

No other loyalty or allegiance or competing claim, not economic or political alliance, not liberal or conservative or any other petty loyalty that may seduce us. One loyalty. One kingdom. One Good Shepherd. One God and king who provides the foods of justice in green pasture. The Lord is my Shepherd, my King.

You are with me
In fact, the Psalmist is not naïve. The Psalmist knows about the valley of the shadow of death. The Psalmist knows that God hasn’t promised that God’s people get only the good from life, while the rest of the world gets slop. The Psalmist knows about dark days, about the lowest valleys of this life, about the shadows of suffering that so readily fall upon this world, about the reality of evil powers with deathly plots.

Psalm 22, the Psalm that comes before this psalm, begins with the heart-rending cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalmist knows this cry. And yet, the psalmist knows that evil is not to be feared. Why? Because at the linguistic and thematic and theological center of the Psalm is the very simple, yet deeply profound claim, “For you are with me.”

You are with me.

When the New Testament tells the story of Jesus, it begins with that basic story. Matthew begins with the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, and ends with the promise, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” And the amazing news is that the one who is with us, the one who enters into the darkness with us, the one who stands with us against all evil and the one who enters death itself with us, is the very one who has himself cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And he knows. He has endured the full brunt of the evil powers of this world. He knows the pain of abandonment and shame. He knows the agony of suffering. He knows the long shadows that hang over human life. And he knows the sting of death.

And it is he. It is he.

It is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who can find us in the dark valley as well, who can cry with us in our dark days, who can sit with us in the shadows. He can reach out his hand and take hold of us and journey with us through the darkness as we seek for the green pastures once more. Because he, the lamb who was slain, has been through the valley of the shadow of death. He identifies with us, and he is our good shepherd, and we know his voice, and we are safe with him.

Anyone who dares to follow a crucified Messiah can expect the road to include a cross. And a resurrection. We do not tarry forever in the valley of shadows, but shall yet rejoice upon the mountaintop. The Psalmist who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is the same who says, “I will tell of your name to my kindred. . . for the Lord did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

The one who cries with us is the one whose life God answered with a resounding yes. Captivity is now held captive, bondage has been bound, death is defeated, for the light yet shines in the darkest valley of shadows, and the darkness did not overcome it, and Christ is arisen and beckons his flock to come and follow as he leads them amid hilltop and valley and into the pastures of God’s just reign.

A Table in God’s House

The Psalm concludes with a banquet scene. God is again providing life in overflowing abundance. Ordinarily the last verse is translated “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” But the verb is more active than following. It is pursuing. Usually in the Psalms it is the enemies who pursue. But here it is God’s goodness and mercy, or as it is often translated, “steadfast love,” words at the very heart of the Bible’s description of God’s character.

The tables are turned. God is in pursuit and provides a table in the presence of enemies. The text does not say whether the psalmist’s enemies are a part of the meal or not – whether they represent a threat, or whether they have come to the table as well, or both. Psalm 22, like Psalm 23, ends with a grand banquet and worship scene, in which “all the families of the nations participate.” A table that big surely includes a few former enemies.

At any rate, the banquet is in the house of the Lord, the place where the whole family, the whole flock of God gathers and worships God. The Psalmist, like the sheep, is safe and secure in the household of God, in the community of faith. We belong with one another in God’s household, providing for one another and sharing God’s light and life with one another, and, indeed, as Psalm 22 puts it, with all the families of the nations.

One day, Jesus looked out over the crowds, and to him they looked like sheep without a shepherd. So he sat them down, the story says, in the green grass. And he took five loaves and two fish, and he gave thanks, and he broke them, and he fed the thousands. At the end of his ministry, shortly before his death, he gathered his disciples, and he again took a loaf of bread. He gave thanks, he broke it, and he fed them with the miraculous gift of his life for a family that gathers in his house around a table that is meant to reconcile all people, even enemies.

We’re invited to that banquet in God’s house, to be nourished by the life of Christ, who alone is worthy of our trust, and to let that life overflow us and be multiplied in us for all the families of the nations. God is the most basic necessity of life, and it is enough – more than enough. Isaac Watts’ beautiful hymn with which the choir welcomed us into worship captures it so well:

The sure provisions of my God
attend me all my days.
O may Your House be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
No more a stranger, or a guest,
but like a child at home (Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need).

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Welcome home.

Notes:
1. Thomas Merton, The Springs of Contemplation, 136-137.
2. Alan Greenspan, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, July 16, 2002.

Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 13, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

No transcript is available for this sermon. Audio to come soon, hopefully. . .

For God so loved the world

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16-17)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
October 6, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

John 3:16 is one of the most recognized verses from the Bible. You see it on signs at ball games or along the road or on Christian artwork to be hung in homes. It’s a beloved passage for church members to memorize, and one that most have been taught from a very early age. And I think that it is beloved and well known for good reason. In John 3:16-17 the very essence of the gospel seems to be communicated: “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.”

And at the very heart of this good news, is God’s deep and steadfast love for the world. And this deep and steadfast love encompasses all people, all of creation, all of the world. God’s love is not just for a select group of people, or just for those we assume fall under God’s care and favor, but also for those we tend to assume are outside of God’s care and favor, even those who we do not ourselves love, even those we consider to be our enemies. It is the world in its entirety that God so loves.

And God so deeply loves the world that God was willing to send the One who God loves most, the only begotten Son, into the world, despite what would happen, despite the great pain that this would cause, despite the tremendous sacrifice on God’s part.

When I was a freshman in high school, my youth group participated in DOOR in Denver. We stayed at one of the local churches there and would gather every night for worship. And I remember the pastor of the church telling this story to communicate God’s deep love as we sat on the mountain side. He imagined that all of us youth had gone to bed for the night in the church building and then for some reason or another, he happened to stop by the church only to see smoke pouring out because of a fire in the building. He said that in that situation he wouldn’t even think twice about rushing in to warn us so that he might save our lives, despite the risk to his own body.

But then he imagined the same scenario, that he stopped by the church building after we were all asleep, only to see smoke pouring out because of a fire in the building, only this time, his 5-year-old son was with him. And he pondered what it would be like to instead send his son into the burning building to warn us and save our lives, all at the risk of the life of his son for our sake. And the pastor didn’t think that he would ever be able to do that; it goes against every fiber of a parents’ being to put our children at risk or to send them into a dangerous or hostile situation.

Yet God loves each of us so much, that God was able to do just that. God loves each of us so much that God was willing to send the One who God loves most into the world, despite the great risk, despite the great pain and sacrifice that this would bring about, all for the sake of our salvation. It was love, God’s deep and steadfast love for the world that caused the incarnation, despite all that would happen. The Son was given for the sake of the world’s salvation, even at the cost of his own life, because of the deep and steadfast love of God.

And because of God’s deep love for all of the world, salvation is offered to every person, that everyone might have eternal life. It is God, out of love, who takes the initiative for our salvation. It is God who makes the first move, and who gives the Son for the sake of the salvation of the world. Salvation is available for all who believe in the Son and the One who sent him. But we know, of course, that not all will believe, for some have loved the darkness rather than the light. Some will not accept God’s offer of love and salvation.

But for those who believe, God gives the power the power to become children of God, to become a part of God’s family. This is God’s doing. For those who believe, God brings about our salvation and leads us from death to eternal life. Those who believe are born anew into God’s family out of God’s deep love for us. John 3:16 and 17 are located within the narrative of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. And Jesus tells Nicodemus, that one must be born from above (or born anew) to experience eternal life. The thought that the birth is from above suggests that it is God’s doing, that we ourselves do not bring about our new birth. And if you think about it, how many of you had a say about whether you were born or not? Our birth was not our own choice, but the choice of our parents. Just like, to be born from above (or born anew) is not our own doing, but God’s doing in our own lives, it is God bringing us from death into eternal life. And we begin to experience eternal life now. It is not something we simply have to wait for, it is not just something for the age to come, but for those who believe, we have already passed from death into life.

But believing in Jesus, does not mean that our lives will stay the same as they were before. We cannot simply claim to be born again, and then continue to live in the same ways that we did before we experienced eternal life. Believing in Jesus, fundamentally changes who we are. To be born anew is to be transformed completely.

And though it is God’s initiative that brings about our salvation, and our new life, we always have the choice to respond to what God is doing. In the gospel of John, “believe” or “faith” is always a verb, it is always active, it is always moving. Believing is what you do. Believing is how you respond to God. Believing is the way you live so that your life reflects the True Light that came into the world.

In the language that the gospel of John was originally written, John 3:16 can literally be translated “all who believe “into” him.” In the Greek, you do not only believe “in” Jesus, but you believe “into” Jesus. Believing means moving towards Jesus. Believing means orienting one’s life towards the direction of Jesus, to move closer and closer to him.1 Yes, there will be times when we “miss the mark”2 or even veer off course. But even when that happens, we can once again choose to reorient our lives towards Jesus and to move towards him.

Believing is to be orienting our lives towards Jesus. Believing is to be moving towards Jesus. Believing is to be living in a way that reflects the True Light of the world. Believing is to be responding to God because of what God is doing, and because of God’s deep love.

For it is God’s deep love that makes this all possible. It is because of God’s deep love that our salvation and assurance of eternal life is possible. It is because of God’s deep love for each of us and for all of creation that God gave the One who God loved most for our own sake, despite the tremendous cost. Out of gratitude and awe for this tremendous gift, may we spend our whole lives believing and moving towards the One whom God has sent into the world for our salvation. Amen.

Notes:
1. Willard M. Swartley. Believers Church Bible Commentary: John. p. 505.
2. Literal translation of one of the NT words for sin, “harmartia.”

Dying and Rising with Christ

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Dying and Rising with Christ” (John 19-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 22, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It is accomplished
Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the unnamed disciple whom he loved all stood near the Roman cross upon which their teacher and friend had been crucified. The taunts of the soldiers and religious authorities and crowds and even the insurrectionists crucified with him echoed in their ears with bitter precision:

“Hail, King of the Jews!” “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!” “He saved Lazarus; he cannot even save himself!” “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe!”

Their teacher, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, the fulfillment of God’s promises, the very revelation and incarnation of God, bows his head upon the cross upon which he has been so publicly shamed and so cruelly executed. The hope and truth once pulsing so strong in his flesh and bone have finally been beaten out by the corrupt powers of the world. These women and the other disciple watch in horror, as the hymn puts it, “the hands that formed us from the soil were nailed upon the cross; the word that gave us life and breath expired in utter loss.”

“It is accomplished,” Jesus says. And he gives up his spirit.

What a foolish thing to say at such a time: “It is accomplished.” Maybe when he turned the water into wine, or restored sight to the man born blind. Those were accomplishments. Or when he raised Lazarus from the dead. “It is accomplished!” Absolutely!

But from a Roman cross?! During Jesus’ boyhood years, Rome crucified en masse some 2000 Jewish insurrectionists who rebelled following king Herod’s death. What did they ever accomplish? The cross wasn’t some nice symbol to wear around one’s neck; not some ornate design to be affixed to buildings or inked onto bulging biceps. The cross was state-sponsored terrorism, plain and simple. What did terrorism ever accomplish, besides fear and foreboding and more terror?

Mark’s gospel records a more fitting final speech: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” Numbered with the violent, the transgressors. Thought by onlookers to be stricken by God. Mocked, abhorred, derided, deserted by friends, shamed, stripped, laughed at, beaten down and broken and dead. He gives and gives and gives until he is reduced to nothing but a sad spectacle of a world ruled by dominating, death-dealing powers with nothing to show for it, save a small cluster of weeping, heartbroken disciples, the few who are left, that is. What a foolish time to speak of accomplishment!

Foolishness
But that is precisely what Jesus and all his followers since have always been. Fools. Fools who bother to feed the hungry, to relieve the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and visit the prisoner, even when there just keep being more hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned people. Fools who are so bad at math they think last place is first place. Fools who resist evil with love and patience and hope. Fools who pretend that Christ’s armor of truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, word of God, and prayer are a match for the evils of this world. Fools who sleep with the sword of the Spirit under their pillow and think that’ll protect them from the evil lurking at the bedside. Fools who fight bullets and flames by quoting Scripture and praying and preaching peace. Fools who think that the only way to truly live is to die.

For a thousand years the church has tried to turn foolishness into reason, to turn scandal into sound logic, mystery into mechanics and models and plans and propositions. But there is no way around its foolishness, its utter nonsensicalness, its deep mystery. “You should become fools if you want to be wise” (1 Cor. 3:18). The New Testament describes what happened on the cross in scandalous words of utter nonsense:

“Through death God destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

“He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness [the justice] of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

“Through the cross, he killed enmity” (Eph. 2:16).

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross” (Col. 2:15).

“Though he was in the form of God. . . he emptied himself. . . and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Php. 2:6-8)

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).

The very height of human sin: the complete, bald, unrepentant, intentional violent rejection of God and God’s ways becomes somehow – in the redemptive mercies and mysteries of God, in the grand and unsearchable depths of God’s justice and steadfast love – the destruction of sin itself, the freedom of those enslaved to sin’s power, the forgiveness of rebellious action in service to Sin for those who will turn from the world and return to God.

Jesus defaced ugliness. He held captivity captive. He bound bondage. He disarmed violence. He held dominion over domination. He killed enmity by loving it to death. He destroyed death itself.

In a telling moment, as Pilate taunts the chief priests, “shall I crucify your king,” the chief priests, who plotted to have Jesus killed for fear that Rome would destroy the nation because of Jesus’ fame, reply, “We have no king but the emperor.” These same priests would sing that very week at the Passover, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God. Beside you we have no king.”

In the cross, God destroyed the power of violence by refusing to be drawn into it, and exposed those who hide behind it as fraudulent. Rather than fight his enemies, Paul said, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son” (Rom. 5:10).

As the women and the other disciple gazed upon the cross, they beheld the worst of humankind’s rebellion, wickedness, plotting, violence, shame, domination, distortion, slavery and service to Sin, death, and evil all come to focus on God’s own son. But though they could not yet see it, they also beheld the accomplishment of God’s plan to finally deal with all of the above. In short, these witnesses beheld God-in-Christ triumphing over the cross and everything it represents through the Cross.

It is complete foolishness. It is ultimate mystery. It is justice beyond what is just. It is grace upon grace, wonder upon wonder, amazingly, suprisingly good news, and the only response befitting those who may gaze upon it is awe, gratitude, wonder, repentance, and joining with the heavenly host in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”

The cycle of vengeance, of domination, of plotting, of sin, is now broken. The body of Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the Sin of the world, was laid in a tomb nearby the place. And early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene ventured back to the place. While the other disciples were seeking their safety behind locked doors, she had ventured out into the dark shadows, and had returned to this place of death and decay.

Weeping with Mary
Mary had come again to this place where the King of Love had been broken by the Princes of Fear and hatred, where the forces of darkness had finally extinguished the Light of the World, where all that is chaotic and void had finally canceled out the very last remnant of the grand promise of those very first words, “Let there be light.”

Mary had come to this garden hidden in Golgotha’s penetrating shadows. Mary Magdalene stood by the tomb, and she wept. Had she come to perform the burial rites of spices and ointments, only to find no body to care for? Had she come to grieve the death of Jesus, since there could be no funeral for a man executed for treason? Had she come in the secrecy of the night’s shadows to say goodbye, only to find no one to bid farewell?

Had she come to this place because in the depth of darkness, the true light, which enlightens everyone had sparked something in her soul and had driven her to come back to this place where all was lost, but all was accomplished at the same time to find something, some hope?

But she found nothing. The stone was rolled away, and she feared the worst. And she wept. Mary’s tears find themselves again and again in our own eyes and in the countless eyes of God’s weeping children. We weep Mary Magdalene’s tears of grief when we lose a dearly loved one. We weep Mary’s helpless and hopeless tears over a broken and shadowy world seemingly devoid of light, when we consider the persistent callous resignation and indifference we show to the vulnerable and powerless, or the countless acts of outright gruesome violence we do to one another.

The tears of Mary’s broken heart flow from our eyes when we are confronted with humankind’s service to the powers of sin and death, defacing what is beautiful, staining what is pure, robbing the innocent.

We weep for the widows and orphans of hatred and violence, for the bereaved parents of manipulators of power, for the beautiful children dwelling in the long shadows of abuse from which we know they may never escape. We weep with the injured and the brokenhearted, who courageously seek out empty tomb after tomb, but never find hope.

We weep because the world seems spiraling back into chaos and void darkness. We weep because whatever hope there is always seems to suffer under whichever Pontius Pilate is holding the Beast’s reigns. We weep because what is good and true and beautiful in the world gets called treasonous by the Powers of this age.

We weep because we have so little power in a world of 7 billion to bring light into a land of shadows and sickness. We weep because it’s just so hard to risk hope, for fear that hope will get crucified yet again and dash our hopes. Mary Magdalene’s tears must surely be found in our own eyes as we follow the Crucified Savior in this present age of shadows and darkness.

Found in the Valley
And yet, as she wept, there in the shadow of Golgotha where Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene bent over to look into the tomb, and through her tears, she saw that the tomb was empty. There in the shadow of Golgotha, through her tears of grief, of loss, of helplessness and hopelessness, through those tears she beheld the empty tomb, and with those tear-soaked eyes she would see the Risen Lord.

Maybe that’s the best way to behold the empty tomb – through tear-soaked eyes. Maybe that’s the best way to understand what the empty tomb means. Maybe that’s the best way to understand why the Risen Lord still bears the wounds of Calvary. Maybe it’s when we’ve lost all else, when we’ve lost the world, that we can bend over, look into the empty tomb, and see. Maybe it’s then that we can hear those gracious, compassionate words, “Why do you weep?” and be transformed.

Mary Magdalene turns back from the empty tomb and sees Jesus, though she doesn’t know it is he just yet. He greets her with the same question as the angels in the tomb, “Woman, why do you weep?” Jesus doesn’t chide Mary for her helplessness and hopelessness; he doesn’t chastise her for her despair, or for struggling to understand. Instead he tells her to name her grief, to look into that empty tomb inside herself, to enter the darkest valley where he is waiting for her, and says to her, “Mary!” “Mary.”

The Syrian refugee who has lost all; survivors mourning the dead and injured and captive in a mass shooting in Kenya; the grief of a parent burying a child; the shock and horror of those who suffer abuse; the persistent pains of the hungry child continents away or in our own neighborhood; the body broken by pain; the spirit crippled by despair; the aged looking on a life of regret and estrangement; the young ostracized by peers and family. All who cry out in heartache, in abandonment, in despair, do not rend their spirits before Almighty God in isolation and solitude, but there is one who has cried in solidarity with the brokenhearted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”

There is one who has gone ahead, who has braved the valley of the shadow of death, who has met the abandonment, the sin, the hatred, the betrayal and brokenness of this world head-on. And it is he. It is the Christ who weeps with us.

The one who has endured the full brunt of the darkness of the world is the one who is able to find us in the darkness as well, is the one who is able to say, “Mary,” to call us also by name, to turn us around, to enable us to see the world as it really is – not as a place utterly devoid of hope and light, not as a place dominated by the deathly powers of sin and self-aggrandizement and relentless “progress,” nor by exploitation and violence and neglect and abuse, but rather as a place that is God’s beloved creation even now becoming new in resurrection power.

God’s New World
You see, maybe Mary Magdalene’s perception wasn’t so far off when she mistook Jesus for the gardener. For there, that morning, in that garden, on that first day, the Light of the world who was in the beginning, who was in the Garden with God, once again scattered the darkness and chaos. There, in that timeless garden in the shadow of Golgotha, she was no longer east of Eden, for through her tear-soaked eyes, she beheld the Master Gardener face-to-face.

At the empty garden tomb, we see through tearful eyes that that the one through whom all things came into being in the very beginning, has now met us in our greatest darkness, has forgiven us and healed us, and is now creating again, making all things new. Paul once jubilantly proclaimed, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

Mary, in that garden, was entering that new world, a world where the powers of sin and death have been vanquished, where all things are now under Christ’s feet. Mary Magdalene had come to a cold and foreboding place of suffering, of rebellion, of violence, of great scandal and grief, and there she encountered life. It is by following Jesus, our Lord and King, our Savior, directly into the shadow of death that we find the most dazzling light. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). It is through tears that we perceive the Risen Lord most clearly, for he wears not the badges and medallions of pomp and circumstance, but his wounds reveal his rank as King of King and Lord of Lords.

He did not enter into glory through the power of wealth, nor the force of weapons wrought by human hands, nor through careful courtship of those who hold the reigns of the beast, but rather through suffering, through self-emptying self-humbling love, and through unwavering obedience to death, even death on the cross. It was costly obedience to his mission to let the light shine in the darkness and upon those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He entered his glory through tears and suffering, through obedience unto death, even death on the cross.

That is the mind that is to be in us, Paul said (Php. 2:5). The mind that looks first to others. The mind that is willing to give all even for one’s enemies, and whose very same love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The very mind of God.

“Go,” Jesus says to Mary. “Go from this garden, from this place of promise and hope; go back into the old order.” Having led Mary to place one foot firmly in the new garden, Jesus places her other foot back in the old order, the dark valley.

She was to be one on whom, as Paul put it, “the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11), an ambassador for Christ. Anchored in the new age, dead to sin and made alive in Christ, and joining God’s mission to bring healing, hope, and welcome to the old age.

We are sent into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world. The message, the invitation of the cross is not, “I died so that you don’t have to,” but “Die with me so that you might rise with me.” That is the pattern of our life in this world: dying to sin, to self, to this world, and rising with Christ.

“Do you not know,” Paul wrote, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. . . So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God” (Rom. 6:3-11).

“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! And the life now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Php. 3:10)

When we respond to the Holy Spirit by accepting Christ and declaring our allegiance to him, we are joined with Christ in the cross, we yield to the Holy Spirit as it cleanses us and puts to death our slavery to sin, we let go the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

We all together are the community of the resurrection, the Body of Christ in the world. If we, like Jesus, are willing to accept the risks of our baptism, then we too may brave the valley of the shadow of death. We too may walk through the storms of life and tread the raging waters. We too may cry out to God in urgent and fervent prayer. We too may proclaim, may demonstrate, may embody a kingdom that is not of this world. And we too shall know the fullness of resurrection life in the coming age.

Today the tears we shed focus the light of Christ into the tombs of the world. Today we are all lenses – magnifying glasses of the Light of Christ – the light that has gone through the deepest darkness to win the new day, the light that burst forth from the tomb on Easter morning declaring the victory of love over fear, sharing the conquest of forgiveness over sin, proclaiming the triumph of life over death, preaching the good news of peace above the racket of violence, announcing good news to the helpless and the hopeless and calling all who weep this day by name.

For Jesus Christ is highly exalted with the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. For we have seen the Lord! And death is swallowed up in victory! It is, truly and awesomely, accomplished.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Alleluia! Amen! Alleluia! Amen!

Safe with God

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Safe with God” (Daniel 6:10-23)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
September 15, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When we were in Phoenix for the MCUSA Convention this past July, one of the speakers began her sermon by expressing her fear of flying. With one flight in particular, she remembers that the plane was shaking quite violently. And as she looked around her, she realized that she seemed be the only one to notice the shaking, and that she was really the only one paying any mind to it. And she was getting more and more anxious because of it, hoping it would stop soon. But the shaking kept going, and kept going, and finally, after 45 minutes of this, she stood up and screamed, “You’re all in denial! This plane is going down!” And after she sat down, the person next to her turned towards her and said gently, “You don’t fly very often, do you, dear?”

And after we heard her speak, I told the youth, that even though I wasn’t going to embarrass them with any outbursts like that on the flight back, that’s pretty much how I feel every time I get on a plane. I hate flying. First of all, I have terrible motion sickness, so flying often really does a number on my stomach and leaves me feeling sick for the rest of the day. But secondly, even though I know intellectually that flying is statistically much safer than driving, and that you’re more likely to be killed by a donkey than a plane crash, I still don’t get how something that heavy can stay up in the air with so few complications. So not only do I usually have to focus to keep the contents of my breakfast safely within my stomach while on a plane, I’m also usually worrying about whether the plane is going to crash or not.

 

As we flew across the Atlantic Ocean on our way to the Holy Land, I remember thinking, “Hmm, if something goes wrong and we need to land somewhere, there isn’t even anywhere to land amidst all of this water!” So when I noticed that our plane was shaking violently, I pulled the steward aside and asked him if it was normal. He simply laughed and continued on his way.

I also was panicking while I was flying out to Ohio to speak at Bluffton University’s chapel service during a snow storm. The plane jumped what felt like to me to be about 20 feet in the air and back down in a matter of a couple of seconds. And I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m done for.” All while the two boys in across the aisle started shouting, “Cool! Let’s do it again!”

And of course it certainly didn’t help that our last flight on the way home from Convention this summer was grounded for 2 hours before taking off because they were “fixing some mechanical problems” on the plane we were about to take off in.

But every time I’m flying somewhere, the same song is going through my head over and over as a form of prayer: “God our protector, keep us in mind, always remember your people. We could be with you one day in time, it is better than a thousand without you.” In a way, it’s my way of praying for safety as I fly. But more importantly, it’s just a way of continually reminding me, that no matter what happens, God is present with me. It doesn’t always take my fears away entirely, especially if there’s a lot of turbulence, but it calms me down immensely and it comforts me greatly to remind myself to simply trust that God is, in fact, there with me.

I suppose that one of the reasons that I thought of this in conjunction with the text is because it really frightens me to fly and it seems natural to me that Daniel would have been terrified as he was being led to the lions den and placed into the pit. But as I continually read the text over and over this week, I realized that the text seems to give very little indication that he was frightened at all. But he was certainly always aware of and trusted God’s presence with him in his life.

Perhaps God’s presence with him was one reason that Daniel had risen so high in Darius’ esteem and good graces in the first place. For when Darius was setting up his kingdom, he appointed 120 different men to act as satraps, or governors, over the different regions of the kingdom. And Darius chose 3 men to act as administrators to rule over these 120 governors, to hold them accountable and to make sure that everything was in order for the king. But Daniel had distinguished himself so much from all of these governors and administrators that Darius decided to appoint Daniel over the whole kingdom.

Well, you can imagine how well this went over with the 120 governors and the 3 administrators. They began to conspire amongst themselves so that they could find some scandal or skeleton in Daniel’s closet so that hopefully Darius would reconsider appointing him, a foreigner, over the entire kingdom. But after looking for anything that they might use against Daniel, they found nothing, because Daniel was faithful, a hard worker, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.

So since they couldn’t find anything against him, they decided to try a different tactic. They knew that Daniel followed God in his life, and they began to concoct a way to use this against him. After conspiring together, all of the administrators and governors crowded before the king and said, “King Darius, may you live forever! All of your administrators and governors and all of your leading officials have agreed that you should issue the following decree: For the next 30 days, no one shall pray to any god or mortal except to you, O king. Anyone who disobeys will be thrown into a den of lions!”

O King, establish this decree and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persions, which cannot be revoked.” And King Darius agreed and signed the document and made the decree official.

Now Darius doesn’t come off looking too good in this story, he is so easily manipulated by the hollow flattery of his leading officials. He must have known that Daniel followed God and would not have obeyed this decree. Yet he did not even pause to think how this decree might affect those around him, including his right hand man! He simply signed it without question after his ego was appealed to.

But those governors and administrators certainly knew what they were doing. They had used Darius as a tool to achieve their sinister purposes. And they assumed that they had finally trapped Daniel and would get rid of him once and for all.

Now Daniel knew that this decree had been signed and made into law. But even the threat of death was not going to prevent him from worshiping the God whom he followed. If he had been afraid, he certainly didn’t act like it, for he continued to pray with his windows thrown wide open, where everyone who walked by could see him. If he had been afraid, he certainly didn’t pray about it, for when he knelt down three times a day, he continued to praise God, just as he had done before. For he knew when to obey God before the laws of the kingdoms of this world.

Last month saw the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.” Here was a man who wholeheartedly chose to obey God before the laws of the kingdoms of this world, and who practiced nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the unjust laws of segregation so that each person might truly experience freedom and equality. And King spent much time praying that God’s will might be done and for God’s mercy to be shown.

And that’s how Daniel was found by those who had conspired against him: praying and seeking for God’s mercy. And this is the only time that the text hints that he might have been afraid, for in his prayers, he was “seeking mercy before his God.” He must have known that his civil disobedience would catch up with him at some point, that those who were jealous of his power would one day come seeking his life. And he very well may have been asking that, in God’s mercy, God would spare his life. I’m sure that if I would have been in his place, that’s exactly what I would have been doing. But I also wonder if he was asking for God to be merciful towards those who would condemn him and seek to end his life through an unjust conspiracy. Perhaps either way would be true to the text.

But regardless, the conspirators came and caught Daniel in the act of disobeying the king. And they went to Darius and told him what they had found, and that according to the decree that he himself had established, Daniel should be put to death.

Darius, who had not thought how his law might affect Daniel, was distraught and tried everything that he could to save this man who had earned his favor from being executed. But his administrators and governors told him that his decree was irrevocable and that there was nothing he could do.

So Daniel was led to the lions’ den and thrown into the pit. And before they rolled the stone over the mouth of the den to seal him in, the king said, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” Perhaps he said this out of hope. Or perhaps he simply wanted to encourage someone he assumed had gone to his death, for he knew that neither he nor any other person could do anything else to change Daniel’s fate.

Darius had tried everything that he could to save Daniel, but ultimately, he had no power to save; he felt bound by the laws of this world, laws he and those around him believed could not be revoked. But even the most irrevocable and permanent-seeming decrees of this world’s kingdoms cannot prevent God and God’s saving power.

And God’s presence was with Daniel as they led him to the lions’ den and sealed the stone over the mouth of the pit. And God’s presence was with Daniel and kept the mouths of the lions closed so that they could not harm him.

And, when Darius ran to the den, after a long, and sleepless night, he found Daniel unscathed and unharmed for God had kept him safe, even in the den of the lions.

And those who had conspired against Daniel met the same fate that they had tried to pin on Daniel.

And Darius revoked his decree and instead wrote to all people and nations that all should worship and revere the God of Daniel, who is the living God who endures forever, whose reign will have no end, who delivers and rescues and works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, and who had saved Daniel from the power of the lions.

Darius began to catch a glimpse that even the rulers and powers of this world do not have the ultimate power and that it is God who is ultimately in charge and who has the final victory. Even the laws and decrees of this world cannot prevent God from working God’s will. It is God who ultimately has the power to save and to answer the prayers of the faithful.

Yet you and I know of times when prayers have not been answered as Daniel’s was. And my guess is that there were those who, as they stepped on the plane 12 years ago on September 11, were also praying that God would keep them safe as they traveled. You and I know of times when people who have trusted God and who have sought to obey God over the laws of this world have died long before they should have. Martin Luther King trusted and followed God rather than the laws of this world, and yet he was cruelly assassinated.

Was God any less present with King than with Daniel? Or with the victims of September 11 and all the men, women, and children who have died in its wake?

I had a professor at CMU who told our class that God will always save those whose lives God has a plan for. But I cringed when I heard it then and I still cannot believe that those who have died in terrible and tragic situations died because God didn’t have a plan for their lives. And I have continued to wrestle with why some who do not trust in God have lived comfortably to a ripe old age and why some who have trusted God throughout their lives, die young.

But when one continues reading in the book of Daniel, one will come across something that has been immensely helpful to me when I am struggling with these questions. In chapter 9, when Daniel is praying, God immediately sends an angel to speak with him and answer his prayer, even before Daniel has finished praying. And it is my hope that all of us can think of times in our lives or in the lives of those we love, that prayers have been answered immediately and sometimes even in miraculous ways. But in chapter 10, Daniel had been praying, and fasting, and mourning for a long time, and still God did not answer his prayer. But finally, after 3 full weeks, the angel came again and told Daniel how he tried to come to Daniel to answer his prayer, and yet had been prevented from coming because the prince of Persia had opposed him for 21 days. And it is my guess that all of us can think of times in our lives or in the lives of those we love, that prayers have not been answered, and it seems as though God’s good intentions for our lives have not come to pass.

The world we live in is “fallen.” And there are powers in this world that are opposed to God and are working against God. And even though God is working to accomplish God’s will and purposes within creation, and though I believe that God is seeking to save all of God’s beloved children, sometimes the powers of this world still are able to triumph for a time and can sometimes delay our prayers from being answered.

Because of the fallen state of the world we live in, there is no guarantee that even if we trust God with all of our heart, that we will always be kept safe, as Daniel was. But like Daniel, we will choose to serve and obey God regardless of what may happen to us. For we trust that regardless of what comes our way, God’s presence is with us. And we do trust, that regardless of what happens to us in this life, God will save us, whether it comes in ways we would expect or not. For we have a hope that the world does not; we trust and hope that we will experience God’s salvation in the kingdom that is to come. And because we are already citizens and members of God’s kingdom, we choose to follow God in life, regardless of what will happen.

For even God’s own Son was not kept “safe” as everyone had hoped and expected. And as he hung dying, those from the crowd mocked him, asking why he could not save himself when he had saved others. And God’s own Son died, crucified upon a cross by those who had conspired against him and wished to get rid of him once and for all. But God saved him from the power of death, and raised him on the third day.

And this is why we hope and trust in God’s sure salvation, for because Christ was raised, we know that we too shall be raised and experience God’s salvation on the last day.

For ours is the living God, who endures forever and ever, whose reign shall never be destroyed and whose dominion has no end. God delivers and rescues and works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth. God saved Daniel from the power of the lions. God resurrected Jesus on the third day. And God has saved us, and is saving us, and will save us even from the very power of death itself when the final victory is won. And we trust that it is, indeed, God who has the final victory. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Written on your heart

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Written on your heart”(Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 8, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Cornerstone Confession
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy is our second in our series of Twelve foundational scriptures for our life at Grace Hill. In fact, this passage has been foundational for people of faith for well over two thousand years.

This ancient confession of faith is known as the Shema, from the first Hebrew word, meaning, “Listen!” or “Pay attention!” To this day, observant Jews recite this ancient text two times every day, and many continue the ancient practice of placing Scripture in small enclosures called tefillin, which are bound to the hands and to the forehead during prayer, and affixing portions of scripture known as mezuzot to door frames and gates, to be touched as one enters or leaves.

It is indeed quite possible that Jesus himself grew up in a home with these mezuzot on the doorposts, and that he too wore the tefillin during prayer. As a response following the sermon, you too will have an opportunity to participate in this ancient practice of binding the words of Scripture to your wrist.

In Mark’s Gospel, a scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him which commandment in Scripture comes before all the others. This was a frequent discussion in Jesus’ time. Rabbis had counted up some 613 commandments, and as they would sit together, they would discuss which commandments were the greatest.

Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 6, the Shema: “The first is, ‘Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Listen and love.

Then he refers to another commandment from Leviticus, saying, “The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

And he says, “There is no other greater commandment greater than these.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Jesus’ time, that meant, “On these two commandments hang all of Scripture.” The Shema from Deuteronomy 6 is, for Jesus, the cornerstone confession of the faith of the Hebrew scriptures.

How is this ancient confession of faith shaping the life of us here at Grace Hill, and how might God’s Spirit be speaking through it to form us more fully still as the people God desires us to be? How can we also bind God’s word to our lives and make this confession our confession?

The commandment of the Shema is three-fold: First, we are called to pay attention, to listen, to focus on the uniqueness and the oneness of God. Second, we are called to love God with a oneness of heart, soul, and strength. Third, we are called to bind God’s words to our lives.

Focus on God
The Shema begins by calling out, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Pay attention and focus, people, on the uniqueness, the oneness of God. The translation is difficult. There is one God. Listen to God alone. God is unique. God is one. God is our only God. But each possible translation has the sense of the uniqueness and the oneness of God. Most of us probably don’t think that’s really newsworthy. Of course there’s only one true God!

But the Bible has an awareness of something that all too often escapes our notice: other things, though they are not God, can often become like God in our lives. Paul, for instance, talks of greed as being a false god. Isaiah likens gold and silver to false gods who become sources of pride and power that prevent us or distract us from trusting God. Jesus says you can’t serve both God and wealth, and that one’s heart is where one’s treasure is.

We’re to love our God with our whole heart, but we can’t do that if our treasure, if the consuming passion of our life, is elsewhere. We often take for granted that there is only one God. It’s like Sunday School 101. But as I have reflected on this ancient confession of faith over the years, I have often wondered if the command to listen to, to pay attention to, to focus on one God and on the significance of God alone for our lives, I’ve often wondered if this foundational commandment might just be one of the most difficult to keep.

It’s relatively easy to focus on God once a week. Most folks can manage twice a week without too much difficulty. Some people manage once a day. But the world around us makes it next to impossible for God to be the fundamental aspect, the consuming passion, of our lives. There are so many demands on our time, on our energies, on our attention and focus, and it’s harder and harder to keep up those regular activities that do keep our focus on God alone. Just as the ancient Hebrew peoples felt pressured and lured to serve their neighbors’ gods, so also we feel a very similar pressure, enticement, lure to serve some other consuming passion besides God.

I first seriously studied this passage my sophomore year in college. And as I imagined a conversation in which I asked my roommate, who had known me since preschool, what the center, the focus, the consuming passion of my life was, it took my breath as I instantly knew exactly what he’d say. It was my coursework, not God. I was zeroed in on achieving in the classroom while ironically flunking the part of Sunday School 101 where we learn that there’s only one God.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Katherine reminded us of how we’re created to praise God. That’s the most basic inclination of our lives, but so hard to do with our whole heart.

If you were to ask God in prayer, “What is the consuming passion of my life,” what would God’s Spirit reveal to you?

Love the Lord your God. . .
The rest of the Shema gives direction to forming us as people whose consuming passion is the Lord our God.

Along those lines, the second part is the command to love the Lord with heart, soul, and strength. In other words, with everything you are, with everything within you, with your intellect, with your emotions, with your actions, with everything you have, love the Lord. Just as God is one and is undivided, so our love is to be undivided and focused on God.

We gather here every Sunday not just as a community of believers, but as belovers and beloved of God. It is our shared love of God that gathers us to praise God together in worship. Just as love among friends and spouses and families flourishes when it is tended intentionally with efforts to spend time together and to talk together, so our love for God flourishes when we tend to that relationship in regular prayer, in worship, in dwelling in the Scriptures, in gathering together with God’s people, in serving God by participating in God’s reconciling mission in the world and allowing God’s healing and hope to flow through us.

As Jesus taught, loving God and loving our neighbor are closely connected. In fact, the two are so tightly connected that 1 John says, “The commandment we have from God is this, ‘those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.’” It a practical expression of our love for God. We are to love what God loves. God loves the world. God loves sinners and the righteous. God loves even God’s enemies.

Our love for God is reflected in a very special way in our love for one another, God’s people. Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That sense of unity, of togetherness and closeness and oneness is rooted in the foundational conviction that God is one.

Shortly before he died, Jesus prayed,

I ask. . . on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, and they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23, NRSV)

Just as the Lord our God, the Lord is one, just as Jesus and the Father are one, so also we are to be one together in Jesus, in God, with that very same sense of togetherness and closeness.

Bind God’s word to your life
As Jesus is in God, so when we give or hearts to Jesus, we give them to God as well. Jesus’ most basic invitation was twofold: Believe in me and follow me. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The third part of the Shema is like a list of ways to work at doing this; that is, binding God’s words to our lives as an expression and formation of our undivided love of our undivided God.

Our love for God gets played out as we seek to keep God’s commandments. Now, that may sound a little cold, unappealing, like a general barking orders and the rank-and-file following blindly and thoughtlessly. Or like the various sometimes bizarre laws and requirements that govern our lives as citizens.

But these are teachings, instructions, stories, words given by God so that we might live lives of freedom and joy and peace. So the Psalmists speak of delighting in the law of the Lord. In fact, the longest Psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119, which goes on for a full 176 verses, is all about the joys and blessings of living in God’s ways.

It was no less difficult for the people who first heard these words to keep their focus on the oneness and uniqueness of God than it is for us today. The book of Deuteronomy is entirely aware of how easily we forget, and it repeatedly says, “Remember, remember, do not forget.” So it is that the Shema instructs us to keep these words in our heart. We’re to do this by diligently teaching them to our children, and by talking about them as we work and play and come and go and lie down and wake up. As in: Talk about them all the time! Bind them to your hands in your work and play and your foreheads in your thoughts and your doorposts and your gates in your coming and going.

It seems that the best practice we have to keep our focus on God and to develop a love for God in heart and soul and strength is to bind God’s word to our lives and our hearts and our hands. To love them deeply. To talk about them constantly. To teach them diligently.

Last week, I had a conversation with a member of our congregation about this passage, and she said that the main thing is to love the Scriptures so much that our children naturally pick up on that love. There’s a lot of wisdom in that. The more we love the Scriptures, the more that love catches on. For those who are parents and grandparents and mentors, it may be one of the fundamentally most important things you can do to nurture faith in others. It doesn’t mean having an advanced degree. It just means loving the Scriptures. Making them a part of everyday life. Meditating on them in situations that arise throughout the day. Reading them. Discussing them.

The book of Deuteronomy is very aware of how quickly we tend to forget. People in churches are wondering, not just if we are forgetting the words of Scripture themselves and our knowledge of God’s Word is lacking, but also whether we have forgotten to love God’s words more than fine gold, as the Psalmist says. No doubt the two are connected. Now, Katherine and I do want to commend the congregation, because the youth in our congregation have known the Scriptures better than teenagers in other congregations where we have been involved. I think this is one of the ways the the Spirit has used the basic teachings of this passage to shape this congregation.

But in a culture of sound bytes and text messages and quick answers, commitment to diligence in learning and keeping the Scriptures is an upstream swim, and perhaps you have wondered whether your children or grandchildren have been taught to keep the Scriptures with the same diligence that you were, or whether you have kept God’s Word in your heart with the same commitment as your parents. The practice of faith is more like playing an instrument than riding a bicycle. Without consistent, concrete practices, we do forget. The music of faith, without practice, leaves our fingers, and our lips, and our voices.

It’s one of the reasons why we’re doing a Year of the Bible. The Bible is basic to our faith. It’s a fundamental part of what it means to love God. It’s the best way we have to know about our Lord, Jesus Christ. We keep the Scriptures to know and love Jesus. I really want to encourage each person and family to make a commitment to investing in the Year of the Bible activities here at Grace Hill.

No one can get an education by reading just one page per week, or investing just three hours every week. Of how much greater importance is our faith formation? When we bind the Scriptures to our lives, we aren’t just showing up to be fed. We’re making a tangible investment ourselves, trusting that the nourishment will come.

A vital part of loving God is loving God’s words. We don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. God’s word is to be digested into our life. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life, Jesus said. Indeed, in Jesus, the Word of God became flesh. He told his followers that he fulfills the Scriptures.

What an astounding and wonderful claim. Scripture points us to Jesus, who is the embodiment and fulfillment of Scripture. Listen, people, the Lord our God is one Lord. Love the Lord with everything you are and have. Listen and Love! Focus and be Faithful! Do this by binding this word of God, by binding Jesus himself, to your hearts, your minds, your hands, your feet, and every place you go.

As we respond, I invite you to take the slip of paper that the ushers gave you, which contains on it the Shema, and roll it up, and turn to a neighbor, and have that person take your black ribbon and tie that scroll to your wrist. . .

Teach us your Word,
reveal its truth divine;
on our path let it shine.

Tell of your words,
your mighty acts of grace;
from each page, show your face.

As you have love us,
sent your son,
and our salvation now is won,
O let our hearts with love be stirred.
Help us God, know your Word.
(“Renew your church” by Kenneth L. Cober)

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