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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: , ,

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. . .

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!

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)

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Caretakers Created by God in God’s Image

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Caretakers Created by God in God’s Image” (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 104)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 1, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Grand Sanctuary
Today is our first Sunday of exploring twelve Scripture passages that are especially important and formational for the life of our congregation here at Grace Hill – twelve Scriptures that are especially shaping us as God’s people at Grace Hill.

We begin at the beginning, with the stories of creation. These stories are particularly important to us as a rural congregation. Many of our members farm the land and have a special understanding of the goodness of God’s creation. But whether we work in fields or in office buildings, we all have chosen to worship in this community, and at this place. When we gather for worship here at Grace Hill, we don’t travel through miles of structures made by human hands, but rather through the plains and hills shaped by the hand of God.

While our sanctuary is indeed beautiful, we know that an even grander sanctuary exists just beyond these walls, and God has invited us to be the caretakers of that sanctuary. That’s part of what makes this congregation special, and it’s part of why the stories of creation are so important to us.

As many of you know, our theme for the summer was God’s good creation, and we talked about how God’s creation reminds us to praise God for God’s care and protection, and how it reminds us of our need for God and of our calling to be faithful to God and to one another. But we saved these foundational stories from Genesis until now.

There’s so much that could be said about these stories, and so much that has been said about them. Much of what we’ll talk about this morning will sound familiar to what’s already been said this summer. For each of these twelve texts that we’ll hear this fall, we want to think about how each text is shaping us as God’s people already, and how the Holy Spirit could further speak through each passage to shape us more and more into the people God is calling us to be.

Out of all that could be said about Genesis 1-2, I’d like to focus on three things from these stories that are foundational for our life at Grace Hill. First, we live in a world created by God. Second, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image. And third, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image who are called to be caretakers of God’s creation.

We live in a world created by God
First, we live in a world created by God.

A week ago I was in Colorado doing some hiking with some of my friends. One evening, we hiked up a cliff to watch the sun set. And as the sun was setting in the mountains to the west, we could also watch a thunderstorm over the plains to the east. The setting sun painted these cloudbanks in brilliant yellows and reds. And once again, as I so often am as I drive out to the church building, I was just amazed at the beauty and greatness of God’s creation.

That’s what Genesis 1 is about. Many scholars believe that Genesis 1, with its cadence and elegance and symmetry, is a hymn, a song of creation describing God’s greatness and the goodness of God’s work. We’re put here to praise God, along with the song of all creation.

God called the universe into being as an expression of God’s love and sovereign freedom. This is a fundamental encouragement for believers, because it means that no matter how ugly and broken and hopeless the world may seem on the surface, it still turns on the axis of God’s goodness and love, and it is still, fundamentally, in God’s own judgment, “good.” We live in a good world created by a good God.

And because we live in a good world created by a good God, when we live in ways that are aligned with God’s good character and intention for life, we praise God, and those efforts will ultimately be redeemed, and multiplied.

Of course, the Bible says many important things about God’s character. But perhaps the most basic thing it says about God is found in 1 John: “God is love.” The most basic way to live in God’s good creation is to live in God’s love. Or as 1 John puts it, “If we love one another, God lives in us.”

If you come to the Dig In Bible Study during Sunday School this morning, we’ll talk about John 1, which begins exactly the same was as Genesis 1: “In the beginning.” The word was with God in the beginning and through the Word, all things came into being. The Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ. John says that Jesus is the fullest and best revelation we have of God, and his life and self-giving death are the fullest and best revelation we have of God’s love.

Jesus showed us how to live in ways that are aligned with God’s good intention for life. When we know Jesus and follow him in life, then our lives become more and more aligned with the world created by God, with the grain of the universe.

Sometimes, the world on its surface has become so disfigured and defaced and dominated by death-dealing powers, so very different from the way God created it to be that God’s good intention for life revealed in Jesus sounds surprising. Giving up possessions. Losing our life to save it. The servants are the greatest. Loving even our enemies just as creation reminds us that God does, and makes the sun to rise and sends the rains on the just and on the wicked alike. It may sound surprising, but it makes total sense if we live in an abundant world created and deeply valued by God as described in Genesis 1.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of a coming time of new, or renewed, creation. New heavens and new earth. A time when the work of God’s hands would once again fully reflect God’s goodness and love. As the New Testament understands it, the resurrection of Jesus is the down-payment on that new creation. In fact, Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is the new creation.”

When we’re united with Jesus in life, we get a foretaste of what it’s like to live in God’s abundant new creation, and we become a taste for the world of what creation is meant to be like. We get to invite others to live in that world created by God.

Created in God’s image
Second, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image.

In Genesis 1, humankind is the capstone of God’s created work, and we are created, male and female, in God’s image. With the creation of humankind, creation is “exceedingly good.” God actually thinks quite a bit of us. Why don’t we often think much of ourselves and others? While it’s true that we all make choices that smudge up the image of God that we bear, we are actually created exceedingly good. God delights in us. God delights in you. Our lives are created to reflect God’s goodness, joy, and love.

The fact that each human life bears the image of God is profoundly formative for us as God’s people. It reminds us of the profound value and dignity of each human life, from the womb to the tomb, as they saying goes, and beyond. This is why so many of Jesus’ teachings that seem so strange on the damaged surface of the world actually make so much sense with the axis upon which the world finally turns, with the grain of the universe.

We love one another because God delights in each person and has given each person the imprint of the divine image. We love even our enemies and people who make us mad or drive us nuts because even they bear the divine image and are deeply valued by God. We love those rejected by society because they too bear the divine image and are deeply loved by God.

It’s why our congregation participates in the ministry of the homeless shelter, and with school kits, and with summer lunches, and with food pantries, and with meat canning, and with relief work, and with missions of all kinds. It’s why, in a polarizing and polarized world, we seek to maintain a witness of reconciliation, of peacemaking. We have a fundamental conviction that each person is deeply loved by God and bears the divine image.

And that conviction shapes us profoundly. The homeless and outcast and outsider are all highly esteemed in our eyes because they are highly esteemed in God’s eyes. And don’t forget that you are, too. Every one of you. It’s a conviction that shaped the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, commemorated this week, which ended with the hope of speeding the day when all God’s children could say, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.”

When we realize what that means, that we bear God’s imprint in our lives, we want to live in ways that reflect God’s holiness, and goodness, and love. We are a temple for God’s Spirit; therefore, we want to glorify and praise God in everything we say and do. This Scripture passage calls us to be people whose lives glorify God. Jesus, who took on our likeness, teaches how to do that. What a fantastic invitation to follow Jesus and glorify God!

When I run into people in Newton and Whitewater, they often remark how hospitable and generous Grace Hill is. Praise God for that! I wonder if that could be partly because the Holy Spirit has spoken through this passage in Genesis 1 to shape us so that we look upon one another and see God’s imprint in one another. We want to share God’s goodness and generosity and hospitality with one another, and with our neighbors, and with those we don’t even know. That’s what Genesis 1 shapes us to do as people created in God’s image who live in a world created by God.

Caretakers of God’s creation
Third, we live in a world created by God as people created in God’s image called to be caretakers of God’s creation.

If Genesis 1 is like a hymn or song of God’s greatness and the goodness of God’s work, Genesis 2 is like a delightful, playful story of God’s closeness and care and love. The language itself is delightful and playful, making frequent word-plays and puns. That’s how we’re to relate to God’s creation and to God. It’s to be a delight.

Many readers of John’s gospel have pondered how when Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb, she mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Could it be that just as John 1 echoes Genesis 1, so John 20 echoes Genesis 2? Could it be, many have wondered, that Mary was less mistaken than she realized, being sent by the gardener of God’s new creation?

Genesis 2 describes God sort of like a gardener at work in Eden, this little microcosm of God’s creation. God shapes a human being and breathes the breath of life into that human being assigns the human being to be the caretaker of the garden – to till it and to keep it. Actually, the word for tilling – abad – most often in the Old Testament means “to serve” and is the root for the word for servant or slave.

We are to be the servants of God’s creation. Just as Jesus, who has been given dominion over all things, came not to lord it over us, not to be served, but to serve, so also we, who have been given dominion over creation, are to exercise that dominion not by lording over it, but by serving it.

The word also means to work. Our vocation is one of hard work. It’s what we were created to do – to be creative, to work hard, to give ourselves fully to the task that God has given us, and to delight in that task.

The word for keeping the garden – shamar – means to watch over, as a shepherd watches over a flock, or a night watchman keeps vigilance over a city. It’s how God is described in Psalm 121: The Lord is your keeper. The Lord is the one who watches over you. We have God’s breath of life in us, and that’s how we’re to relate to the Gardener’s handiwork – to watch over it, to protect it.

Here at Grace Hill, we’re surrounded by God’s garden. We have a special calling to serve and protect God’s garden. Many of our members have dedicated their lives to this calling as they work in the fields day by day. It’s an important witness we have, to work hard to tend our little corner of God’s creation. So often our world forgets how beautiful and wonderful God’s creation is. So many people have forgotten their calling to have dominion by serving, and they exploit God’s creation for their own gain: land, water, creatures, people. It’s led to so much hurting around the world: cancers, dispossession, droughts and floods, scorched earth, dependency, poverty, spread of disease and malnutrition.

Here at Grace Hill, God’s Spirit has spoken through this text to give us a different vision for our life in God’s garden: If we work hard and delight in our work, if we serve and protect God’s beautiful garden – the land, the waters, the creatures, the people in it, then it will flourish with an abundance for the whole world.

 

Through this cherished Scripture from Genesis 1-2, God calls us at Grace Hill to live in a world created by God, as people created in God’s image, called to be caretakers of God’s creation. How will this story continue to shape us to live in ways that align with God’s good intention for creation, to value the divine image in ourselves and those around us, and to serve and protect God’s creation? This is our story at Grace Hill. Praise the Lord! Amen.

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Choose This Day

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Choose This Day” (Joshua 24:1-28)
by Pastor Peter Goezen< August 11, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Commitaphobia
I haven’t ever been just a real big fan of amusement parts. Many of you are, and that’s great, but I’m not. I’m just not. I just don’t like the idea or the sensation of my brains being forced into my toes, or my stomach getting pushed into my mouth. I like my internal organs where they are, thank you very much.

But I do like water parks. You know, the floaty rides, the log rides, and of course, the best part: the water slides. Except for the one slide that’s at almost every water park. I really enjoy the slide, but as I’m at the top of the slide, at the part where you grab a hold of the bar on top to give yourself that extra little boost at the start, I always have to think. Because this is the slide where your body actually loses contact with the slide for a few moments as you’re going down. For a few moments, it is completely out of your control. You are free-falling through wide open space.

And as I stand at the top of the slide, I wonder, well, what if I get going down wrong and shoot off at the wrong angle, or there’s sudden gust of wind that blows me off to one side and I go splat on the concrete below?! I mean, it seems like there’s actually a lot that could go wrong here! And it takes quite a bit of courage for me to decide and commit to go through with it.

Commitments are scary. Decisions are scary. Choices are scary. I suppose there are a couple of reasons why commitments and decisions and choices are scary. One is that we wonder if it’s the wrong choice. Out of all the homes for sale in the area, is this the best one for us? Out of all the colleges in the country, is this the best one for me? Out of all the potential mates in the world, is this the best spouse for me?

The list could go on and on. It’s like walking into a coffee shop and trying to select the perfect coffee from all the different choices of lattes and frapes au laits and seventeen different flavors for each. Where do you even begin? How do you know which is the best option?

Well, in a world of 7 billion people, you can’t interview every potential spouse. In a country with hundreds and hundreds of colleges, you can’t go on a campus visit to each one. It’s more comfortable to stay on the fence, and it feels so much safer. It’s not even practical to visit every house for sale in a town the size of Newton. But by the time you have, the one you want won’t be for sale anymore!

We make decisions with limited knowledge. Our decisions limit our future options. If you marry this person, you can’t marry that person. If you buy one house, you can’t buy another. Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of following him. We’re not always sure if making peace with enemies will work. We don’t know what will happen to us if we actually sell our possessions and give it to the poor. We don’t know if directing our desires into ways that glorify God is worth the effort. We don’t always know whether the benefit will outweigh the cost of money, or energy, or more often in our age, time.

So often we have to invest so much before we begin to reap the benefits. And we don’t always know if we’re right or wrong. We’re afraid of risk and failure. We’re a culture of commit-a-phobes.

Trustaphobia
Which leads to another reason why commitments and decisions and choices are scary. It requires trust. We have to trust ourselves to follow through, and we have to trust others to be faithful as well. We have to let go for the ride, to be willing to free fall, even for a moment, and trust that we’ll land secure. In a wedding, there are two people making promises, and in order for the marriage to work, each has to trust the other to remain true to those promises. It takes two people to choose to begin a marriage, but if only one walks away, there’s nothing the other can do. It makes us so vulnerable.

And most of us know what it’s like to have our trust betrayed by a friend or a family member or a mentor or a leader. And it’s so hard to trust again after that. But if there’s no trust, then we can’t give ourselves fully to the commitment, and if we can’t give ourselves fully to the commitment, then our fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and things go badly. Choices are scary, and really tough part is that fear of choosing often turns fear into fact.

The Israelites, after generations of slavery; after years of wandering in the wilderness, have finally entered the land promised to their ancestors. It has been divided among them, and they are about to go to their inheritance to live on the land, when Joshua calls them together to make a choice to renew their covenant with God.

Joshua seems to know that when they enter a land of their own; that when they begin to prosper, they may forget God. Now the people had already made a covenant with God. But just as we only marry our spouse once, we still have to choose that marriage every day, or it falls apart. And just as we may choose to be baptized as a declaration of our allegiance to Jesus Christ, we still have to choose Jesus every day, or our life will drift away from him.

It’s so easy to get distracted, to get caught up in just living life, that we forget to trust God with our life. The most important theme in these last chapters of Joshua is choosing to serve God. Again and again, Joshua urges the people to serve God. It’s the same word that can be translated as worship. To serve is worship, and to worship is to serve.

Consuming Passions
For Joshua, the most serious threat that the people face to serving God is idolatry. Joshua is concerned, and rightly so, that the people will look to their powerful neighbors, and covet the source of that power, which they often identify with their neighbors’ gods.

But idolatry in the Bible doesn’t just mean worshiping statues. Paul equates idolatry with greed (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Isaiah likens idolatry to gold and silver as sources of pride and power that prevent Israel from trusting God (2:7; 33:1; 36:9). Jesus says that you can’t serve (or worship) God and wealth, and that one’s heart is where one’s treasure is (Mt. 6:21-24; cf. Luke 12:34; 16:13; 18:24).

Idolatry doesn’t mean necessarily the worship of a specific deity, but a “consuming passion.” Isn’t it easy for something other than God to become our consuming passion? That’s Joshua’s basic concern, and that’s why we periodically need to recommit ourselves and re-align our passion with God and put away all other gods, all other consuming passions.

Joshua wants to remind the people of who they are and whose they are. He wants them to begin their new life by putting God at the center of it. He knows how difficult commitments and choices can be. Three times he prods them to choose. “Choose this day,” he says, whether to serve God, or to serve some other god. And three times they respond that they choose the Lord and will be obedient. So Joshua sets up a large stone in the sanctuary to remind them of their covenant.

From time to time, we need to renew our promises and covenants, to remind ourselves of what we have said we will do, and to choose each day to do it again. To remind ourselves of why we made those promises to begin with. Moses told the people to do this every several years.

And that’s what Joshua did. He told the people their story, so they would remember. So they would have solid ground on which to stake their trust, so they could make a commitment. It’s why we’re going to spend a year telling our faith story and studying it and reading it and memorizing and delighting in it and dwelling in it and letting it dwell in us. That’s where we stake our trust.

Water Ride
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be inviting you to make a commitment to our faith story. Perhaps to read it. Perhaps to study it more deeply. Perhaps to memorize portions of it. Or many other ways. Perhaps to join a group that will pray over it and tell it and hold each other accountable and in prayer. That’s where we stake our commitment – in our faith story.

Maybe that’s a scary idea. I won’t say it’s not. Maybe it’s scary to think about making a commitment because you’re not sure if you can follow through. Or maybe it’s hard to imagine it being worth it. Or maybe it sounds like one more thing to fit into a busy schedule. Or maybe the thought of being accountable is a little unnerving. There are lots of reasons why commitments sound scary to us. Because it always means letting go for the ride, free-falling, and trusting in a safe landing.

It’s like another water adventure story that you’ve probably heard before. After Jesus had fed the multitudes, the disciples went ahead of him by boat to the other side of the sea of Galilee. As the disciples were at sea, a great wind kicked up, and the winds were beating against the boat, and the lake was swirling and heaving around them. Jesus starts walking on the water across the lake, and when the disciples see him, they think he’s a ghost, but he says to them, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter responds, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” And so Peter gets out of the boat and steps onto the water, as the waves are beating against him and the waters are swirling around his feet. And he takes a step. And another step. And he is walking on the water in the middle of the storm, when he hears the wind, and he notices the sea roaring and foaming around him, and he gets scared.

And Peter gets a sudden sinking feeling as the waters are closing in around him, and he does the only thing he can do: he calls out, “Lord, save me!”

And just then, a hand comes out to him, reaching through the storm, reaching through the wind and the waves and the waters, and grabs ahold of him and pulls him up. And together, the two of them stand, in the middle of storm, the the wind blowing, and the waves crashing and the waters foaming and swirling around them. And they together begin to walk back to the boat, and the second they step into the boat, the wind ceases. And the storm stops. And the sea is still.

Now did Peter fail? Well, yes, perhaps he did, in a way. He let fear overwhelm faith.

But if you want to walk on the water, you have to step out of the boat.

And there were eleven who didn’t. Was it safer in the sea-tossed boat, or with Jesus on the sea?

Only Peter knew the thrill of walking on water. Only Peter knew what it meant to attempt what he could not do, and be caught up in God’s power and actually do it. Only Peter knew what it meant to stand on the sea in the middle of the storm – not by himself, but with one who knew the way through it to safe harbor. Who do you suppose was the greater failure?

Peter was ready to commit. He made a decision. He chose Jesus over what appeared to be safety. He let go of control.

And he walked on water.

So choose this day whom to serve and give yourself completely to that commitment. Step out of the boat. Let go and fly for the ride of your life. You don’t want to miss out on it.

As a response, I’d like to invite us to renew today some of the most important promises we’ve made.

Those who have declared your allegiance to Jesus Christ by being baptized upon confession of your faith, I invite you to choose those vows this day. For those who have not yet made this public declaration, I invite you, by your conscience to consider each of these questions and to choose this day as you can as well. We eagerly await the day when you give full and public expression to these vows by baptism upon the confession of your faith.

The vow of faith is a pledge for eternity. Congregation, please rise if you are comfortable doing so as you make your pledge and covenant with God and one another.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world and turn to Jesus Christ as your savior? Do you put your trust in his grace and love and promise to obey him as your Lord? If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesush Christ, God’s Son, our Lord; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life? If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you accept the Word of God as guide and authority for you life?

Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?

Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church?

 

People of God, how will you live out these vows by serving God this day? What commitment are you ready to make in order to pursue these vows more fully and deeply? What new efforts or changes do you need to make in order to make God your consuming passion?

We’re going to sing “I bind my heart this tide,” and as we do, I’m going to invite the ushers to come forward and pass baskets of rocks down the aisles. Set this rock up as a reminder of your commitment to God and your readiness to grow ever more deeply in faith. As you pass the basket down the your row, say to the person who is receiving, “Choose this day.”

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Sheep, Deer, and Trees

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Sheep, Deer, and Trees” (Psalm 23; 42:1-5; 1; John 10:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 4, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This summer, we have been looking to God’s good creation to be reminded of God’s care and protection, God’s generosity and abundance, and what God is like. Today, we look to other creatures of God’s handiwork to be reminded of what we are like.

One of our seminary professors spends much of his time with horses and would often remark that every church member should spend time with horses. Well, I can’t say that I’ve taken him up on his advice, so those of you who do spend time with horses will have to tell me if this is true or not. He would often tell us how if you’re nervous or anxious or uncertain or scared, the horse will pick up on that anxiety, and it will quickly spread to other horses, and they’ll soon become very difficult to work with!

That’s how we are in our family or church herds as well, he would tell us. When we’re anxious or negative or scared or distrustful, that can quickly spread to others and make life very difficult. But on the other hand, if you approach even a nervous horse with a calm and gentle spirit, the horse will also soon be calmed, and somehow that calm can even spread to other horses, and it becomes a joy to work together.

And that’s also how how we are in our family or church herds as well, he would tell us. When we can rise above our fear and anxiety and bring a calm and gentle and hopeful and trusting spirit – even to a very tense situation – that can spread like wildfire and make it such a fruitful joy to work together.

Well, this professor’s insights, wise though they are, really aren’t much of anything new. People of faith have always looked to God’s creation to be reminded of who we are and what we’re like as God’s creatures, the work of God’s hands.

Sheep
For this morning, we’re going to talk about three of the many ways the Bible does this: sheep, deer, and trees. Abraham and Sarah and many of the earliest families mentioned in the Bible were nomadic-type shepherd families. They spent many hours tending their flocks, and they learned much from these creatures in their care.

Now, the pastures of this ancient land were not so much like the pastures today. They weren’t fenced off to protect and keep the flock. The flocks grazed relatively freely across the land. An important part of the shepherd’s job was to be sure that none of the sheep, who were notoriously wayward, went wandering off from the flock. A lost sheep was at risk of falling into a ravine and being trapped. Apart from the herd, it would be easy pray for thieves, wolves, or lions.

Isaiah knew how very much we are like sheep. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” he said. Even those who have been a part of the flock for many years go astray. In fact, in Psalm 119, the longest Psalm of the Bible, the Psalmist goes on for 175 verses about how much he or she simply delights in the instruction of the Lord and loves to follow the Lord’s ways and treasures the Lord’s teaching even above the finest gold and seeks after God with the whole heart.

But in verse 176, the last verse, the Psalmist who delights so very much in the Lord, confesses, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Help!” We’re like sheep, wandering away without noticing it, straying without understanding the consequences of our actions. We do so many silly, foolish things. We say things that hurt others. We neglect to care for the least among us. We’re wooed by flashy displays of power and might. We think so much just of ourselves that we soon discover we’re by ourselves. We get distracted and wander away from God and get into trouble.

Lions and wolves and thieves alike know that the best way to prey on a flock is to startle it, frighten it, and scatter it, and then carry off individual sheep who get separated from the flock. There are so many things that try to drive us away from one another: fear of those who are different, worry and anxiety, relationships that get taken for granted and not nurtured. Poor listening and hasty speaking. Busyness and preoccupation. Hurtful words. Impatience. Assumptions. Seeds of distrust. Our flocks are so vulnerable, and we need a shepherd to protect us, to keep us safe together, and to bring us in when we’re lost.

Jesus warned about false shepherds. “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a rebel.” Now that is sort of an odd pairing: thief and rebel. One is stealthy – a subtle embezzler, a cat burglar. The other is a violent insurrectionist – what the Roman Empire might have called the terrorists of its day.1

These false shepherds are always trying to sneak into the sheepfold, it seems. Defrauding and exploitation of the poor on the one hand, and violence and insurrection on the other are always trying to find a home among God’s people, always trying to speak in soft tones to urge a few sheep to follow them off into the night.

Just think of how their advertisements for stuff – possessions, consumables – that surround us keep seeping into the sheepfold with such friendly-sounding voices, saying, “It’s OK, come here. Follow me. You should have this. You deserve this. You need this, and you need it now. Boost your ego. It’ll make your life so much easier, happier.” I once ran into an economics professor who told me that the best thing I could do for our nation’s poor is to go shopping. Thieves speak ever so smoothly.

Or have you ever heard a pretend shepherd like the insurrectionist? Have you ever heard Barabbas telling you to respond to insult in kind? To shove back? To hit back because that’s the only think that’ll teach them a lesson? Maybe you’ve heard him telling you that justice means an eye for an eye or a life for a life, perhaps whispering so convincingly in your ear that loving your enemies like God loves them has its limits, such as when your life, or your friends’ lives, is threatened, and that you only have one option that will actually work, that you’ve gotta put down your cross and take up your sword if you wanna get anything done in this world.

Pretend shepherds are always sneaking in as thieves and wolves and lions to steal and kill and destroy.

I Am the good shepherd, Jesus says. No doubt he was thinking of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”

Now, the interesting thing about sheep, is that they know their shepherd’s voice. Every year, my parents used to load up us boys in the van, and we’d drive to South Dakota to visit my aunt and uncle. If we got up early enough, we could go out with my uncle to chore the sheep. As we were walking out to the barn, the sheep would completely ignore our chatter until my uncle would start calling, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” And the timid-yet-gentle creatures would start making their way from the “pasture” to the barn, a little nervous to see us strangers. They came because they knew their shepherd’s voice and call. There was a familiarity to them in his step, in his face, and in his voice, and they trusted him.

The Good Shepherd’s sheep don’t know the voice of impostor shepherds, and they flee them. The sheep may have a wayward inclination, but they do know, deep down, whom to follow. They can sense truth even amid all the voices and follow after it. It’s the Good Shepherd who can call us by name, and we follow after him. Once we hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, it’s like we become rewired to instinctively follow after him.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his listeners, “Which shepherd will you follow? Whose voice will you hear, and whose will you flee? Those impostor shepherds, those short-cut thieves and exploiters, those violent rebels and murderers? Or will you follow the Good Shepherd, who will lead you beside the still water, restore your soul, take you through the valley of the shadow of death, and raise you to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection?

So when Jesus goes about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, we follow him as a part of that proclamation, because we’re his flock. We follow Jesus as he sets about healing God’s children, freeing them from the grip of pain, despair, and the possessive spirits of the world. We follow him on his path of tremendous and costly love for the least lovable.

We follow him as he forgives those who come to him, and we even follow him through the valley of the shadow of death, because he is the Good Shepherd, and we are his flock. We freely yield to his call to follow him even as we bear our crosses to the hill of Golgotha, being conformed to a death like his, that we might also share in a resurrection like his. For he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And as the lamb who was slain and rose again, he has gone ahead, left us a trail through the thorns and brambles to the hope of his kingdom and the safety of his fold. We need a shepherd in this life, and we can trust his voice.

Deer
In Psalm 42, the Psalmist feels like a deer that longs for flowing streams. So it is that the soul longs for God, thirsts for God. We are created with a thirst that only God can quench, and we search for the flowing streams of God. Now in the land of the Psalmist, the rains come seasonally, and when it rains the streams flow, but during the dry season, the streams often dry up.

Likewise, we often experience droughts in our life with God. The streams dry up, and we find ourselves thirsty. We suffer loss and difficulty, and it hurts. We get harmed by others and our soul feels empty and parched. We get busy with life and forget about God and soon discover that we’re parched. And so, the Psalmist seeks streams of water, but instead finds only a stream of tears.

The psalmist pours out his or her soul, and in so doing, finds an overwhelming flood of God’s steadfast love. As the Psalmist pours out the soul, memories start to come. Memories of worship, of processions and glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving and who multitudes at worship. And the Psalmist is comforted and encouraged.

Then the Psalmist remembers Mount Hermon, which is snowcapped most of the year, and the majestic waterfalls it displays as the melted snow comes down the mountain. The floodgates open. Deep calls to deep, as if creation itself is at worship. The Psalmist, seeking seasonal streams, pours out the soul and becomes overwhelmed by the awe of the floods of worship.

That’s what worship is – gathering together as we pour out our hearts, only to be overwhelmed and awed by the flood of God’s steadfast love. Often we need to pour out our soul and everything that has come to fill it so that it can be overflowed by God’s steadfast love. Where can you pour out your soul? With whom can you share your deepest longings and hurts and disappointments and hopes and joys?

It’s what happens when we open ourselves to Jesus. Like Jesus told the woman at the well with her water jar, “Every one who drinks of my water will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” When the woman left, her water jar stayed behind (John 4:28). She was overwhelmed by the flood of living water.

Trees
Psalm 1 likens the life of faith to a tree. Those who delight in the law and meditate on it are like trees planted by streams of water, yielding their fruit in season, not whithering even in season of drought, but prospering. Now the word for “law” here is torah. Law sounds kinda, well, legalistic. Cold and distant. But that’s not really what torah is about. Torah is a way of life. God’s way of life. Torah is instruction for faithful and fruitful living. Torah is about God’s story of redemption and teaching us to live in redemptive ways. Torah is about God’s Word for us.

Psalm 1 is about delighting in God’s ways and God’s stories and God’s instructions and meditating on them, studying them, internalizing them day and night. I mentioned earlier that Psalm 119 has 176 verses. And those 176 verses are about God’s Word, God’s Torah, God’s instruction, God’s ways and God’s story. To read all 176 verses all at once is really quite overwhelming, as well it should be, because the importance of God’s Word is overwhelming. Apart from it, there is nothing worthy to be called life. (Jesus said, “my words are spirit, and they are life.”)

When we are delighting and dwelling in God’s Word, we have a place to be rooted and grounded. We have a place to be planted and to flourish, and be blessed and be a blessing. Now the Psalmist isn’t naïve. The Psalmists know all about how often times it seems the other way around like the way of the wicked causes them to prosper and might makes right and crime often does pay, and quite often very handsomely. But being blessed is about a peace that not like the world gives, that passes all understanding. In Psalm 1, it’s about having a place to be grounded, rooted. Rooted and grounded in God’s Word. When we are rooted and grounded in God’s word, we have a place to thrive, to prosper, and to bear fruit. Our roots are sent out into the streams of life, and we can weather the storms and droughts that come our way, bearing much fruit for God’s kingdom along the way.

In two weeks, we’ll be kicking off our year of the Bible with our Grace Hill Bible Bowl. This will be a year of many opportunities to dwell in the word, to digest it into our bones and blood. To be rooted in it every more deeply. To meditate on it and delight in it. So in the coming weeks, be thinking about how you are going to be rooted ever more deeply in God’s word this year. Maybe you want to read the Bible through. Maybe you want to work on memorizing scripture. Maybe you want to join a Bible study or participate in fun evenings of telling the stories in creative ways. Maybe you want to start reading the Bible as a family.

In John 15, Jesus uses a similar image: I am the vine, and you are the branches. And twelve times in 8 verses, Jesus talks about abiding. Abiding in the vine. Abiding in Jesus and he in us. Abiding in his love, and his joy abiding in us. We’re to be rooted in, to dwell in, to abide in God’s word made flesh in Jesus.

 

As his sheep, we need a shepherd, and we have an instinctive urge to listen to our Good Shepherd’s voice. Let’s heed that voice and rest in his protection. As deer thirsting after water, we have a longing for God. When we pour ourselves out, we encounter the overwhelming floods of God’s steadfast love in gathering together for worship and in creation itself at worship. Let’s worship God and pour out our souls to one another and experience the flood of God’s steadfast love in creation and in our lives. When we come to Jesus we find the overflowing waters of life. As trees, when we delight in God’s Word and dwell in it and chew on it and live in it, we’re like trees with strong rooting, drawing on those waters of life, abiding in Jesus our vine. Let’s dwell in God’s word, rooted as a tree by the riverside.

Notes:
1. There is only one thief mentioned by name in John’s gospel: Judas Iscariot, who kept the common purse, but stole the money from it instead of giving it to the poor (John 12:4-6). And there is only one rebel mentioned by name in John’s gospel: At the time of Passover, the Jewish authorities would later ask for the release, not of Jesus, but of the insurrectionist and murderer named Barabbas. They had chosen their shepherd, and his path would ultimately lead to destruction. The Judeans mounted an insurrection against Rome in AD 66-70. It was brutally crushed. In several important manuscripts, Matthew draws out the contrast by calling Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas.” The choice is then between Jesus Messiah and Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:17). The crowd chooses the insurrectionist Jesus. May we guide our minds and actions against following this false “Jesus” of violence and insurrection.

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