Following How?

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short … For the present form of this world is passing away.             I Corinthians 7:29,31

“The appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.”  The world is on the verge of ending.  Don’t get tied down with the things of this world, don’t get preoccupied with things that shortly will make no difference when compared to the backdrop of eternity.  St Paul is saying to his readers that they need to distance themselves from the things that are about to be destroyed.

It is wise advice.  If you build a fire, you must let go of the wood, or else you will be burned, the more serious burn will be caused by how tightly you keep on holding to the wood.  So let go, Paul says, before the fire reaches your hand.  Let go of this world and its ways, before it does damage to your spiritual life when the world is destroyed.

You cannot read the epistle for this morning without catching the urgency that the end of the world is quite close at hand.  How fascinating that such a reading should appear at a time like this.  The Middle East, with the outspoken hatred many Arab states have for the existence of Israel; Islamic terrorist groups threatening many countries, Iran and North Korea ramping up their nuclear agendas, and so many other tensions in the world make us realize all afresh just how the time could indeed be very short for the end of the world.  It is as if the Lord is using the present conditions of the world to reinforce His message to you and to me.

And yet thinking that the end could be this close can create a problem for us, a problem that happened to the Louisiana State University basketball team:

In the 1987 NCAA Regional Finals, LSU was leading Indiana by eight points with only a few minutes left in the game.  As is often the case with a team in the lead, LSU began playing a different ball game.  The television announcer pointed out that the LSU players were beginning to watch the clock rather than wholeheartedly play the game.  As a result of this shift in focus, Indiana closed the gap, won the game by one point, and eventually went on to become NCAA champions.
J. David Bianchin (Lawrenceville, Illinois), “To Illustrate”, Leadership, 3

It is important to take Paul’s words to heart, that the end of the world is just around the corner and we must orient our lives to that fact.  Even Jesus in the Gospel tells us that the time is ready and the Kingdom of God is close at hand.  Yet the danger is that this can become such a preoccupation that, like the LSU team, we forget that the game isn’t over yet.  There is still plenty of time left to make all the difference in the world – especially in our worlds.

And remember something else: Despite how well versed Paul was in all the prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah, and that he was profoundly inspired by the Holy Spirit, yet he really believed that the end of the world was going to happen immanently.  But that was some two thousand years ago.  That perspective we need to keep in mind, when some predict that the years to the end of the world can be counted on your fingers and perhaps your toes.  The LSU team story warns us that the game isn’t over just yet, and we may be surprised at just how much can yet happen and be done – it could be what can make all the difference in the world for people around you!

We do live in an age of tremendous and speedy change, especially in terms of morals and values, and in a real sense we need to take to heart Paul’s words: The present form of this world IS passing away.  Dramatic changes are happening in ways never before dreamed of.  Some things bring relief, some things bring fear.  With so much great and powerful things happening all around us, very easily we can be overwhelmed.  We can feel as intimidated was coach Woody Hayes did when he first came to Ohio State University:

Before Woody Hayes came to coach football at Ohio State, 24 years ago, he had been coaching at the much smaller Denison and Miami universities in Ohio.  “The first time I stood in the middle of the OSU stadium with its 86,000 seats staring down at me,” he recalls, “I was shook up.  My young son was with me and had hold of my hand.  He must have felt my reaction, for he said, ‘But, Daddy, the football field is the same size.'”
Lionel Crocker, in Newark, Ohio, Advocate, quoted in Reader’s Digest

We too can look all around at the vast world and feel equally as intimidated.  The time could be very short, and the world is so big.  But as Woody Hayes was reminded, that portion of the world for which he was personally responsible hadn’t changed – it was still the same size.  And, although not stated in the story, still the time in which he had to do his job hadn’t changed, either.  We also remember that as huge as the earth is, our own personal worlds haven’t changed.  Our personal worlds still contain us, our families, our neighbor, our community, and our church community.  And the time we have is exactly the time we need to do what the Lord said would be done before He comes.

You see, Paul wasn’t making his comments about the end of “the present form of this world” in a sense of panic.  He wasn’t seeing everything disintegrating around him and therefore screamed out like some “Chicken Little” that “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”  But rather like the general addressing his troops on the eve of the battle, he is telling us not to become distracted in our mission, or else we become vulnerable to the counter attacks from the sin all around us, from Satan himself, and even from our own fleshly desires.

There are some reactions that we can have to this:  The first is that we can resist Paul’s message that we focus on the mission that lies before us, which Jesus gave us, that is, to make disciples of the world – our world.  I have my car, my TV set, I have my standard of living, my recreational activities, my house, my hobbies, many other things that I am involved with.  I value them all very highly.  Now Paul tells me to act as if very easily by tomorrow all these things won’t exist, not so much that they will disappear, but rather that their importance cannot match what the things that are eternal must have.

And that really creates a struggle in me.  I enjoy these things.  They are fun.  They give me certain satisfactions.  They also can give me a lot of headaches.  They also can so fill my time that just don’t have time anymore.  But I don’t want to give them up.  However, did you notice that Paul doesn’t say that all these things must be given up? He does emphasize, though, that they are to pale in significance when placed next to the things that are eternal.  And that perspective is something that we really must do, when we consider the stakes that we are dealing with.

It is hard, and sometimes only reluctantly do we listen to Paul’s words.  We do recognize that Paul is right, and what he is emphasizing is indeed important, because, otherwise, why else are we here in this church?  We do need to place the proper perspective on all the many elements of our daily lives.  But that is so hard to do, because our very natures resist such change and also resist any attempt to get closer to what the Lord wants.

What then is the answer for us?  The answer is found in the Gospel [Mark 1:14-20].  Today Jesus comes before us in especially His Word and simply says, “Follow Me.”  He does not lay out a large quantity of demands and commands, He does not insist on us doing all sorts of mental and/or spiritual gymnastics, He does not require that we swear off everything nor anything.  Just simply He says, “Follow Me.”

But how those words tug at us!!  What makes people follow after a person?  Usually it is because he has something they want.  If he were a singer, then it would be because of the way that he expresses himself in song.  If he were a political leader, it would be because of how he can lead them through the needs and problems of political life.  If he were a sports figure, it would be because they admire his physical ability and talent.

But look at how the disciples literally dropped everything to follow Jesus!  Why?  What drew them so powerfully to follow Jesus?  What draws you to follow Jesus?  Is it not more than His offer of Salvation?  By no means is His gift of eternal life a minor thing, but isn’t there much more?

In Jesus, God Himself came to walk this earth, to share our bread, to walk our roads, to stand by our sides.  In Jesus, the face of God is shown to be one of extraordinary concern and love.  In Jesus, we have that security of knowing that He is indeed in control, even when things look their darkest.  In Jesus, we have been given the amazing right to be called God’s own beloved children, to have a depth and wonder of a relationship to the Creator of the universe that just cannot be matched anywhere else.  In Jesus, we see such meticulous care for us that even the hairs of our heads have been numbered.  Indeed, we find our hearts tugging to follow Jesus.

However, a distinction must be made.  “To follow Jesus” is not to merely learn the correct things to do, nor is it to have the correct doctrine – all of which the Pharisees had tried to do with the Old Testament.  It is not to glean information about Jesus as a gossip columnist might do.  It is not to follow Him because we merely expect Him to be useful for us and our lives.  We follow Jesus not simply to find out about Him, but rather that we meet Him, getting to know the world, life, and eternity through His eyes; to come along with what He is passionate about; to touch the people whom He touches; and to give of oneself alongside of Him Who withheld nothing of Himself from those who came to Him.

The disciples had to come to grips with the fact that Jesus did not fit into the box of their convenience, merely to echo their perspectives, values, and prejudices.  We also are called upon face and to repent of this attitude toward the Lord.  However, in Holy Communion comes Jesus’ invitation to really get to know Him as He comes to give of Himself to us.  As we look at the work of the Church at large, as we see the people with all of their weaknesses who surround us in this vast community of believers, He invites us to follow Him, to see as He sees, to work as He works, to love as He loves.

And therein lies our answer.  As we follow Jesus and experience His relation of love toward us, as we delve deeper into what He has done, does do, what He wants, and what He promises, then as Paul described, the present form of our world passes away.  As we watch Jesus in our lives, those things which ARE important take their place in relation to the things that are eternal, because in Jesus we have indeed found that one thing needful, that one thing that will never be taken from us: we have found the God Who really does walk this earth in front of us as we learn from Him what He and we are all about.

Jonah or Jesus

The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  So Jonah arose and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord. Jonah 3:1-2

In 1891, James Bartley went to sea. It was a whaling expedition east of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.  He was in the eight man whaling longboat that was delivering the fatal harpoon to a huge sperm whale, when the whale turned, crushing their boat. He remembered being flung into the air, and falling back into the sea, the great mouth opening over him.  He screamed, and then oblivion.

The mother ship picked up the longboat survivors, but James Bartley, age 21, and another seaman were missing. Just before nightfall, the dead whale floated to the surface, and the crew began their work of removing the thick layers of blubber which would be boiled down into oil.

After hours of hard work, shortly before 11 and working by lantern light, the tired crew removed the stomach and huge liver.  As they did one seaman was startled to see a slow, rhythmic movement in the great stomach – it was as if something was breathing.

The captain called the ship’s doctor, and a cut was begun.  A human foot, shoe and all, became visible.  Moments later, James Bartley returned to the land of the living.  He was doubled up, unconscious, but alive!  For two weeks he hovered between life and death, but he recovered to live 18 more years.  He had been in the whale’s stomach for 15 hours; he had lost all the hair on his body, his skin was bleached an unnatural white, and was to be almost blind for the rest of his life.  But he survived, as the records of the British Admiralty will document.

Now, this newsworthy item from 1891 is very reassuring in regard to the story of Jonah.  Of course, the biblical account of Jonah does not say that he was swallowed by a whale, but rather by a great sea animal.  Yet it is reassuring that even when scientists will tell us that it is impossible for a whale to swallow a man, that the throat is too small, here was a sperm whale that had never read these scientist’s articles, and therefore swallowed James Bartley anyway.

Of course, this incident from 1891 doesn’t prove that the Jonah account is true, but it does remind us that the realm of possibility of what God can do is still far greater than what we ever expect.  After all, how unexpected can you get, but that in a backwater town, in a cattle stall, a helpless Infant is the Creator God of the Universe.

Unfortunately, being swallowed by a great sea animal is really a minor incident in the story of Jonah.  If I were to ask you what was the issue in story, could you tell me?

It is the story of the reluctant prophet of God.  God had given Jonah the job of preaching to the people of Nineveh, and Jonah didn’t want to.  He was afraid that they just might repent, and that God would spare them from the terrible judgment which He had pronounced over them.  Jonah hated those people, so he ran away, thinking that by going to a different place, he could get away from God, and could avoid the mission given to him.

But God didn’t let him run.  The ship he had booked passage on was beset by a terrible storm, and he was identified as the problem.  To save the ship’s crew, Jonah told them to throw him overboard, whereupon he was swallowed by the great sea animal.

After he repented and the animal threw him back up on dry land, the Lord told him again, “Now go!”  So here’s this guy, bleached skin, hairless, clothes in tatters, smelling like fish vomit – you think that wouldn’t make quite a stir in Ninevah?  He was keenly listened to, and what Jonah had feared most came true – Ninevah repented and God withdrew the judgment He had pronounced over them.

But remember, the story is not about Ninevah, it’s about Jonah, and therefore it continues.  Jonah still was hoping that God would destroy them anyway, so he set himself on a hill to watch the action.  It was hot in the sun and God grew a plant to shield him.  Then as the Bible put it, God “appointed” a worm to eat away at the plant and remove the comfort Jonah experienced.  So now Jonah was not only angry because Ninevah was spared, but was also because he was inconvenienced.

God challenged him because he cared more about the plant and his own convenience, and yet could not care about the great number of people who had faced destruction.  Jonah was forced to see that the mercy of God will not be influenced by the petty motives of man – God would not fit into a box of convenience, there to echo Jonah’s perspectives, values, and prejudices.

I suppose that this text was chosen to contrast with today’s Gospel [Mark 1:14-20], where the Greek was very emphatic on the word “immediately”: that when Jesus called Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, they immediately dropped everything, and without even a look back followed Jesus.

Now, upon the evidence of the Bible, a case could be made that these four men that Jesus called were fairly well-to-do, with quite a fishing business established.  These men apparently had quite a commitment to their Jewish faith, and at least John was personally known by Caiaphas the high priest.

Following Jesus would mean eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, extending the hand of friendship to the despised Samaritans, dealing with untouchable lepers and others looking for hand-outs, and especially to the non-Jew, the Gentile, who had none of the traditions, none of the background, none of the respect for the religious system they had always known – to regard the Gentile as a total equal to themselves.  How easily they could have had the reluctance of Jonah, and tried to run away from the mission of the Lord.  But no, immediately they left everything and followed Jesus.

The question is therefore placed before us this Epiphany season, that as the call of Jesus comes to each one of us, how will we react?  Jonah stands before us with a great deal of warning.  When the Lord gives us a call, we cannot deny it.  It is not optional.  Jonah did not want to do the Lord’s work, yet everywhere he turned, the Lord stood, firmly blocking his way.

Obviously you haven’t been swallowed by a great sea animal, but do you know the feeling that Jonah had?  Do you know how it is to be hounded by God, because you don’t want to do what you know is right, and yet your conscience keeps hammering at you, that people around you just seem to bring up the subject frequently, that in the turn of events you are thrown together time and again with whoever is the focus of God’s mission?

Do you know that feeling of trying to run away from God?  How often do we do that, sometimes in the most subtle of ways?  It is like the business man that is very devout when he is doing the work of the church, but in his business life he tries to act as if he has escaped from the presence of the Lord.  After all, that is religion, but business is business!  I know of a person who wore a cross around his neck, and when he was about to do something wrong, would put the cross in his pocket, as if God couldn’t then see what he would do next.  Or was it that he didn’t want to be reminded of the mission that the Lord had given him?

How often have you been confronted by an important, necessary, yet unpleasant task from the Lord?  Perhaps it was to confront someone whom you have something against; perhaps it was to make amends?  Or maybe it was to witness, in both WORD and DEED to someone, perhaps someone you really don’t care for – yet the Lord has told you to love that person for His sake?  And when that person has come to the Lord, perhaps by your effort, have you ever experienced that twinge of disappointment, that darn it, does he have to be a member of my church?!  You see, Jonah is very real, very human, and uncomfortably very much like us.

It’s not very pleasant when the Lord must rock us back on our heels like He did to Jonah, but there is a note of comfort in this!  You see, God wasn’t concerned about numbers.  Sure, there were some 120,000 people in Ninevah that God didn’t want to see perish, but rather be saved.  And Jonah was so obstinate and rebellious, that according to our wisdom, what’s one compared to 120,000?  After God had forced Jonah to bring Ninevah to repentance, He could have just thrown out Jonah like a used dishrag.

But what do we find?  God comes back to bring JONAH to repentance.  As concerned as He was over the 120,000, God also was concerned about the one.  With Jonah, God shows His intense interest even about you and me, to turn us away from our rebellions, that we might experience His mercy and love for US, as well as for others.

This is the message of Holy Communion, where God is intensely personal, offering, giving to us His forgiveness, His love, His very being; yet all the time reminding us that this is for all the Church, all the people of God, even those we don’t agree with, even those we don’t like, even those whom we may hate.

When we repent of our own obstinate behavior, when we confess a heart which has been cold to the eternal needs of other, this forgiveness of the Lord begins a change of attitude and perspective in us.  God gives us a new realization of our equality with others as we see our own need of His forgiveness and His mercy.  As we see our selves exactly on the same level even of those we hate, and also as equal recipients of God’s unimaginable grace, mercy and steadfast love, our whole outlook is revised by God.

It becomes the kind of change as those four men experienced who reached the point, that at the call of Jesus, they immediately dropped all, even their prejudices, to follow Him.

Today is a most uncomfortable day, with Jonah revealing to us what is so often hidden in the deep recesses of our hearts.  Yet it is a most wonderful day in which we also see how God is concerned with us as individuals, to get our hearts back on track, and to see ourselves as the focus of His mercy, as well as others who equally with us need His love and forgiveness.

The Fog Disappeared

And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this?  A new teaching!  With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.       Mark 1:27

Muller’s faith became almost proverbial, and inspired countless others to put their trust in God.  All his needs, great and small, were spread out before the Lord with absolute assurance that they would be supplied.
On one occasion when he was crossing the Atlantic the ship ran into a fog.  Approaching the captain he said, “I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.”
“Impossible,” said the captain.
“Very well,” replied Muller, “If your ship cannot take me, God will find some other means.  I have never broken an engagement in fifty-seven years.”
“I would willingly help you if I could,” said the captain, “but there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“Let us go to the chartroom and pray,” said Muller.
“Do you know how dense the fog is?” asked the captain.
“No,” was Muller’s answer.  “My eye is not on the density of the fog but on the living God who controls every circumstance of my life.”
Together they went to the chartroom and Muller prayed: “O Lord, if it is consistent with Thy will, please remove the fog in five minutes.  You know the engagement You made for me in Quebec on Saturday.  I believe it is Your will that I make that appointment.”
The captain was about to pray when he had finished, but Muller touched him on the shoulder and told him not to do so.  “First,” he said, “you do not believe He will; and second, I believe He has, so there is no need for you to pray about it.”
The captain looked amazed and Muller continued: “Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to gain an audience with Him. Get up and open the door.  You will find the fog gone.”
The captain opened the door.  The fog has disappeared!                 The Sword Scrapbook, quoted in Pulpit Helps, 4/86

“With authority [Jesus] commands the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.”  The Jews were astounded at the power that Jesus expressed, not only in His teaching, but also in His authority when dealing with the powers of this world.  As one studies Spiritual Warfare, there is the reminder of just how powerful Satan and his demons can be.  There is a reality here that humbles us as we realize how powerless we would be without God’s protection.

Therefore it is no wonder that the Jews were amazed!  Jesus needed no elaborate ritual, He didn’t even have to call upon God or the holy angels for assistance; there was no theatrical exorcism.  How astonishing that Jesus would be revealed as being in THAT much control!

That was a picture of Jesus that Muller had apparently grasped.  It really does make one squirm to see such a faith in evidence: Muller really believed that God not only heard him, but was actually going to do something, just because Muller prayed a very simple prayer.  Muller apparently believed that there was no circumstance that was going to get into the way of God’s interaction with him.  The fog was at its densest, but this man was undisturbed: God would honor His relationship with him.

But how far does this picture of Jesus go?  Can you really depend on the Lord that specifically?  Oh, but that runs counter to everything we feel on the gut level!  For instance, on the world scene, there are some very great and terrible things out there.  We see wars, terrorism, mass shootings, deliberate evil, random evil, cruelty, insensitivity, and so much more.  How would Muller have prayed about them?  How should you pray about them?  What is your attitude and expectations?

Even then, as important and as far-reaching as these things are, they still are remote.  Yes, these events may affect our lives, but they can seem far enough away and so big that we have no hesitance in putting them in the hands of God and leaving them there.

However, when we get to the things of our daily lives, situations within the family, the inconveniences which frustrate our plans for the day – isn’t it harder to trust that the Lord will have any power and authority over those troubles and concerns?  In the daily nitty-gritty of life, how often do we become more vague about the connection of our prayers to the power of God?  Would you pray because fog restricted your work for the Lord, and then expect that the Lord would immediately remove this hindrance from your work?

Or do we expect that things really won’t change much, that God is helpless, unwilling, absent-minded or whatever the reason may be that nothing much will REALLY happen?

It really is hard, isn’t it?  Simply put, the sin in our human nature tugs us into distrusting the character and the ability of God.  How hard it is to believe that God really cares about each of us, the individual!  How hard it is to believe that God really would care that much that He would act in regard to our prayers.  How easy comes the habit of expecting that nothing will really change that much, except for the very rare surprise.

Our nature reverberates with the basic mistrust of God that was expressed in the first sin in the Garden of Eden, where Satan persuaded Eve and Adam that God was holding back from them something good and worthwhile.  That distrust has never left mankind – you and I still struggle with it today.

So we stand in awe of Muller’s supreme confidence in regard to his relationship with Jesus.  How can anyone have such an amazing faith as that, one which would be so literal and sure, so confident of what the Lord’s will would want for you and me?

The answer is found both in the Epistle [I Corinthians 8:1-13] and in the Old Testament [Deuteronomy 18:15-20] lessons today.  St Paul speaks of our relationship to the weaker brother, and how our concern for his spirituality should affect our actions.  Yet he expresses a principle here that is far broader and more wide reaching than just this example.

The principle comes in the form of the question, “Does God really love you?”  You see, knowledge, as helpful and necessary as it is, is meaningless without this personal relationship – NOT our love toward God, but HIS steadfast Love toward US.  There can be no confidence of God’s individual care for our needs if we are not sure that He LOVES SPECIFICALLY YOU AND  ME.  Perhaps that is what marks the difference between Muller’s astounding faith and our – mediocre? – faith.

Does God love you and me – does He really have the kind of Love toward us that would COMPEL Him to pay that close attention to each prayer, that kind of Love would make Him take seriously His promises toward each of us?  Do you and I really matter THAT MUCH to Him?  That can create a struggle within us:  On one hand we so desperately want to know that we are just that important, and yet it is hard to really believe that.

This is more than simply knowledge.  It is more than being able to quote Bible passages.  It is more than having spent all kinds of years going to church, whether forced to or willingly.  It is the question of whether we have ever stood in the presence of God’s Love toward us.  Have we?  Everything else is an empty, puffed up charade if we haven’t.

We don’t have to go far to stand in the presence of such Love.  All we need is to realize we stand in the presence of Jesus right now – again, not intellectual knowledge that assents to the doctrine, but a step in faith, a decision that Jesus is indeed here right now, just as He said He would be.  But how do we know about whether we can trust this supposed Love from God, and how do we know if it is going to be that deep a Love?

Well, here on the altar is the Cross.  God put everything He had on that Cross, He risked literally everything so that it would be proof enough of His Love, the nature of His Love, the extent of His Love.  If that wasn’t a powerful enough demonstration of the depth of His Love, then there literally is nothing left.

God the Son staked His life on the idea that not only would He pay our penalty with His own Blood, but also that we would come to realize that we really do mean THAT much to Him.  Look at that Cross.  God is as serious as He can get about how much we mean to Him.

Yet just in case that is not proof enough, God goes a step farther.  We have Holy Communion today: Jesus gives each of us His very own Body and Blood – as individually as we eat and drink this bread and wine.  Jesus stakes His very Being on something this personal.  He isn’t fooling around – this is no casual thing, when He offers up Himself like this.  Muller understood this deep bond with Jesus as well as the ramification that Jesus’ power and authority exists and are present in the Christian’s life.

In Baptism God has declared before the universe, in front of demons and angels, and to the whole world, that we are His children, we have a home, we have a place prepared for each of us.  Most of all, He declares to you and me that we have the kind of relationship with Him that is nothing less than that of a dear child with his dear Father, even when that Father is the Creator of the universe!

It is time then that we go beyond knowledge that remains empty and puffed up, and lay before Him in repentance the spiritual reluctance which stops short of seeing how much God pays attention to everything in our lives.  It is time to decide whether Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit genuinely loves us enough – to the point of having that kind of relationship with the Lord which Muller enjoyed and could count on, a relationship where God clears away the fog for the sake of His beloved son, His delighted daughter in Jesus.

From glory to Glory

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the Glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of Glory to another; for this comes from the Lord Who is the Spirit.                          II Corinthians 3:18

 

[Exodus 24:15-18; 34:29-34]  Then Moses went up on the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain.  The Glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.  Now the appearance of the Glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.  Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. ….

When Moses came down … (he) did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.  But Moses called to them … and talked with them … all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai.  When Moses finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever he went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the people of Israel what he was commanded.

Moses talked with God – had a conversation with Jehovah – saw God’s Glory, and his face shone.  What a privilege that had been!!  Moses got to talk with God!!  It was so wonderful that his face captured just a glimpse of that Glory and it shone – it was all lit up, all bright.  In fact, it was so overpowering that everybody was afraid of this man, they didn’t know what to do with him, they didn’t know how to handle him.

Often, especially in this account, we immediately think of God’s Glory as a brightness.   However, prior to these verses which describe how Moses’ face shone and the people’s fear of him, there are some significant verses in Exodus 33 and the beginning of chapter 34.  Within a relationship described as remarkably close, Moses felt bold to ask the Creator of the Universe, “Please, show me Your Glory.”

God’s instant response reveals an essential understanding as to what He values in His Glory:

 “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the [Covenant] Name ‘Jehovah’; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” [33:19]

and then

“Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast Love [HESED] and faithfulness, keeping steadfast Love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but Who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and their children, to the third and the fourth generation” [34:6-7].

If this is the Glory which imprints itself upon Moses’ face, then it is not merely brightness, but somehow the full range of this Glory as God defined it, I would expect in some way it would also be spiritually embedded in that brilliance.

Yet the people are afraid – or better described as overwhelmed.  How content we are to have a God Who fits neatly into a picture we have imagined, but this – this is beyond what we can handle.  Even God’s good qualities in which we find comfort are so intense, so encompassing, that we only want just a glimpse with spiritual sunglasses on.

So now listen again to St Paul in today’s text:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the Glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of Glory to another; for this comes from the Lord Who is the Spirit.

How about you?  When you go to talk with the Lord, do you see His Glory?  Do you return from Him with your face shining?  Do you return to your daily life just radiating the peace of God which surpasses all understanding; with the joy that is full because His joy is in you; with the power to do even more than Jesus did because He has gone to the Father; meanwhile your face radiates Christ’s presence, because He is with us always even to the end of this age?

Do you catch the Glory of the Lord as you stand in His presence finding yourself being changed into His likeness from one degree of Glory to another?  Do people not know quite what to do with you because SOMETHING is radiating through you that they just don’t know how to handle?  Is that what happens to you?

Or is it that when you finish talking with the Lord, you may feel maybe a little better, but not usually?  How easy it is to come back from our prayers with the vague feeling that nobody was listening, or perhaps that we only got the Lord’s answering machine, and that He’ll “get back to us later.”  Do you have the sense that although you talked with the Lord, things really won’t change – that you merely go back into the same old way of life, the same old habits and problems, the same old you? l Is that what happens when you talk with the Lord?

Perhaps the reason why we don’t have the Glory of God shining through us is because too often we don’t even see His Glory.  Does that describe your life?  Do you take time – to actually set aside some time to see His Glory – to make this a part of your prayer life?  Or are you so full of your problems and cares, so full of your worries and concerns, so full of yourself and your world, that you never pause long enough to focus on the Lord of the Universe and to give Him a chance to reply – that you never take your eyes off of your things to consider the breadth of His Glory?  that you never stop to see Him and His greatness FOR your life and problems?

You know that’s often our situation – we never give God a chance.  So often our prayers are monologues, not conversations with Him.  Our prayers can frequently be so preoccupied with ourselves that we really don’t bother looking mindfully at HIM.

God is there and involved in everything you do at home, in your normal activities, shopping, recreation, at whatever is your business of the day; His Glory – everything that God is – His love, His power, His joy, His wrath, His creativeness, His ability – everything – this GLORY is found even in the most dull or frustrating or disappointing of days.  His Glory is still there powerfully brilliant from a God that is very much involved and in control.  That Glory is a part of your play, your sleeping, your eating – everywhere in your life.

Do you really take the time to see the Glory of God?  Does He get at least equal time in your prayers, a time where you stop looking down at all the things you are concerned about, and look up, to see His Glory?

The best place to start is to look at the Cross, for there is the Glory of His great steadfast Love for you.  There is the evidence of what God wants for you, not that you die on that Cross but that the debt, the penalty, the suffering, the death you owe for your rebellion has been paid in full.  There is the greatness of our Lord’s faithfulness that would not stumble at the edge of giving Himself, even when confronted with death.  That Cross is the seal and the guarantee of God’s free gift of Life, of forgiveness.  Take a moment in your prayers for a long hard look at the Cross!

Then look at the Glory of Christ’s resurrection, this power of God unto salvation, the power of God to reverse even the laws of nature.  Here is the God Who is not afraid to shake the universe for His children, to bend His mighty power simply because His child asked Him to.  Here is the God Who shows He can truly give Life to you.

How about catching sight of the Glory of God’s presence in you, through the Holy Spirit!  He is not afraid nor ashamed to be that remarkably connected with you, so that you have a special “edge” for facing the world – because “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” [I John 4:4] and “nothing in all of creation can separate us from this Love of God” [Romans 8:38-39] – because He is IN US, not merely with us.  He is our Shield around us so that nothing, no trial, no temptation, no disaster, no terrifying thing, NOTHING can even come close to us except it be by His permission.

See the Glory of God in your Baptism – where God has raised you up to the very same level as His Son, to be loved just as much and just as deeply as Jesus Christ is loved – you are a co-heir with Jesus Christ! [Romans 8:17]  Just think what it means to be able to call God Father – to be that personal with Him, and to realize that He’s more open and more ready to listen to you than any earthly father could be.  Think of that, that He would actually say to you, “My beloved son, in Whom I am well pleased; My beloved daughter, in whom I take great delight.”

Look at the Glory in Holy Communion, where God Himself makes Himself available to you, that He is present as He has promised and that He has come here especially for you – as He gives you His very self, so that you can eat and drink of Him, so that you can enjoy Him: so that you can truly “taste and see that the Lord is good” [Psalm 34:8].

In the Benediction concluding the service are the words: “The Lord make His face shine upon you, The Lord lift up His countenance upon you” [Numbers 6:23-27]  Have you ever really stopped to listen to those words?  The Lord takes such delight in you that His face just shines, because you are here.  And because you are just you, the whole countenance – the whole being of God – just lifts, every time He remembers you – because that’s His Love!!  for you!!  A Love that is freely given to you, not something you had to earn and work for.  Most of all, He just loves you because you are you.

What a perspective this can give to your prayers!  Now the Lord has a chance to show you Himself, to converse with you as you see your problems against the backdrop of this wonderful Glory of the Lord.  And then opening the Bible to have Him actually talk to you through His Word – you know, given half a chance, that can get downright exciting!

Think about this God Who died for you – that despite the so many times where we have betrayed Him, that despite the many times where we act as if He is nothing, that He is more or less a fool who doesn’t see or understand what we are doing, how He still would give Himself for us so totally and in so many ways.  Just think what it means that you are His beloved child over whom He rejoices [Isaiah 62:5; Matthew 18:13].

What a wonderful opportunity to talk WITH the Lord and not just TO Him, to know that He wants to show us all sorts of things about Himself – to show us His Glory, to show us just how His power, His love, His presence – and all the other things that make Him God – how in all these things He wants to make Himself part of our lives, because that’s His concern for you and me.

That’s the Glory of this God, a Glory that is so great that it can just fill you with all its wonder and joy and peace.  Come before this God, humbly repenting how you have so neglected His Glory so that He may now fill your vision with the wonder of all He is and has.  And when your face has captured that Glory because you have, like Moses, gone and talked with the Lord, it will just radiate through you and be a Glory that people will notice about you.

The Intimacy of Baptism

You know the Word which He sent to Israel, preaching Good News of peace by Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)   Acts 10:36

I think one of the realizations that most profoundly affects me is that God searches out intimacy with us.  So often you may have heard the question, “have you taken Jesus as your personal Savior?’  The idea behind this question is whether you have come to realize that you more than see Jesus as the Savior of the whole world, the Savior of humanity, you see Him as the Savior of you from the penalty of your rebellions and sins, the Savior of your life.  The question probes whether we have been willing to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus, so that He is more than just a figure in the Bible, but rather a present part of our lives.

But Baptism, and its precursor, Circumcision, actually make a different statement.  It really is the preamble, the harbinger, the trailblazer to the question “have you taken Jesus,”  its message is that Jesus has taken you.  What is so special about saying it that way?  It compels us to realize that the drive for intimacy begins with the Lord.

Look again at that special relationship with God called Circumcision, through which Abraham is uniquely called “the Covenant Friend of God” – God is the One Who initiates it, He is the One Who commands it.  Likewise with the New Testament Baptism which, as another unique relationship, offers becoming a Child of God, being a member of God’s Family, being participant in the eternal Beloved Bride of Christ, becoming the dwelling place of God by His Spirit,  All this is initiated by God – after all, it is impossible that we would have come up with these ideas on our own, and therefore we Baptize for the simple reasons that this is His idea and He commands us to do it.

That God is the One Who wants this is the outstanding feature of these Old Testament and New Testament connections to Him.  It is something that He very strong about.  He does not wait for us to finally get an idea; He does not wait until you decide that you are finally ready; He does not merely make a suggestion like one might tell you to wear brown instead of blue today; no, He is quite vehement about this relationship.  So strong was this fervent yearning that dire consequences befall those who neglect or just refuse this powerful bond.

In fact even His chosen deliverer Moses could not evade the parental responsibility of including his son under this special relationship.  Although Moses was God’s hand-picked deliverer of Israel, on his way back to Egypt to now do these very impressive work, God sought to kill him until the boy was circumcised [Exodus 4:24-26].  Why? So that Moses’ son, throughout his life and that of his generations, would be no “tag-along” among the Lord’s People, rather he would know for certain that the coming salvation event would be available specifically for him.

He also was to have the exceptionally intimate connection with Jehovah, he also would have personal involvement in the deliverance and blessings in store for God’s own People; he also would have God’s own guarantee of comfort, protection and blessed life as His People were about to be led to the Land of Promise.

Would God be so forceful about such a simple act as Baptism?  Yes, for the same reasons!  He powerfully seeks intimacy with us as well.  This is what Covenant is all about!  It is the remarkable conclusion that springs from what it means that the Holy Spirit comes to live within us.  God is not content with being our Savior.  He is not content with “wining us to His side.”  He is not content with bringing us into His Kingdom.  His compelling urge above all else is to bring us into such a fellowship with Himself that words fail in describing the closeness with us which motivated His march toward the Cross, the Resurrection, and the offer of salvation to each person in the world.

You catch sight of that in the Old Testament Covenant with Abraham, where the idea of the sharing of one Blood, one Life, one Soul – the very core of one’s being – is the focus.  Abraham his descendants are given the extraordinary position of touching on a oneness which God earnestly desired when He created Adam and Eve.  You have a glimpse of what had been intended when St Paul takes the marriage verse of Genesis 2: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” [v 24], and in Ephesians 5[:22-32] declares that it primarily is the description of Jesus with His Bride, the Church.

What Paul makes us realize is that the intimacy, the love, the self-giving, the working side-by-side, the delight, the enthusiasm, the excitement, and so much more of human marriage is merely a pale reflection of the closeness which Jesus is striving for which is to fill up our eternity with Him.

With even more strength is the evidence of Holy Baptism with the accompanying indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  What is hard for us to realize is how much this comes from the very heart of God.  It has nothing to do with our worthiness in however we conceive that worthiness to be, but it has everything to do with the heart of God.  You might say that these Covenants provide the open door for the Creator Himself to sweep into our lives, to build in us an indescribable relationship which will last literally forever.

The Cross then becomes the vivid display of His yearning for intimacy which gives us the foundation for understanding what is involved in this significant bond.  Jesus came not because we had demonstrated our eager desire to follow God’s law.  He died not because of our forceful even emotional confessions of our sins.  Jesus rose from the dead not because we had shown ourselves to be good enough material to inhabit heaven.  In fact Romans 5[:6-11] declares that it was when we were in the midst of rebellion, enmity, and helplessness that Jesus created the door where unrestricted access to the Father was burst open for any who would repent and seek to discover in this Creator God mercy and steadfast love.

Although applying to us, Christmas, the cross, the resurrection, even the ascension are not about us – these events are about God and His earnest, heartfelt desire to get close to us – to literally be Immanuel, “God with us.”

And really, it is a good thing, too.  After all, we aren’t impressive enough to compel God to do anything.  Oh, sure, we might be able to trot out something which seems impressive enough to ourselves – maybe we have really learned the Bible more than most people, or we have consistently and unfailingly attended Church when possible, perhaps even have gotten more than averagely involved in activities for the Church.

Yet, St Paul, especially in the opening chapters of Romans, reminds us that we have woefully fallen short of the perfection that God looks for, that God created us to have.  We are rebellious and fearful of the intimacy that He so earnestly desires.

How rebellious our human natures are!  For instance, how many people have fought wearing seatbelts – despite the many good reasons for wearing them, and no sound reason against them, some arrogantly and obstinately resist the idea because they will not be told what they are to do.  Speed limits are another example – we have our own desires, our own needs, our own interpretations as to what is important, and so we override what the law says.  God’s fences around sexuality are triumphantly discarded in a society focused on pleasure, no longer on responsibility.

We question this requirement or that demand on us.  We complain and argue.  We simply refuse to do what is decent and kind especially toward certain people – you know, those who are manipulative, or grouchy, or mean, or greedy or whatever offends us – those are not worthy of our best – which of course boils down to that we disagree and rebel against God’s will.  We really do fall short of God’s will, or as Paul put it, short of God’s Glory [Romans 3:23].  Often we try to justify or excuse what we do; or ignore what God looks for.

Actually, we really don’t want to be too close to God.  Every one of us has areas in our personalities, areas in our lives where we really are uncomfortable should God get too close.  Yet oddly enough despite our resistance to His will, we also fiercely try to prove that we are good enough, that we are valuable to God, that God has no right to withhold intimacy from us.  Perhaps we have prayed hard enough, or studying the Bible enough, or have shaped up enough, or have somehow we have achieved or have arrived at the place where we are now worthy enough.

It’s an attitude which lies close the surface of our personalities.  All it takes is a sickness or even a string of “bad luck” – or even sometimes a bad day –, and we ask, perhaps even demand, “why me, Lord?   After all, we of all people don’t deserve being treated this way!”

Therefore it is with stunned humility that we discover we are not really something with whom God should be so eager to be intimate.  And that is why with wonder and awe that we find that God commands us to do an act which brings such intimacy.  If it were left to us as a suggestion, likely many people would be most reluctant to do something so bold and audacious on their own initiative.  Either they are scared of such closeness, or scared that they will be condemned, or are despairing that God would really want to get that close after all.  Yet our Lord cuts through all our uncertainty with a definite and unequivocal command.

So we learn by such a remarkable act, as well as through Holy Communion, that where we might be hesitant, where we might be discouraged by compelling reasons why God should not even want this closeness, we find that He has no such qualms.  Again and again, there is the affirmation of the eagerness, the earnestness, the compelling steadfastness of His desire for intimacy: His Holy Spirit resides in us; Jesus is wherever two or three are gathered together, and He pours into our lives, hearts, and souls His LifeBlood, His Soul, the core of His being.

By His command for intimacy based not on us but on His heart, we find convincing proof that in all His salvation events past and future, there is an unmistakable message where we are to be personally included; where we are not to be merely outsiders looking in, but rather are deliberate and chosen participants; where, with Holy Communion, we have comfort, protection and participation in a “salvation” history within which we stand with the disciples on Good Friday and on Easter morning, and then can look forward to victories along the way in our lives and especially to the grand climax to come.

Today pass by the Baptismal font and then come up to the Altar, there to be plunged again into the great intimacy the Lord seeks to have with you.

For Your Servant is Listening

The Lord called Samuel again the third time.  Samuel jumped up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you did call me.”  Then Eli perceived that the Lord had called the boy, therefore he said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if He calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  Then the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”  Samuel answered, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.”         I Samuel 3:8-10

One of the earliest traumas of my life was in the church I grew up in.  Across the whole back of the chancel was a great curtain from ceiling to floor.  In my young mind, since we faced the chancel in our worship of God, it was only natural for me to assume that God was on the other side of the curtain; we were on this side worshiping and He would be back there listening to us.

Finally one December day, my curiosity got the better of me: I wanted a peek at the Lord.  Mustering up all my courage after one Sunday Service, I made my way to the front right-hand side of the chancel (where there was no altar rail).  With eagerness and anticipation – and apprehensive of what I might see – , I pushed away ever so slightly the curtain.  I was going to catch a glimpse of the Lord we worshiped, perhaps even see some of the grandeur of heaven.

Imagine my utter disappointment to discover that there was a cinderblock wall behind that curtain!  It was just a wall!  And then, before I could get over my shock, one of the ladies discovered me and proceeded to scold me for being up in the chancel, when I had no business being up there.

In fact she scolded me so well, that when Christmas came in the next week or so and our pre-school Sunday School class was to go in the chancel to sing “Away in the Manger!” – let all the other kids go up, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to go up there, no how!  No amount of persuading would get me to enter the chancel, because I knew better.  So I, the pastor’s son, sat out while the rest of my class sang their song.

Imagine what it was like to have God Himself speak to young Samuel.  What a wondrous experience it must have been.  Was it a bit scary at first?  but then God didn’t come to Samuel the way He did for, say, Ezekiel or Isaiah, with the vision of the heavenly throneroom and overpowering majesty.  The picture presented in this passage is one where the Lord stood by the door – or on the other side of the curtain – in the temple and had a quiet conversation with this young boy.

Imagine being Samuel.  At that time in Israel’s history, people just didn’t have visions and conversations with the Lord like this.  What a tingle of thrill to realize that God would so honor him, would talk to him in such a way!  Did the wonder and astonishment make it hard to keep his mind on listening to the Lord?

But then, once he realized what the message was, how hard it must have been for Samuel, since the message wasn’t a nice one.  God didn’t spend any time chitchatting, asking how things were going, did he like living in the temple, how he was doing in his studies, what things he liked to do best.  No, there was a serious message to be given and that was the reason for this event.

The message was of judgment toward Eli and his faithless sons.  Perhaps what made the story so sad was Eli himself.  It was not as if he had been so terrible that with great relief you looked forward to him being thrown out.  It was not as if the man was so spiritually inept that he would teach bad theology.

Eli was genuinely a man spiritually sensitive to God.  Look at how gentle he was with Samuel and, in an age when spiritual revelation was quiet, he still quickly realized that GOD was speaking to Samuel.  Later the thing that made him fall backward in shock, whereby he broke his neck and died – it was not when he heard about the deaths of his sons, but rather it was the news of the capture of the Ark of Covenant which caused his death.

So Eli had a genuine spirituality, but he also had a serious problem: his sons abused the privilege and responsibility of their priesthood.  They made a mockery of it, confusing and eroding the faith of the common folk of Israel [I Samuel 2:12-17].  Now it is true that the sons were grown men and were responsible for their own decisions, but God’s judgment was that Eli, as High Priest, as the spiritual leader and teacher of Israel, had oversight of the spiritual health of Israel, yet despite that he let his less-than-spiritual sons REMAIN as priests.

Although he had warned his sons, and even was warned by God himself, Eli had not practiced the necessary discipline for protecting Israel’s spiritual walk with the Lord.  Eli would not remove his sons from the priesthood, and now, as the saying goes, “the buck stops here” – he himself would be removed.   What a most unpleasant message, what a burden, this child, Samuel, was given for Eli.

Samuel, of course, continued in this extraordinary relationship with the Lord.  He played an essential role in some wonderful events, however he also had a few more sad duties which he would reluctantly carry out.

Two people had the chance to “peek behind the curtain,” and yet the outcomes were radically different.  Samuel was obedient, and Eli, although mostly spiritual, just could not bring himself to do the unpleasant task that was required of him.

The lessons for today center our attention on the idea that there are decisions to be made:  The Old Testament Lesson, of course, was whether Samuel would listen and obey, but more, that he would continue to be the faithful messenger of the Lord.  The Epistle [I Corinthians 6:12-20] sets before us the question whether we will take seriously the fact that God is with us and that we are the Lord’s – not just in the mind, not just in the intentions, but that we will be the very temple of the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel [John 1:43-51] questions whether we will follow our preconceived ideas about God and follow the crowd, or whether we will “come and see” and investigate for ourselves the call of our Lord to be one who follows in the footsteps of the Savior.

Like the challenge which faced Eli, we also must decide just whether we can really be spiritual in one area without being obedient in other areas, or whether we are serious about being the Lord’s representative in our lives.  Paul speaks of prostitution, and is quite specifically talking about the misuse of the body in that regard.  Yet throughout the Old Testament, prostitution also described the faithlessness of Israel, the spiritual prostitution of giving themselves to false gods.  Israel also had tried to play both sides of the fence and found out the hard way that it just didn’t work as they were led off into 70 years of captivity.

This is the concern for us as well.  Yes, we may be able to pride ourselves in that we have not been messing around with prostitutes, but when we think of the spiritual aspect, then it is a lot easier to flush with embarrassment.  Does Paul’s words have meaning for us as well?  Well, after all, how often do our following after false gods also have effect on our bodies?  One only has to think of how jealousy is often referred to as “eating your heart out.”   Anger, fear, and other such things which so often dominate our lives raise the blood pressure.  Many other things as well can abuse our minds, our bodies, our lives – all of which should be inhabited by the Holy Spirit.

The difficulty that Eli in the Old Testament Lesson reminds us about is that we can be in a very spiritual position, and even genuinely concerned about spiritual matters, and yet still have an area of our lives for which we just won’t take responsibility before the Lord.  There are places in our days in which if we look behind those doors in ourselves which we so often keep tightly shut, we find that we are indeed in rebellion.  We really don’t want the Lord to take over.  We really are not keen to obey.  We just can’t accept that if we do it the Lord’s way, that He will make it work out, because that was what He has promised.

So in the midst of this it is valuable to look closely at the Gospel and although Jesus changes the figure of speech to “seeing,” still His statement is just as challenging as Samuel’s was, when Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Before Philip called you, I saw you.”  Nathaniel likely wasn’t doing anything that he would have been ashamed of, but Jesus is speaking of something deeper. Perhaps at the foremost is that Jesus was saying to Nathaniel: “I notice you.  In fact, I know more about you than you could ever realize.  I have seen you.”

Likely in us, what Jesus was saying would raise all sorts of fears.  And yet, no matter all that Jesus had seen in Nathaniel, Jesus did more than accept him, He made him into a disciple.  Jesus is here as well, really and truly –, as truly as when two or three are gathered in His Name; as truly as He comes in Holy Communion, declaring to us that He has seen each of us as well, and then touches our lives with His very own Body and Blood.  And we also find that Jesus, knowing everything, has accepted us, making Himself of one Body with us, one Life, while calling even you and me to be His disciples, His representatives, here in this community, in this world.

But there is much more, for He has allowed us to look behind the curtain and discover that it is by no means a cinderblock wall, instead we discover the Glory of God.  Here in our worship we can say in response, “I have seen You –  in Your Word I have seen Your goodness; in Baptism I have seen Your Covenant; in Your life on this earth, I have seen the intensity of Your mercy and grace for my every day; in Holy Communion, I have seen unmatchable loving-kindness and faithfulness; on the Cross I have seen Your forgiveness and justice.  You have seen me, O Lord, and I have seen You!”

What a delight, then, it is to open up those long closed doors of our selves, coming to the Lord with our guilts and shame, handing them over in repentance, and in return finding peace, extraordinary life and power with God.  How delightful to discover than throughout all of this, the Holy Spirit has moved in to stay, in eagerness willing to work with us, showing us His way of wisdom and rebirth, showing us the extraordinary value that He would give to us.

We have something which is greater than what Samuel would ever experience in his whole life.  Here in Word and Sacrament, the Savior Who died and rose and Who now sits at the Father’s right hand comes, stands and calls OUR names. It must be our solemn resolve to respond here and now, with the same words on our lips as were on Samuel’s “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”

Mightier Than I Follows Me

This was his message: “After me will come One more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”       Mark 1:7-8

“After me will come One more powerful than I” – very simple words – very ordinary — we have heard them year after year. Yet how important they are for us to listen to and hold tightly to!  Have you ever realized just how much of a wealth of comfort and hope they contain for you and me?

I need to remember them because I don’t stand up here with any more ability than John the Baptist had to change your life, much less to change my own life. But what a joy it is to say with John, “after me comes One more powerful than I”!

After all, when this sermon is done, I’m finished.  I can’t keep talking to you every day of this week – you wouldn’t want it, and I wouldn’t either.  Even then, it wouldn’t really change you that much, except that you would probably really go out of your way to avoid me.  People don’t like nags.

In fact, even when I preach to myself, as I do during the sermon, it doesn’t always have that much effect on me either.  I still go away being pretty much the same person as when I started the sermon.  If that was all there was, then we are indeed in a sorry mess.

Therefore what a wonderful thing it is that I can say to you, “after me comes One more powerful than I”!  In fact, there are Two – no, Three Who come after me, after I am finished here – in fact, while I’m speaking They have already come.

That’s Good News for me, because I am not God, certainly not Jesus Christ, and not even John the Baptist.  There is just no way that I will match the power and force of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nor come close to John’s fiery warnings by the banks of the Jordan.  And I know just how limited words are to get past the ears, to enter the mind and especially the heart.

That’s because I hit the same wall in you as I do in myself.  It is the wall of human nature. Perhaps you have felt that same frustration – maybe with explaining to a child – even a teenager – something essential, perhaps in the area of morality; or maybe it was in trying to warn and convince someone of a course of action that means pain or danger to them, and they just don’t or won’t or can’t understand.  How strongly you wish you had something more powerful than merely words at a time like that.

But what’s worse is when we do understand the message and agree that our lives need THAT change, need THAT difference. And you go out determined to be different, and you really try, but only end up frustrated. There’s something very, very powerful inside of us that definitely resists and fights against all our intentions, hopes, words, and all the rest.

The Bible says that we have a human nature that hates God, that fights Him, that wants to control Him, that refuses to follow His will. How often are our prayers a subtle manipulation of God, and how offended we are when He decides not to do things the way we think they ought to be done.  How often have we resolved perhaps not to get angry with some people – and it seems that right after we make that decision, the anger rises even faster than ever before. This human nature presents such a wall that words just bounce off it with no harm done to the wall at all.

Perhaps you too find yourself sometimes saying how hopeless it all is. Listen to some of the sayings we use, such as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and all the other ways where we declare that we have hit smack against the wall of human nature, and it’s just not going to budge.  In fact, it makes you realize that if this is all there is to Christianity, it would never have gotten out of the first century.

Ah, but listen to John again:  “After me will come One more powerful than I!”  And that’s really what this part of the church year is all about!  Our human tools to convince and to change are so puny and weak that we simply get nowhere, but now comes One – Two – THREE more powerful than us, more powerful than our human nature, more powerful than even Satan’s ability to thwart the message of God.

This church season reminds us that God Himself comes. God Himself comes literally into flesh and blood, God exposes Himself to all the problems and situations of our kind of life.  He didn’t come rich, He came poor, humble, and very HUMAN.  But what is still so special about this time of year is not just HOW He came, but especially THAT HE CAME!

It means that as He tells us about our sin, as He must and as we need Him to if we are to repent of these rebellions and turn it all over to Him, He comes as One Who was tempted in every respect.  When He calls us to turn away from ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, He comes as One Who knows the costly price of unwavering obedience.  He comes as One Who wept bitter tears at obstinate hearts, but also as One Who danced at a wedding.

He comes as One Who spoke some of the harshest words in the Bible at those who covered themselves over with an air of “godly” religiosity but who had never stopped long enough to really hear what God’s Word was saying.  But He also comes speaking some of the sweetest words of the Bible, as to the woman taken in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” [John 8:11]; or to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven” [Mark 2:5].

He comes as One Who saw suffering and reached out His hand to heal, to strengthen, to bless.   He comes as One Who saw death and stretched out His hands in order to give life.  He comes as One Who shredded death’s power and then sat down on the throne of majesty so that He could bend the powers of the universe for the sake of His People – for the sake of you and me – for the sake of our continuing work on this earth.

This is He Who comes after me.  As with John the Baptist, I also must point to Jesus and to our constant desperate need of Him.  As with John, I also must identify the rebellions so that the Savior can wash them away forever.  But if Jesus did not come after me, then all this is useless – in fact, it can cause utter despair.  So I rejoice, knowing that like John, Jesus comes after me, too.

But there is much more! because this isn’t just me, it is also you – Jesus comes after you!  Have you ever shared something about Jesus?  Perhaps you also know how very fragile such communication is – so very puny which words can seem to be!  And the promise that John makes, that holds true for me – also holds true for you.

You are never alone in your witness.  As you speak according to His Word and according to His will, Jesus is there in your midst, and He Who greater than you follows your words, crumbling the wall of human nature, making even hesitant, puny words penetrate the mind and heart – JESUS follows you!

But Jesus isn’t the only One Who is mightier than you and me, the Holy Spirit also comes. We really have to be careful, because we don’t often think of the Holy Spirit as Someone who is constantly coming.  So often we think of His coming in Holy Baptism as a one-time event which happened long ago – but then we have forgotten Martin Luther’s admonition to “daily renew our Baptism.”  Daily we find that this One Who is mightier than you or me comes, working with a power which we just do not have.

And because of Baptism Someone else comes – God the Father. This is not fatherhood in some Creator-of-all-things sense, but in that powerful and highly unique concept of how He has adopted us, etched our names into the palms of His hands, placed us on the same level in His regard as His beloved only-begotten Son.  Yes, the God of all things comes now, touching our lives touching our words, touching our worlds, first as our Creator, but also and more wonderfully as our adopting Father.

If these Three do not come to give your words and my words, your actions and my actions, depth of meaning, then we will merely hit a wall which remains unshaken.  If these Three do not come, then we are doomed to frustration and failure even when we try to work on ourselves. The only way that the wall of human nature is going to be penetrated is that Someone mightier than you and I must come.

And that’s the Good News of Christmas and Epiphany.  Jesus has come indeed – He has come into our world, our daily lives.  That’s the Good News of Baptism, where Jesus has made us a part of His Body, so that the hand or foot or tongue can’t go anywhere without Jesus being involved.  That’s the Good News of Holy Communion, because in visible, physical evidence is the statement that Jesus has indeed come – He’s right here, right now. That’s the Good News of our worship together right now – Jesus is using our mouths and our voices, our praise and our prayers to share with each other that Jesus is in our midst precisely as promised.

However, there is always the danger that we can reject Him.  Some had had Jesus literally in front of their faces and rejected Him fully.  Others only wanted Jesus in a certain way, to meet only certain needs – He was a good healer, or a good feeder of multitudes, or a captivating speaker.  And so the warning comes that as Jesus comes today to penetrate your wall of human nature, to touch your heart and mind, do not reject but rejoice in the work that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are doing inside of you.  The Jesus Who comes after me and you, Who has done so much and given so much for me and you – look again at the wonderful blessings touching your life, because HE COMES.

Today as John the Baptist proclaims the coming of Jesus, let us hear again his powerful words: “He Who comes after me is mightier than I,” then see again the Fulfillment of such a promise, standing in front of us In flesh and blood in Christmas, in Holy Communion, and in His holy People; and realize again the Mighty One Who makes our words and deed penetrate the walls of human nature around us and in us as God works His Glory through us.

Savior Found

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, He said to him, “Follow Me.”…
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “The One Moses wrote about in the Law, and about Whom the prophets also wrote – we have found Him: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph!”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.        John 1:43,45-46

The tutor worked hard with the student to help him understand how to do a certain kind of  math problem.  Again and again, example after example was worked through to help the young mind grasp the concepts involved.  Finally, something clicked, and the look of discovery shone on the student’s face.  He had finally found the necessary principle of mathematics – or was it that the principle had found him?

Philip eagerly grabs Nathaniel by the elbow, excitedly telling him, “We found Him, the One Moses and the Law and the prophets all pointed to!”  Was that really what happened?  Or was it that Jesus had found them?  Perhaps the key is best to be seen in the opening verse of the Gospel: “The next day Jesus DECIDED to go to Galilee.  FINDING Philip, He said to him, ‘Follow Me.'”

This is important, because the air of discovery in Christianity runs far deeper and greater than merely that you and I have found something.  The power comes from when GOD says, “I have decided, and I have found.”

In this first verse is the capsule of the message of the whole Bible from Adam and Eve onward.  Remember how this first couple who now brought rebellion into the world ran to hide at the sound of God?  God had already decided to go to the Garden of Eden, to look for and find these sinners who had started down the long road of grief, pain and the destruction of God’s beloved creation.  Already back then He had come not to damn but to call to them as He did to Philip, “Come, follow Me.”

There in the Garden, He cursed not Adam and Eve, but the Serpent and the ground; yet He also applied DISCIPLINE to the humans, identifying that death was now a part of their existence, so that they might realize their need and its solution in God’s great Promise of the Savior to come.  From then on, in situation after situation, event after event down through the Bible, God by His deliberate act of will stepped into human life, to find and then to call mankind to follow Him.

There are some interesting responses to this call of God.  Philip was enthusiastic – but he missed the point.  This wasn’t happenstance, where he just happened to stumble upon Jesus, and like the old prospector discovering gold now pats himself on the back for having made such a good discovery.  No, this was no lucky find – this was by the deliberate act of God’s will and a very specific call from God.

Nathaniel, on the other hand, came with all kinds of prejudices in place.  Because Jesus did not fit the preconceived notion of what the Messiah should be like and how He should appear, Nathaniel was prepared to reject Jesus from the very beginning.  Jesus came from the wrong place and “the wrong side of the tracks.”

The Epistle from I Corinthians [6:12-20] also adds another response.  At first it may be hard to see any relationship between the Gospel and the Epistle, yet notice how the Epistle speaks of people who attempt to neatly divide the spiritual from the physical, the religious from life.

They are ready to follow Jesus ONLY if He does not intrude on certain areas of life.   They wanted to follow Jesus only when they come to church or do specific “churchy” things – but as soon as the church doors are closed for the week, so also is Jesus to be closed out of their lives.

What is going on behind all these responses is summed up very neatly in Philip’s “WE have found God.”  You see, if we have found God, then we are in control.  He is our discovery, to do with as we please.  He then becomes merely something that we fit into our lives only where He is convenient and useful.  We then can put Him aside and leave Him to some more convenient time and more convenient circumstance.  We don’t particularly owe Him anything.  After all, if anything, HE owes us for discovering HIM.

So when the Lord comes and says “Follow Me!”, this joins a list of other things we have found in our life.  After all we may have found yoga as something useful for our life, or that following people on the internet is a pleasant occupation of our time.  We have found that certain recreation activities or sports make us feel good and so we follow after them.  There are programs on TV which are on our “must see” list and we will conform our activities so as to make ourselves available for those time slots.

So when the Lord comes and talks about obedience to His will, when He calls us to redeem our time, when He calls us to conform ourselves around His relationship to us, our reaction is that our lives are nobody’s business but our own.  God has no right insisting on anything from us.  After all, WE FOUND HIM and we basically choose how useful He could be to us.  In a sense, He is about as necessary as our car is, or as living room lamps are – true, they are very useful, and a great inconvenience when they don’t work as they should, but they don’t rule our lives, and if necessary we will simply replace them with a better fit to what we want.

Like the old native guide who said, “Me not lost, trail lost,” we don’t see ourselves as lost, we are right here making use of everything which we have “found.”  Any discomfort we have, well, we will look for something else which will probably fill what we want even better.  When it comes to our lives, our morals, our values (such as in the Epistle, which reveals God’s will in regard to marriage and sex); when it comes to our perspectives on the world and how we view each other; when it comes to our hard earned money, to our tightly packed time schedule, whatever on which our lives are focused – how dare anyone, even God, presume tell us what to do and be like?  What right has even Jesus to make claims on us, especially when it is we who found Him!

But what if the real story is that God has come searching for US and has found US?  That idea shifts our attitude toward Jesus: we are to be HIS possession, and then the call is that we are to follow Him.  IF we had to be found, then we really were lost, we were not in control, in fact, our situation was most desperate.  A person lost in the wilderness does not say he “found” his rescuers, but rather the opposite.  If we had to be found, then we owe God quite a lot – in fact, our lives – our whole existence.  A lot hinges upon the interpretation of Who found whom.

It does not take a very long time to realize that there is something terribly wrong in our personal worlds.  Even in our own lives are many things which elude our control.  We really are not as satisfied as we imagine those who are in complete control ought to be.  Even when we get away with something, we can feel a twinge where we realize that we have done wrong, perhaps even hurting someone, particularly someone who means something to us.  Like St Paul in Romans 7, we too can cry out in frustration:

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. … For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.  For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. … I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?    (vv 15, 18-19, 23-24)

If it is that we have “found Jesus,” it now becomes embarrassing and we find ourselves in awkward situations.  If we choose to keep Him around, then we may desperately hope He doesn’t notice some of what we do, because there are deeds and conversations of which even we are ashamed.  Perhaps hopefully He will just ignore us.  Although meant to be useful for us as a “fix-it” God, His being around creates embarrassment in us as well.

However, when we realize that it is Jesus Who has found us, we stand appalled.  Just as with Adam and Eve, what we desperately want to hide, not just from the Lord but also from everyone else, and in fact even ourselves, now are exposed to the God Who searches us out.  How scary it is to realize that Jesus finds us even in these places of our lives as well.  As Nathaniel realized, we are an open book: our every thought, every action, every attitude, everything about who and what we are are known by the One Who seeks us.  We think we are fooling Him, but not in the least.

Oh, but if only we would realize what it wholly means when it is Jesus Who finds us!   He does not hold us up to ridicule, but rather stretches out His hand to let us, who have been lost in the wilderness of our failures and inadequacies, know that we have indeed been found.  We are safe.  In His hands, we have a security which is not based on our inadequate ability to find the true Savior, but rather that Jesus seeks everywhere for us as His lost sheep, and He has committed Himself to His “found ones.”  In Baptism, He demonstrates that He binds Himself to us in an unbreakable Covenant, that is, as He proved in the history of Israel, He never stops looking for us and also looking out for us.

And then He stretches out His hands to be nailed to a cross to show that no matter what state we have been in in our lostness, there is no disillusionment in finding us in no matter how bad our situation may seem.  In His death He demonstrated how eager He is that as we confess our rebellions, our foolishness, and our vain attempts to try to be His superior, His keen interest is to pay for our shame and bring His blessing.  His resurrection guarantees His heart desire to bring newness in our coming days, and eternal life into our future which starts today and tomorrow.

The Holy Spirit comes so that we have an anchor in our lives which never lets us stray far from the ability to turn to the Lord and realize that He no longer has to find us but is now right in our midst.  And Jesus arrives, here again in His Sacrament, to be where we are, to give us powerful and physical proof that He will never desert His “found ones.”   And then as we look around at the Body of Christ, we realize that all the empowerment of fellow Christians is to demonstrate that you, me, and all believers have a home right here with the One Who has so loved us, Who has found us, Who has no intention that we should ever be lost again but Who earnestly desires us to be with Him forever.

 

The Burdens of Life

Behold My Servant, Whom I uphold, My Chosen, in Whom My Soul delights;  I have put My Spirit upon Him, He will bring forth justice to the nations.    Isaiah 42:1

Bruce Larson, in Believe and Belong, tells how he helped people struggling to surrender  their lives to Christ:

For many years I worked in New York City and counseled at my office any number of people who were wrestling with this yes-or-no decision.  Often I would suggest they walk with me from my office down to the RCA Building on Fifth Avenue.  In the entrance of that building is a gigantic statue of Atlas, a beautifully proportioned man who, with all his muscles straining, is holding the world upon his shoulders.  There he is, the most powerfully built man in the world, and he can barely stand up under this burden.

Now that’s one way to live, I would point out to my companion, trying to carry the world on your shoulders.  But now come across the street with me.

On the other side of Fifth Avenue is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and there behind the high altar is a little shrine of the boy Jesus, perhaps eight or nine years old, and with no effort He is holding the world in one hand.  My point was illustrated graphically.

We have a choice.  We can carry the world on our shoulders, or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord; here’s my life – I give You my world, the whole world.’

Today, the first Sunday in the Epiphany Season, accents Jesus’ Baptism.  It seems that many times we aren’t quite sure what to do with this topic of Jesus’ Baptism.  We realize that our Baptism is radically different from His.  After all He was sinless, He had nothing to repent; He didn’t need to enter into a new relationship with God the Father — He had this relationship from eternity.

Therefore we end up treating the Baptism of Jesus as a mechanical necessity — just as if it were something that Jesus had to do in order to fulfill prophesy, something he had to do to identify with us, like wearing a certain style of clothing to fit in with the crowd.

But there is a great deal of importance to this occasion in Jesus’ life!  I have often characterized John’s Baptism for repentance as if everybody washed off their sins into the River Jordan, filling it with the sludge and sewage of sin.  Then the superclean Jesus, having no sin for which to repent, entered this sewage treatment plant and all the sludge of sin stuck to Him, leaving the water spotlessly clean.  From that moment in Jesus’ ministry He became the sinbearer of mankind, taking the murk and grunge of human life upon Himself to the cross.

This Baptism by John was by no means a minor incident for Jesus because it set the purpose of His coming ministry.  But then God the Father also stepped in with the Holy Spirit and turned it into an ordination.  The Holy Spirit was given, the Voice from heaven proclaimed that this was His Son, His Beloved, and that the Father was thoroughly pleased in Him.

It was only now that Jesus begins His ministry – the ministry of taking sin and giving life in return.  The radical difference between John’s Baptism and Jesus’ Baptism is that all John could do was to use this washing as a sign of turning away from sin, a washing off of sin.

But Jesus made His Baptism into much more: this was the beginning of His service of life to mankind.  From now on, He was the Christ, the Messiah, demonstrating His power to heal, to feed, to calm the storm, to lift up the broken hearted, to give life.  It would be a service of life that would continue with every subsequent Baptism into the Name of Jesus, as He does the same things right now in OUR lives.

The contrast of Atlas struggling with the world and of Jesus, even as a child, upholding the world reminds us that the ministry Jesus began here at His Baptism was to lift the world with its burden of sin and failure from the shoulders of mankind and put it back into the hands of God.

Now when the Holy Spirit comes upon us in our Baptism, we too are found in a totally new relationship with the Father: through Jesus, the Father now says of US, “My Child, My Beloved, in whom is My greatest delight!”  But this is not a static relationship, in which we might sit down in some easy chair with the expectation of being served.

Instead, exactly like with Jesus, we are placed into a position of ministry, that is, service toward Jesus Himself, toward His people, and toward the world.  We also have the mission of bringing life into the world around us – and even you might say of taking the sins of the world away – NOT by putting them on OUR shoulders, but in helping others put their sins on JESUS, the ONLY sin-bearer.

That’s one reason why the Baptismal service that we follow has the anointing of oil – remember the words?  “Receive this oil as a token of the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, to keep you in your Baptismal grace, and to equip you on your lifelong ministry of prophet, priest, and royal child in God’s Kingdom.”  As what happened to Jesus, so also with everyone of us, Baptism brings us into ministry in the work and among the People of God’s Kingdom.

The task is the same: helping to shift the burden of the world from the backs of the people we meet who struggle under the sheer weight of life, sin, hopelessness, fear, grief and all the rest of what life brings, and to put it all into the hands of Jesus.  Jesus can handle that burden because He is God.

We can’t be like Him, trying to take other people’s burdens and lives upon our shoulders because we struggle enough with our own world.  Instead we bring others to the throne of Jesus – bringing them with us – so that Jesus might lift both of our burdens from us.

Part of our ministry is to help ourselves and others see the ministry of Jesus.  Over the next weeks we will watch Jesus call men strong and weak to Himself, men proud and humble, men desperate and confident; serving them, washing their feet.  Here is Jesus healing, forgiving, with authority casting aside the satanic powers that inflict man.  And then in Baptism, Jesus turns to us and says, “Go out into the highways and alley-ways, and compel them to come in – you have a ministry to perform.  The methods and the individual is different, but the work is the same.”

What a wonderful joy this is!  To watch a person become free from the fears that immobilizes him, from the sins that sit heavily upon the conscience, from the worries that preoccupy and fill the mind, from the sadness and pain that swirls around inside and makes us lose our orientation – what a joy it is to be a participant of such a mission! What a marvelous ministry we have, to be able to bring someone to Jesus, to see the world lift from their shoulders, and to watch as they take a deep spiritual breath and truly live.

But there are times when we too fail.  How often have we not lived up to our ministries.  For various reasons we have allowed people to wallow in their need – and we never even thought to raise them before the Lord in prayer!  How often have we added to their burden, making it heavier, loading guilt in unnecessary proportions, not because they needed it but because we had to clean out our own guts, and we used them as our dumping grounds?

How often have we been so preoccupied with struggling with our own burdens, sorting out our own financial problems, or whatever it is that loads our worlds down with weight; so that we cannot spare the considerations, the uplift, the joy that another person needs?

True, we are human, and sometimes it just isn’t in us.  But that’s precisely the point — we also need the Lord just as much as the people around us.  We also need our weights lifted from our shoulders and to discover and re-discover again the freedom and life that Jesus gives.

And He does give it.  He comes even today with the same ministry that began 2,000 years ago. Today He comes to let us know again that He is the same One who reaches out serving us, washing our feet, forgiving, healing, casting aside the satanic powers that inflict us.

And how amazing His love and patience is!  Even when we insist on holding tightly to this burden of our worlds, Jesus still lifts it – and lifts us up, even in spite of ourselves.  How many times in your life have you discovered that in spite of your worries and your fears, suddenly you find your feet have left the floor and you realize that you are chuckling to yourself in spite of yourself!  Jesus has already taken our worlds into His hands – its just that we need days like today to remind us how He is exercising His Lordship, His ministry, among us even right now.

This is what Holy Communion reassures us of.  Here is Jesus again, in person, “in the flesh” – His strongest proof that this is not all theory or mental self-improvement.  Instead here is a concrete reality: JESUS IS RIGHT HERE!!  Watch as He gives Himself to you, that He now puts His shoulder under your world, changing everything simply because He is HERE – HERE because YOU mean that much to Him, because He is giving Himself in a very real way to you.

The Baptism of Jesus is a most wonderful time in which God reminds of His ministry to us, of His taking our sins upon Himself, and of how He begins His ministry of giving life, giving HIMSELF, to you and me – and this occasion also reminds us of OUR Baptism, of our ministry now to Him and His world.  What a time of great joy is to be found in this celebration!

A Tale of Two Justices

I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness; I will take hold of Your hand I will guard You, i will make You be a Covenant for the People and a Light for the Gentiles.      Isaiah 42:6

The difficulty in this text is to catch the exuberance which surrounds it. These seven verses from Isaiah speak of sheer delight, expectancy and hope. Yes, there is the majesty of God in His sweeping powers of creation but most of all, there is the powerful image of the Messiah, the Christ, Who will come with “justice.”

It is this “justice” that proves most fascinating, because it is not what we normally think of when we cry for judgment.  Often we want the law to be laid down, the guilty party to not escape punishment, that he who did the wrong pay dearly for what he did.

Of course, if we demand such righteousness, then it won’t be executed just on the other guy – we also will stand under the same scrutiny.  It’s nice to have everybody else get what they deserve, just as long as nobody pays too much attention to us.  When someone doesn’t stop at the 4-way stop and he cuts us off, we wonder where the police are.  But when we get nailed because WE absent-mindedly didn’t stop, then it isn’t “fair,” after all it wasn’t deliberate, it’s just that something had taken our attention at the moment.

So when you have a Messiah that “will bring forth justice to the nations,” “establish justice on earth,” at first glance this might be met with a bit of apprehension.  But reading on, rapidly we discover that this is a most unusual justice, one that does not CONFINE us in prison, but rather RELEASES us!  Now that’s the kind of justice we really want to hear about!

This justice obviously is not the earthly kind.  We recognize that the Christ Isaiah was foretelling was not going to go all over the earth merely opening prisons.  No, something more far-reaching and spiritual was to be involved.  This was a justice which pulled eternity into the NOW of life, a justice which had GOD-sized proportions rather than whether this person or that person had had his hand slapped appropriately.

Therefore the prisons aren’t merely about holes in the ground for dungeons, or rooms with bars, or blindness because the eyes don’t work properly.  Rather there is a greater spiritual depth here: Isaiah speaks of those who are “so down that they have to look up to see bottom”; he’s pointing to those who are kept in the prisons of their past, the prisons of their traditions, the prisons of their fears, the prisons of their weaknesses; he’s grabbing hold of those who just can’t see – they just can’t see that God would love them, that God would forgive them, that God could care about little insignificant them.

In surprise we hear of this justice not being hammered out by the Judge’s gavel at His bench, but rather it is the justice of NOT snuffing out a dimly-burning wick, of NOT breaking the reed already bent – it is justice with a tremendously gentle heart, a justice that does not destroy, but rather a justice that preserves and protects.

It will not be the justice of the screamed accusation, nor the loudly paraded self-righteousness, nor of the angry demand of retribution.  No, it will be the justice of opening, freeing, releasing – the speaking of forgiveness and new life, new awareness and joy.  After all, to suddenly be able to see, to suddenly be able to walk away from a prison, to suddenly come up into the light out from the depths, there is great joy.

Most surprisingly, this is for the person against whom justice must pronounce sentence!  At first this is confusing: after all, the prisoner is not being punished by mistake – this is no case of mistaken identity nor of being framed for a crime he didn’t commit.  The sentence accurately and properly answers the crimes for which he is guilty.  Compared against the required perfection demanded by a holy Law, justice must force the conclusion that we must not merely be kept in prison, but that we DIE, terribly and eternally.  After all, justice has no choice but to accurately, without watering down and without favoritism, carry out the penalties of the law!

So how can forgiveness, opening, freeing, and releasing be true JUSTICE??  It has no choice, it must pronounce sentence – or else it isn’t just!  It must proscribe penalty, punishment and condemnation for the breaking of the Law.  If you were the one against whom a serious crime was committed, you wouldn’t think it appropriate for the crime to go unanswered!

Of course, at the cross we discover that the crime did not go unanswered, that the penalties of the Law had to be, and indeed were carried out to their fullest extent.  It was that Isaiah’s Servant of God suffered, took our blindness, our negative attitudes, our angers, our hatreds, our histories, our prison sentence, our condemnation to hell’s dungeon upon Himself.

In verse 4, where it says “He will not fail nor be discouraged,” actually the words read, “He will not ‘grow dim’ nor be ‘bruised’” – using the same words from verse 3, where it says “the wick growing dim He will not quench, the bruised reed He will not break.”  This Messiah would not ‘grow dim,’ yet without hesitation He would hand over His life and be quenched; He would not be ‘bruised’, yet He was determined to submit to being crushed to the depths of crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”  It was a willing submission of Himself in order to release us.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this passage is the sheer enthusiasm GOD has for this Messiah.  Of course, WE are glad to hear that this Messiah is so full of grace, that His justice would take our penalty and set us free.  It is no wonder that we would find ourselves very eager about this prophecy.  But to see GOD so excited is quite the wonder.  After all, He was the One against Whom all the crimes, all the sins, all the rebellion have been committed; and now HE is the One Who will receive the punishment? – you would think that He would cry out the most against such unjust “justice”!

Yet look at His excitement!  Before the whole universe He proclaims, “Here is My Servant, Whom I hold up before everyone; My Chosen One, in Whom I delight!”  Then later, this Creator God looks to this Servant and says, “I have called You, I take hold of Your hand, I guard You, I make You BE a Covenant to the People.”  The cost to God was extreme: the greatest sacrifice that God the Father could have given; the greatest sacrifice for the Son to give up heaven and then die on a Cross – and yet look at His enthusiasm and sheer delight, His eagerness and joy!

But there is something else here on this day set aside for accenting Baptism: although we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism, it is impossible for us to do that without also remembering our own Baptisms.  And with that in the background, this passage takes on a whole new depth.

In our Baptisms, St Paul states that you were “buried into Christ,” you “put on Christ,” you were made part of the Body of Christ. Your identity is so intertwined with Jesus that you are as one with Him as your body is one with your head. Through Him, this passage speaks also of YOU.

Can you imagine God having such enthusiasm and eagerness over YOU, just like He does over Jesus?  In exactly the same way as He does with Jesus, can you imagine God going before the whole universe, angels, archangels, Satan, demons – everybody – and saying about YOU, “Here is My Servant, Whom I uphold; My Chosen One, in Whom I delight!” and then later to say to YOU personally, “I have called YOU, I take hold of YOUR hand, I guard YOU, and I make YOU to be a Covenant for the People.”

Obviously we are not Jesus, we are not God the Son, and so these words have a different meaning specifically for Him.  Still that does not take away the truth that these words very powerfully and appropriately declare God’s relationship to us through Baptism, in Jesus Christ.  And what an enormous comfort they are!  It would not hurt you at all to stop and spend a few minutes dwelling on the fact that GOD says HE DELIGHTS IN YOU, that GOD could be that excited about YOU, that GOD would call YOU, hold YOUR hand, stand guard – not just some angel, but that God Himself would stand guard over YOU; that God Himself would regard YOU as so important that He personally would be this involved with YOU and this elated over YOU.

But now wait a minute!  If this passage applies to us, how can WE “be a Covenant to the People”?  Well, Covenant speaks of relationship, the closest that a person could ever have with another person.  If you are God’s Covenant to the People, then you will be God’s demonstration of how close He is to them through you – just like Jesus was when He walked the earth.  Obviously you will not be able to demonstrate this quite the same as He did, but nonetheless you are God’s Covenant to the People all around you.  In you they get to see the delight which God has for any and all who reach out to Him, any who humbly submit to His participation in their life, who in great relief repent and hand over all the very sins, rebellions and darkness in their lives which Jesus had died for.

But to do that every day and everywhere in our lives – that’s a big job and, boy, we will need help!  That’s why Jesus is also the Covenant to us, and here at the altar is the Blood of the Covenant; here His LifeBlood flows through our veins.  Jesus Himself courses through our whole existence, so that we and those whom we touch can all the more share in His wonderful Messiah and therefore through Him we together more and more be the demonstration of God’s presence and relationship and delight – God’s Covenant – to all the People.

And then here is God’s justice to be recognized – justice which satisfies His Law, and justice which brings the freedom of His love; it is the justice which brings down the Judge’s gavel of condemnation against sin, yet it also makes real the salvation of mankind as Jesus takes upon Himself this full penalty; it is the justice that proclaims in Baptism before the universe, “this is MY Child,” where we discover that we also are included within this exciting proclamation of such a delighted God; it is the justice that makes us part of Jesus’ unique demonstration of God’s touching people with His eternal Covenant relationship.

Really this is quite a special and delightful passage by which to start the week off!