The Biblical Creator, the First Nations’ Creator and Covenant

[in a letter to my daughter]

You asked recently if “the Creator” was the same as God, and my answer was “in a way, yes.”  I simply want to point out here that there are some differences between what I understand about the First Nations’ concepts and the Biblical.  Correct me where I am wrong.

Although Christianity is a relatively “new” idea in this part of the world, only here supposedly for some 400 years, the assumption is that the Native spirituality is older.  But even you count only from Abraham, the faith of the Bible is a religion which spans 4,000 years, and its concepts go back to the very creation of mankind.  More than that, in a Book which spans 1500 years in writing and a variety of authors in different conditions, there is a fascinating consistency of thought.

I remembered one time I was taking a friend of yours and you to the reserve a few years back, and I was trying to tell you that there is a profound kind of love that two persons can have without it having anything to do with sexual and that it was a Covenant – or Blood Brother – love.  Neither of you were much interested at that time.

It is at Covenant, or the Native Blood-Brother, where the two sets of spirituality join together and yet also stand in stark contrast to each other.  The main place where all of this takes place is in the very ancient and world-wide concept of the Blood.  Although defined in the Bible, the basic concept is the same no matter if in Africa or North America, Europe or Pacific islands – that is, before the modern age took over, where so often forgotten are the roots of different customs which we still do, such as shaking hands upon greeting.

The Bible doesn’t even get past the first chapter without already making the Hebrew reader very much aware of the central place which Blood will have throughout the Bible:

God said, “Let Us make man [adam] in Our image, after Our likeness [damah]: and let them have dominion…” So God created man [adam] in His Own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. Genesis 1:26-27

The words in the brackets are words whose root is the Hebrew for Blood: “dam” (short “a” sound, not long sound). The Hebrew could not even say the word for “humanity,” “adam” (also the man’s name), without being conscious of the centrality of Blood to our existence.

Blood, of course, is not limited to humans, so when God said,

For the Life [Soul] of the flesh is in the Blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the Blood that makes atonement for the soul. Leviticus 17:11

He was identifying that Blood has a very deep connection to “life” – a state of being which science cannot define but is found everywhere, even in the animals.  As the bracketed word identifies, the Hebrew for “life” is also the word for “soul.”  What is the “soul”?  It is everything which makes you who you are.  It is something which lies at the very core of your being.

The idea of Blood-Brother, or Covenant, depends heavily on this understanding.  In Blood-Brother, as the two bleeding open wounds are joined together, the understanding is that core of each’s being (soul) is now completely merged with the core of the other person’s being (soul).  There is now only one in the place of the two.  That is why a woman with native background in my last congregation told of how when her grandfather died, she mentioned to one of her “uncles” – Blood-Brother to the grandfather – that she no longer had any grandfathers left.  He was greatly offended, because as Blood-Brother, he was her grandfather.

The Genesis passage above, however, identifies something more than merely a general idea to the “soul” for humans: We were specifically created in the “damah” – Blood-Soul-Life-likeness – of God Himself.  In our creation we were connected to the very core of God’s being, something which was never said of any other creature.

It is here where I believe Native spirituality and the Biblical part ways.

In Genesis 15:7-21, God cuts Covenant – Blood-Brother – with Abraham in a ceremony which was recognized at that time as vowing one’s own death should he break Covenant at any time.  God demonstrates His desire not just to guide, watch over, protect Abraham; the ceremony declares that it is God’s intention that Abraham should share in the very core of God’s being, His “soul.”  I have never come across any indication in Native spirituality where the Creator would take irreversible steps, even vowing His death, to share in the very core of His being with a human.  I have never come across any Native idea where the Creator would literally die for humans.  Perhaps there is, but I have never seen it.

Instead I see in Native spirituality what is common in many religions, where the Creator, or God, is benevolent and concerned about humans.  But He is always at a distance from these creatures.  Never do you find the total intimacy and the absolute self-giving even to death which is contained in the Core-of-Being Blood-Brother.

And of course, in the Bible, the Creator will die and die for the sake of very rebellious creatures at that [Romans 5:6-10].  This is not a New Testament manufactured idea.  Based on Genesis 15, in Zechariah 11:10-13 not only is there the prophecy of the breaking of the Covenant with Abraham’s “peoples,” but also when it would occur – when Jesus is sold for thirty pieces of silver and the money is thrown into the temple “for the Potter” [See Mathew 27:5-8].  It is the context where Jesus voluntarily went to His death for the sake of all People.  Again, I know of no Native stories which identify that the Creator died in an agony which had been deserved by humans.

In the New Testament, God proves His intent on sharing the Core of His Being with humanity – in Jesus, we see the visible demonstration of His concept of Covenant: God and Man are actually joined together in the one Person.  Jesus is literally walking Covenant.

However, it is not as if each one of us will now become the unified God and Man that Jesus is.  St Paul is very clear: to be in Covenant with the Creator, you have to be in THE Covenant, Jesus – or as he is fond to put it, “in Christ Jesus.”  This is why Jesus can be so stark about His position in the universe: “I am the Resurrection and Life” [John 11:25-26] – He does not show us, “have” it, lead us to it, but rather He IS the Resurrection and the Core of God’s Being (Life, Soul).  And for us to have these things, we must have HIM.

That’s why He can say without batting an eyelash, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” [John 14:6].  This is not arrogance but the reality which comes from what He is as the walking Covenant.  It is the reality of God’s ultimate design of becoming intimate and personal, not merely to a large group, but to each individual of us.  Jesus is the personal link that directly connects us to the Core of God’s Being – access to the Creator is offered on a one-to-one basis, not for a special few, but for every one of us.

This intention of God is very evident even in Genesis 17 when the Abraham now does his share in committing to Covenant through Circumcision.  God commands that those who enter this intimacy are to include the 8-day-old child who has no ability to prove himself as worthy, but is totally helpless before the Lord; and the slave who has no control over his life, but is hopeless to change his circumstances – these “helpless and hopeless” are specifically commanded to be included into the intimacy of the individual with his Creator.

Every generation, every infant, every slave was to come to understand that God is the One Who insists on this closeness, individual by individual, each by a specific unmistakable act whose evidence of this connection cannot be removed.  In the New Testament is the command to be baptized, every single one, not as a mere group action.  True, there is no physical mark now like Circumcision had in the Old Testament, but the spiritual mark is just as indelible, and is just as visible in the spiritual realm.

I guess that is part of the balance of Covenant as well – not only am I connected to the very Soul of God, but that He is connected to my Soul as well.  That sounds good at first, but the more I think of it the more difficult it becomes.  Down in the deepest parts of my Soul are the things which I try to keep the most hidden – so often despite my bravado, these are the places of which I am ashamed: my weaknesses, my rebellions, my angers, my failures, even my hatreds of myself.

I fear the Creator getting too close because I know that there are many, many others who are far more worthy than I – they are strong, confident, capable, mentally agile, leaders – those of whom the Creator would be proud.  But not so much as with me.  In my times of frustration, I can’t help but wonder if He would not rightly reject me.  Many times, I don’t think that I am good enough, or accomplished enough for Him to bother noticing me.  Sometimes when I pray I wonder why He should even pay attention to me.

This is where the idea of Him being the One seeking out Covenant with me just feels awkward and unreal.  Why isn’t He busy with those who are far more capable as me?  As a pastor, I see so many other church leaders who are successful and capable, and I, I’m just here plugging away just barely holding things together.  What have I got to offer to Him?

Yet He seeks out the oneness with me.  He tells me that He always hears my prayers, in fact, the Holy Spirit dwells in me to make that communication happen.  He is willing to always be present whenever I come to Him for Holy Communion – just for my reassurance, not His.

But He also does not want me to keep all the crap inside of me.  He speaks of repentance.  You know that our baby change table is right by the kitchen, and therefore the used diapers go into the waste can under the sink.  You also may remember how many times opening the waste’s cabinet door can be an experience far from pleasant.  There are times when it doesn’t matter if the waste can is not full, the garbage is going out NOW.

That’s what repentance does – it takes out the garbage.  It removes the stench of the past which can even become unbearable.  It removes the clutter which at the least still isn’t worth holding on to.  Like the garbage in the outside bin, it isn’t left there either, but rather is completely taken away – I never have to deal with it at all again.

Other religions recognize the extreme danger of the Creator getting too close.  It would mean that God would be connected to the junk and crap in which too often and too easily we are involved.  His purity would be tainted by such close association with us.  It is best to keep Him at a distance, with perhaps the occasional touching of our souls, but only after we have been cleansed enough.  But Covenant – Blood-brother – doesn’t do that.  The connection is always at its deepest and is always there, in every circumstance, in every attitude, in every act whether selfish or not.  The guilt and the shame must and does rub off on Him, even when He is not party to do such things.

I know of no such equivalent in Native spirituality where every individual of the tribe – no matter who that person is, no matter what spiritual condition of that person, no matter what that person has, is, or will do – is to be joined even in his shame to the Core of the Creator’s Being to this depth.

But the uniqueness of the Bible (Old Testament, no less!) is

He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  We hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.  Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.   Isaiah 53:3-5

Where else would you find the Creator subjecting Himself to this, but in the Bible?  It is one thing to want to be close to the Creator, but it is an entirely more powerful thing to be told that the Creator has not stumbled at being deliberately this close to us.

And again, here is the added confirmation that this is the heart of God:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?   I Corinthians 3:16
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?  You are not your own.    I Corinthians 6:19

 

What agreement has the temple of God with idols?  For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My People.”   II Corinthians 6:16

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.  Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.   Romans 8:26-27

In every direction you may turn within what the Bible describes as God’s yearned-for relationship with us, there is an intimacy which is not matched by any other religion that I know of.  When I was in college, I devastated my own faith.  I wondered what made me a Christian.  Was it merely happenstance of birth in which I was born into a Christian family, in a nominally Christian country?  What if I were born in a different setting with a different religion surrounding me – would it matter?  I didn’t know what to believe.

I looked at other religions in order to understand them, where they were coming from and where they were going spiritually.  And I looked at Christianity.  There are positives and attractive elements in the other religions, but I found unequaled was the historicity of the Bible; that its prophesies made hundreds of years in advance of their fulfillment were unmatched by any other religion; and that the standard was to be total fulfillment of every prophecy.  In fact, any inaccuracy in any prophesy would cast doubt on God’s Word.  Such inaccuracy could only come because the prophet was getting his material from some other source – His own mind, or Satan, or the demands of his hearers, but not from God.  God would not tolerate where people could never be sure whether the prophet was really speaking God’s mind – that’s why the prophet had to be permanently removed [Deuteronomy 18:20].

I saw the Bible address head-on the evil in the world, and also provide the way out from the power of evil (although not easy – it requires a cross, God’s as well as my own).  I saw a personally involved God, not called in by humans, but involved because His powerful love made Him join us at the level of human flesh (as predicted in the Old Testament).  I had to wrestle with the reality of the Resurrection.  I had to confront the historicity of Jesus’ life – did it really happen, but if not then how does one account for what has happened subsequent to His “life”?  I had to deal with how accurately the Bible – as mentioned above in regard to Covenant and broken Covenant – described what Jesus would be about long before He walked this earth as well as afterwards.

Much too often I found that the discrepancies found in other religions as opposed to the Biblical were less reliable and much too far from what the Bible’s solutions to the needs of mankind.  I gave the questioning which I had, the time needed to feel confident that the conclusions I reached were well-thought out.  I am a Christian by decision and conviction, not by happenstance and circumstance.  I am convinced that for me to join any other religion would require me to give up far more than any supposed benefit I would receive.

Yes, that’s me, not you.  But are you willing to give it that kind of thought and research, or will you simply chase after what has the appearance of attractiveness?  Remember that if you are truly dealing with the Creator, then you did not create Him, and therefore you do not get to define what He ought to be.  If He is indeed the Creator, then He created you and you then must conform to His intention for making you – which according to the Bible is a plan filled with incredible joy, purpose, and value, as well as responsibility, honor, and partnership with Him, all of which will never run out.  But it does mean that you definitely seek to walk with Him rather than to walk away from Him.

Well, this is a conversation I wished I could have had with you, but I guess this is actually better. This gives you the chance to think about what was said, to challenge me, and to give yourself the context and the time to weigh what what I’ve tried to get across.

The Unique Wise God Of The Bible

Wisdom speaks: The Lord created me at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.     Proverbs 8:22-23

Throughout this last winter I had been assembling a course on Evolution and Creation for a student at CLBI (Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute) in Camrose.  I was awestruck by many of the things which turned up in my background study.

One of the most notable is the DNA which governs the bodies of all living creatures.  If you take the DNA from only one cell of your body and stretch it out as one strand, its length would be taller than you.  It is theorized that that one strand hold information of the equivalent of 100 30-volune encyclopedias.  I look at the DNA and all I see are chemical compounds.  I do not understand how such things translate into such extensive and comprehensive knowledge.

Yet in that one strand are all the information which is necessary not only to run the body, but also to create and assemble the pieces which make you up.  It is the same strand which is there when the single fertilized egg begins to develop in the mother’s womb.  It is the same strand which is there as the child develops and the brain develops in those early years of life.  It is the same strand which governs the mechanisms of healing and learning.  It is the overseer of adjustments that the body makes to handle the various changes and stresses of life.

In the cell’s mitochondria, there are tiny little motors which spin 5,000 times a minute, never stopping, never slowing down, which create what you might call tiny little batteries which the various organelles of the cell need in order to build the material the cell must have to survive, grow and reproduce.

Watch the elaborate choreography of when a cell divides into two identical new cells – how amazing to see such efficiency at work!  And we haven’t even touched on the make up of atoms and the forces when hold everything together and yet do not make the universe collapse in upon itself.  There is the combination of “just right” elements and forces and distances and many other things in regard to sun and earth position, the tilt of the earth, the magnetic shield around the earth and just so much more which guarantees the continued existence of life on this planet.

One cannot but marvel and tend to see such profound wisdom as almost a being of its own, perhaps a separate assistant like an angel, when God planned, created and now governs the universe.

I am staggered by how so much of the scientific community seemingly desperately attempts to remove God from the universe.  The tortured twisted logic that is demanded can fill you with sadness.  But this is not new!  The attempt to remove God is as old as the Bible.  And now, over the last century there is the disdain of various philosophies, such as communism, which calls faith in God the crutch of the ignorant.

On the other side of the coin lies the people who cannot understand why there just can’t be one religion.  Why do we have to have the gods of the Buddhists, the gods of the Hindus, the Allah of the Moslems, the various gods of the First Nations spirituality, the self-made gods of Mormonism as well as the God of the Bible?  Aren’t they all after the same thing anyway?

Unfortunately on one hand, such a comment how much there is a lack of knowledge in regard to how different in nature and essence these gods are; as well as how much there is no understanding about the difference between God creating us in His image and mankind creating gods after its own image.  God had created humans to reflect His perfect nature, but humans have created their gods to reflect the flaws, weaknesses and even the depravity of human nature.

There is much emphasis nowadays on karma.  What is interesting is really how karma is supposed to work.  Is it based on utter perfection?  What is that perfection judged upon?  Is it based on what is passable goodness, or even on what is ignorable?  What keeps track of what is positive and negative?  Is there anyone truly who can survive a whole lifetime being perfect?  Well, there is One, Jesus, but He is from the Bible, not these other religions.

Touted as blind chance, evolution is still elevated to a god-like character, and is depicted as a cruel, uncaring, unfeeling force which will culminate in annihilation.  There are other problems as well – the universe, everywhere you turn, constantly holds before us extreme order and purpose, as demonstrated in the DNA.  It gives evidence of a most powerful and marvelous wisdom at work – which is what the Bible has declared to us all along.

But just Who is this God of the Bible?  This is what today makes us stop and consider, as we celebrate the Holy Trinity.  There is a real difference between this God and all others – He is totally unique.  This is a thoughtful, purposeful God, Who has a plan meant to declare His Glory, but not just the Glory of His power, as the Allah of the Moslem centers on; He also declares the Glory of His love.  And as it turns out, the emphasis on both His Power AND His Love are most crucial to understand this God.  It is no accident that when Moses asks to see God’s Glory [Exodus 33:18-19; 34:6-7], that the Lord’s immediate response is to accent His goodness, Covenant relationship, grace, mercy, steadfast Love, faithfulness, forgiveness and justice.

The problem with just emphasizing God and His power is that we somewhere are confronted with His power to destroy us.  We hope that God would be kind and gentle; that is, until we really sit down and look at the evidence.  The evidence here is our sin – no matter how you define that word, it means that these are the places where we DO NOT do what God requires of us, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally.  But there is no difference to a God of power – the penalty is required in all its harshness.  The hand of the thief is cut off.

But that is just the first layer of the problem – it only deals with the world as we live in it.  What about the next world?  When we demonstrate day after day a kind of rebellion against God, what are we to expect?  When we do what seems right to us, even deliberately going against God’s expressed command, what will be His reaction?  When we find out that He requires perfection of us in all our life AND OUR THOUGHT, the God of power becomes a most frightening thing.  It has been pointed out that there are 99 names for Allah in the Moslem religion – yet not one of them is “Father” – a God of Power cannot afford to get too close to us.

This then is the contrast of the Biblical God, because He is a God of love as well.  He is not a God of love in exclusion to His power and justice, but rather in addition to them.  His power and justice sees our sins and these demand the penalty.  But His love steps in with a most unique, totally unexpected reaction.

No other religion finds its god become so totally involved in human life and affairs as to personally share man’s existence.  God actually came out of heaven, out of that comfortable remoteness, into this human life.  All along He had refused to be depicted as an idol, a mere statue, because He rather would be known as One Who walks among His People [Leviticus 26:12; II Corinthians 6:16], Who dwells among them [John 14:23; Revelation 21:3] and in them [John 14:17].  In Jesus, in Person, He fulfilled that definition of Himself by sharing our frailty; even to Himself tasting death.

But He did this not as an academic exercise!  He did this to rescue mankind!  We can talk about how Jesus’ life on earth is to be a pattern for our lives, yet the purpose of His being here was not to give us a model of how life should be lived!  A remote god might come to show us how life is to be lived, but the Biblical God knew that we were far beyond such a simple remedy.  The rebellion of sin in us was so ingrained that merely a demonstration of what we should do would only make matters worse, in fact fill us with such resentment that we in anger would even attempt to kill this God – which, come to think of it, is what happened!

No, He came to actually rescue us, to take upon Himself the very punishment we deserved.  This in itself was totally unique and unexpected.  There was no other way to get rid of the barrier of the punishment.  If it depended on ourselves, it would just get worse.

A case in point:  Sometimes a person denying the existence of God will ask about the starving people in the world – if God is God and He is so good, why do these people suffer so?  The answer is unpleasant for us to hear, because God HAS provided enough food.  We have granaries that are full of food.  We even in North America and Europe have PAID farmers to not plant seed.  So the question is not why God hasn’t provided – He has!  But the problem lies within us.  Under the thin veneer of concern for the starving, we really don’t care about them.  We’re too busy getting our videos with double-x rated subjects, and our cases of beer for the next hockey game.  No, the problem does not lie in God’s providing, but rather in our hoarding – which again points up the fact that we need to be rescued!

And rescued we are!  How many parents of you would do to your child what God the Father did to His Son, all for the sake of someone else’s benefit?  What a message which is given to us because God the Father and God the Son both are involved with our rescue from sin and its punishment.  You can’t match this God anywhere else!  No other god would even be imagined to go to such lengths for creatures that rebel against him and ruin his creation!  But the true God did what man would never expect – we know this, because Jesus was real, He really did live on this earth.

But because this is not a God merely of power, He also is a God of love, then He is not simply satisfied with just rescuing us from the punishment of sin.  He wants us to experience even now the good things, the power, the joy of His life, of His working right next to us in our worlds.  So God the Holy Spirit comes to stay.  What a fantastic God this!  He is a God Who is unafraid to come right into this world in Person.  He is unafraid to humble Himself, to actually be our servant as He serves our needs.

Look at all that He does, of which I can only briefly describe in this sermon!  There is salvation to be found nowhere else!  No other god could ever do what this one simply DOES do!  And God has the perfect right to say to us, give credit where the credit is due! – that is only logical and just and fair – that we are to give Him the Glory, the praise, the honor He deserves, and also our allegiance!

He says, now YOU must be willing to accept this, that it be a part of your life, otherwise it is meaningless to you, with no effect on you.  God has the right to require faith from us – not faith in just any old thing or any old god, but in the God that really does exist; a God of Power, but also of Love; a God that really has gotten involved in the individual day to day things of our lives; a God that was really willing to give His life up for us, to make US really live.

To reinforce this evidence of His commitment, He comes now to us again in Holy Communion, here to see for ourselves His willingness to enter in and actually be there with us in each day, no matter what the day may bring, and even those days when we are not at our best.  Here God wants us to understand how seriously He takes His involvement in our lives.  As the Psalmist [103:14,17-18] points out,

For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust … But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to such as keep His Covenant relationship, those who heed His will to do it.

So He bids you to come, to experience the comfort and peace of His partnership in your life, and of your partnership in His eternity.  Come, as the Psalmist [34:8] puts it, “taste and see that the Lord is God; blessed is the person who trusts in this God.”

The God of Peace Come to Stay

Men, why are you doing this?  We also are men, of like nature with you, and bring you Good News, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God Who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.             Acts 14:15

Years ago, when they were a couple, Prince Charles and Lady Diana were “coming to town” – they were going to visit southwestern BC.  People were falling all over themselves in excitement: The royalty of the British Empire was going to spend a moment in this corner of the world.

People traveled distances just to get a chance to see them.  Local dignitaries from mayors to beauty queens were nervous and excited about meeting this famous couple.  Probably we all would have the same reaction if we were to have such an opportunity.  After all, this is royalty, and who are we, but just everyday common folk.

I wonder what it must be like to be royalty.  Oh, I’m sure it must get tiresome with being so constantly in the public eye, with the responsibility and all the traveling that must be done.  Yet, when you have so many people so thrilled to see you – just to see you, well, I would imagine that that must have its effect.  To feel that important, that highly valued – to be aware that just so much depends on you, you are that powerful in the lives of common people – I would imagine that there are times that they do enjoy the limelight.

But can you imagine what it must be like to be regarded as a GOD?  Imagine the sense of power and importance that that would bring!  Why you would have the feeling that the whole universe revolved around you!  You would be no insignificant person stuck on a forgotten corner of the globe – no, siree!  You would be something that mattered, you would be important; people would fall at your feet not out of respect but out of worship!

Hasn’t this been the attraction for the human ever since Satan’s temptation, “You shall become like God”?  Isn’t that the main core of the New Age movement and other religions?  Something inside of us is intrigued by the idea that we can be gods.

Such was the temptation of Paul and Barnabas.  They did an astounding miracle which by itself won them the position of very powerful people – gods, even.  A man in Lystra was crippled from birth – he had never walked,  and simply by a command from Paul, the man jumped up and walked.  What it takes a baby months to learn: the sense of balance, the coordination of muscles and all the rest, the man learned in moments.  But even more: what was once a bent broken, misshapen body suddenly had nothing wrong with it.

Well, the townspeople were simply amazed.  Nobody had been able to do anything like that before.  Nobody had that power.  Obviously these men had to be gods.  Can you imagine the excitement!  Everybody wanted a glimpse.  People from everywhere rushed to the place where Paul and Barnabas were.

The priest of the local temple of Zeus must have been falling all over himself, dazed and excited, never dreaming that this god would actually come to his very town in his lifetime.  He just didn’t know what to think, but he did know that he’d better get over there and offer a sacrifice, lest these gods become offended.

How tempting it would have been for Paul and Barnabas to have everybody literally treating them like gods, everybody hanging on their every word, ready to jump up and do their slightest bidding, eager to press upon them all sorts of treasures and goodies.

But no, that wasn’t what Paul and Barnabas were there for.  In fact, they had something even greater TO GIVE these people.  It wasn’t as if some local gods were passing through – no, they had come to tell these people of a God Who had come TO STAY.  A living God, Who had come to give them LIFE, Who had come to give them Life in a most special way.

Here was a God quite unlike any that the Greeks and the Romans had.  Their concept of gods were ones that were simply big men and women.  These gods could get angry and offended at even the slightest wrong.  The world was supposedly at the mercy of their whims, at the mercy of their rebellions and fights.  The morality of these gods was literally no better than the average human being’s, and they would often break their own rules.

But that wasn’t the God that Paul and Barnabas had to share!  Nowhere else do you find a God Who so totally stood outside the likeness of man!  This God had every right to utterly destroy humanity for the constant sin and abuse of His creation, to annihilate mankind for the constant rebellion, for the continual breaking of His commandments – in righteous wrath God had and has every right to squash the world for its constant offense to His holiness.  At least that’s what the gods of the Greeks and Romans would have done.

But what does this God do??  He came to give HIS OWN life up.  He was willing to die, not just for His friends, but even for His enemies.  He was willing to have nails in His hands and a spear in His side, so that He could rescue HIS ENEMIES.  This was a new message!

We need to be reminded of this as well.  All too we often treat God as if He were a big man – just listen sometimes to how we pray, just look at our attitudes when we think of God.  Do we treat Him as if He were a most stingy God and we must plead and beg from Him?  Do we act as if He were a most remote God with no idea about what is going on in our world, whether it be a problem we encountered or maybe in His powerlessness to respond to our stewardships?  Do we act as if God has little control in regard to outcomes?  Is the God we think of, truly a God Who brings PEACE into our lives, or is He One Who brings tension and anxiety?  Too often, we end up with a God that is no different than those of the Greeks and Romans!

That’s why we are here today, to have Paul and Barnabas, as it were, come running out to tell us some Good News of a LIVING God – of the God found in Jesus.  What a twist Jesus is!  Here is not a man who is god-like, but instead here a God Who has become a man!  And what we have seen as we watched this God-become-man walk this earth!  We see Him die for His enemies, we see Him healing and feeding and blessing.  We see Him teaching.  We see Him giving life.  We see Him involved in a very personal way with humanity.

In the Gospel this morning, He talks about PEACE.  What a word that is!  How many interpretations and variations there can be of that word.  We talk of a cold war peace, which really isn’t a peace, its just a lower-key war.  But we call it peace because only a FEW people are shooting at each other.  The tension is still there.  The fear, the pain, the death are all still there.

But that’s not Jesus’ peace.  Jesus’ peace is something that goes deep into the heart: a peace that puts to rest our fears, that cuts the tension, that releases us from the chains that tighten on our hearts and bodies.  It is a peace that makes our hearts rise like a wood in water rises and bobs at the top.  It is a peace that comes when you know that all things are under control and that the One Who controls everything cares very much about you, about what is happening to you and what the outcome will be.

It is the peace that comes when you know that everything that could spoil this relationship has been removed; your sins, rebellions and faults are fully dealt with; and to have the confidence that as you repent, there will never be a time when you might lose the closeness of the God Who is in control.  It is a peace that comes from knowing that nothing can ever separate you from His love – nothing in all creation – from the Love that was willing to die even for determined, rebellious enemies.

In the Hebrew, which had to be at the back of the disciples’ minds, peace – “shalom” – means wholeness, where everything inside you is fully integrated together, everything is working together within one’s connection with God.  There is no double-mindedness, no conflicting desires – all is focused on the presence of the Lord and His Glory: His goodness, His Covenant relationship, His Steadfast Love, grace, mercy, faithfulness, forgiveness, and justice – so that these things become inescapably reflected in our lives with a serenity that comes only because we are firmly grounded in all that our Lord is and has done for our eternity.

But how does one get this peace?  The answer Jesus provides is designed to give us peace: The living God comes to live in us.  That was the message of Pentecost, the message of Baptism: God isn’t afraid to actually come into each of our lives, into each of our hearts and minds.  There He will remind us of His love, His help, His power, His forgiveness.  He will teach us as we experience each day, because He will guide and direct us.  He will remind us and will make this wholeness become part of our day, part of who we are!

AND THIS PEACE IS WHAT JESUS IS!  Look at that love on the cross!  Look at that power in the resurrection!  Look at that concern as He appears for the sake of Doubting Thomas, as He appears for the sake of guilt driven Peter!  Look at the forgiveness He had even for those pounding the nails into His hands and feet, even for those who were the priests who had Him murdered.  Look at what Jesus said when He told us that He was going to heaven to guarantee a place in heaven with our name on it, so that we might always know that God will be looking for us to get there.  It is here, in this Living God Who has come to stay, that a true peace can be found.

We specially meet this Living God Who has come to stay in Holy Communion.  Here He is Himself, His Body and His Blood – His proof that He is here to stay.  As this bread becomes actually part of our bodies and as the wine now flows freely through our veins, so also He becomes forever a part of our spirit and body and soul – becoming one with us in such a way that there can be no doubt that He is with us always, even to the end of the ages.  Here is our proof that God has forgiven us totally!  Here is the proof that He has started in us that oneness, that integration, that SHALOM which will mark who we are forever.  Here is His LIFE to make US live forever.

What Good News Paul and Barnabas did have for those people who had thought that gods had come visiting, and instead were introduced to the Living God Who had come to stay.  Now YOU come, as Jesus enters you, as the Holy Spirit brings to your remembrance all that Jesus has taught, and shown, and lived for us.  Come and see the Living God at work here for your peace – for your true peace, your SHALOM.

As of First Importance – an Easter sermon

By this Gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the Word I preached to you.  Or else you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… I Corinthians 15:2-5

Jesus Christ is risen!  What a fantastic Good News this is!  How precious this fact is, because it deals with things that are of such basic concern to every human being on this planet.  Here is something that can give us strength and confidence each day, and can set our hearts and minds a rest in regard to the future.  What a joy this first Celebration of Christianity can bring!

And yet how much it seems challenged more and more as the years go by.  It seems that more than ever, we are called upon to hold fast to the Bible.  Over the years, the accuracy, the reliability, the truthfulness, the sexual bias of the Bible – so much of the Bible is being ridiculed, rejected, re-translated.  Some of the programs on TV have been pure blasphemy under the guise of scholarship.

For instance, a few years ago there was an “Easter special”, a program telling us that Jesus was a stonecutter, who studied Buddhism (of all religions), and spent time in Japanese monasteries.  Another program recirculated theories once proposed by the Jews already back in Biblical times, theories now offered by “Christian” theologians, such as Jesus was drugged and revived, or that the Resurrection appearances of Jesus were merely mass hysteria brought about by grief.  Now we have Morgan Freeman starting a series which basically tells us that all religions basically boil down to the search for peace.

One fellow most wisely proclaimed that should they really find the body of Jesus, that that would not change his faith at all. In other words, he proclaimed a better religion and better religious understanding than that of St Paul Himself, who simply stated to the Corinthians in his first letter [15:14,17] “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…. your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

What bothers me is the frequency of such programs and newspaper items and magazine articles, all under the guise of scholarship.  There is a real danger that we might begin to feel that with such heavy ammunition coming from all sorts of different directions, that they just might be right.  As Jesus Himself put it “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible” [Matthew 24:24].

Unfortunately, we will be challenged more and more based on these interpretations, and we have to be ready to think through the logic of what is presented.  For instance, by the time of Jesus the Romans had had decades of experience in crucifixions, yet it is to be supposed that the uneducated disciples were able to slip Jesus something which dropped Him into such a coma that the Romans would be convinced that He died.  Why do you think that the soldier put the spear into the heart and lung of Jesus??  Because Rome knew about that kind of trickery, and if He wasn’t dead then, He was now.

Or was it merely some “mass hysteria” that would have two men going to Emmaus joined by a Third, Who went through the Old Testament showing how God’s Messiah was to suffer and die AND ALSO would rise from the dead?  Only in the breaking of Bread, because this was something they had experienced just 48 hours before in the Last Supper, did they finally recognize Him.  You mean to say that a figment of their imagination taught them things about the Messiah that they had never understood before?

No, unless you start out with a flat denial of the Bible, there is no room for such trivializing of the greatest event that God could do on this human earth.  That’s why the Christian Church has got to constantly pay attention to the only eyewitness accounts that there are, and to celebrate Easter according to the Bible.

The Gospel [Luke 24:1-11] this morning declares the skepticism of the disciples – they themselves were fully aware of the all the pitfalls of “seeing things”, especially loved ones, in the midst of grief.  The Bible has no mere idealism about it, but already addresses the reality of human nature – even to the likes of a “doubting Thomas.”  The evidence is that the disciples were NOT sucked in by mass hysteria, but they themselves fought the idea that the One Whom they loved, the One Whom they watched die, the One Who was “signed, sealed and buried” – how could He be alive?!

What the Bible proves over and over is that the Resurrection had to FORCE itself into the acceptance of the disciples.  Thomas had to have something real and physical to prove that Jesus was alive; when Jesus first appeared to the disciples He had to physically eat something, only then, the Bible says, were the disciples glad.  When Jesus appeared to the women returning from the tomb, he had to insist that they stop holding on to Him.  The important thing for us to realize, despite our age of sophistication is that those who were closest to the event, who experienced the event were forced to be convinced that Jesus really was alive.

What a proof there is then in these accounts!  Finally the realization also comes to us that Jesus really did rise!  Something profound and very special did happen!  Now finally the answer has been found to deal with what has kept humanity in slavery ever since Adam and Eve.

St Paul’s argument’s becomes most important!  Especially when he emphasizes that this was no isolated event, but one which had been declared throughout the Old Testament.  There is no way that Christianity can make sense or be particularly useful without the Resurrection.  We need the Resurrection, otherwise the most essential need for all humans would be still left!  Too often Christianity is treated as merely a moral structure, but there is something far more essential here – it is dealing with the heart problem between God and mankind.

It is dealing with sin.  Actually, as very thrilling as the idea of Jesus returning to life is, there is much more to this celebration than simply that.  It is as if God Himself put up a great big sign and arrow pointing to the Crucifixion with the message that it was all worth it.  It is God Himself jumping around, throwing His hat in the air (so to speak), and just purely delighting in what has been accomplished.

“LOOK! LOOK!” He is saying, “finally the roadblock that has stood in the way for thousands of years, generation after generations is gone!  I am God the Perfect, God the Holy, I must be the Standard as to what makes perfect justice, and that is what has gotten in the way of my relationships with mankind all along!  Even when I chose a special People for My own, and put them into a most extra-special relationship, even then I had to constantly deal with my justice, the penalty that mankind’s constant sin required.  Now *I* am free! free of this requirement!”

Sometimes we so concentrated on the Resurrection benefits to mankind that we forget how the whole heavens must have erupted in celebration.  Just imagine: if the heavens were so wildly enthusiastic at Jesus’ birth – which itself was no small thing – imagine the extraordinary rejoicing that had to have occurred when the grand climax that had been prophesied and waited for finally arrived.  The Resurrection is God Himself dancing on the empty tomb.  Imagine the sense of freedom that GOD must have experienced as well!

But the Resurrection celebration is also for US!  After all, the reality of Jesus walking about alive, in the flesh, also is proof TO US that indeed, “It IS finished!” [John 19:30].   Jesus’ death was not merely a nice thing that someone would do, but rather it is that very experiencing of hell demanded by justice, that had been accomplished as promised.

Obviously, if you do not take sin seriously, then all this would be nonsense and uselessness.  There is nothing to be saved from, no rules, no penalty, no laws, no reward.  Sure then, if suddenly Jesus’ body were discovered it would not change the “faith” of those so disposed.  Actually there is no faith that could be changed anyway.  There is nothing to believe in except some vague sense of goodness, not even God is really necessary.

But if you take sin seriously, and the punishment that the law demands when it is broken, the punishment that God’s justice must deliver, then you just simply cannot have it any other way.  The Resurrection just has to be real — the most crucial information that has ever been given to mankind, and has to be the greatest thing that you ever heard about.

Easter then demands that you discover the freedom YOU also have.  Just as God celebrates the complete removal of the barrier between Him and you, so also we enjoy a freedom of now going to the Father as our own personal Father – no “ifs”; no “well, perhaps”; no “if onlys” – in Jesus, at any moment we pray, we directly enter the throneroom of grace and address God Himself.  No more barriers – what a freedom we have!

In fact, because of the Resurrection, Holy Communion is not merely a vague recalling of Jesus’ presence on this earth long ago.  Instead, this bread and wine have the dynamic reality of the presence of a living Lord, the Master over all things, the King over sin and death, the Ruler over every single thing which could ever touch our lives.  The Resurrection adds vibrancy to what we do here today and what we take with us as we return to our daily lives.

Then Easter adds another most comforting reality: here is the powerful proof that this world is not the only thing there is (as if death is the final end), nor are we locked into depressing endless cycles of reincarnation.  Those who die in the Lord will indeed be seen again, we will enjoy their company once again, we will indeed sit at great banquet table of our Lord and Savior.

We rejoice today in that there is no depressing fear as to whether our only chance in life may not be good enough, because eternity does not depend on your perfection or deeds or misdeeds, but simply on our confession that Jesus died and bodily rose from the dead and is now the Lord and Master not just of creation but also of our hearts, our lives and even over our sins.

Now we can come to the empty tomb; finding it empty, we can rejoice together with God that the cursed barrier between Him and us has been removed with the finality of the Resurrection.  In fact, we too can dance on the tomb together with God Himself at the pure joy and victory which it declares.

The Resurrection and the Shepherd

My sheep hear My voice. I know them, and they follow Me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.  No one will snatch them out of My hand.   What My Father has given Me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.        John 10:27-30

Here we are rejoicing in this season about the Resurrection.  We have been spending weeks on the wonder in Jesus conquering death, taking the sting and victory out this power which we all face.  It is indeed a marvel at which to be astonished – after all death expresses the absolute weakest that any creature faces.  We are helpless.  We cannot even move an eyelash when we are dead.

That is why the Resurrection is so astonishing, especially when we realize how Jesus prophesied that He would raise Himself on the third day [John 2:18-22].  Now what is important is that often we sort of fudge on the Resurrection – we know that Jesus is both human and God and therefore since God cannot die, therefore it was the God-side of Jesus which raised the human side.

But that’s not Biblical.  To understand this, you have to turn to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and witness when the Lord Jehovah [15:8] cut Covenant with Abraham.  Jehovah, as the smoking furnace and flaming torch, traveled through the animals which were cut in half, which everyone at that time knew that this was a vow where should He ever break Covenant, by oath He would die.  In Zechariah 11:10-13, the breaking of that Covenant was prophesied.

Remember this was not the human-God combination of Jesus making this vow, but rather this was simply the Creator vowing His own death.  God died then on the cross.  There was no splitting of the forever unity of God and Man in Jesus in death.  How that can be, our Lord has never explained it to us, and I suspect He never will.

This is what makes the Resurrection so profound.  It was God as His absolute weakest, at His most helpless, and yet Jesus simply, simply got up on His schedule, at the predicted time.

But we can still miss an essential point.  The Resurrection is not an event.  Jesus said to Martha [John 11:25]. “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  The Resurrection is a Person, a Person Who stands here now in our midst.  By this fact, He has declared to us that the power to defeat Satan, sin and death is right here among us, wherever two or three are gathered together [Matthew 18:20].

What does all this have to do with today’s emphasis on Jesus as the Good Shepherd?

In so much of our lives, we are indeed sheep.  My dad used to say that being called a sheep is no compliment.  At first our minds are filled with the images of the cute little lamb being carried home by the Shepherd as the lamb snuggles in to the comfort and safety of the Shepherd.  But sheep grow up.  And they are very stupid.

One cowboy friend used to call them “range maggots” particularly because they would graze grass down to the roots and prevent a pasture from being reused for a period of time.  Sheep would follow one another, even when it meant harm, even death.  At anything which would frighten them they would run and huddle together, even to where it happened a few years back, the sheep on the inside of the huddle were smothered to death.

Sheep would stand bleating for food, even though it was merely a few yards away.  Sometimes by quiet waters, the shepherd would have to make them lie down.  Whereas, for example, a cat will nurse a wound, the sheep will have no idea what to do, and it is required of the Shepherd not just to dress the wound, but even to find it in the first place.

Upon hearing all that the Shepherd has to do for his sheep, someone remarked, “It seems they are more trouble than they are worth,” to which the comment was replied, “Yes, we are.”  Yes, we, the sheep of the Lord, it seems, are often more trouble than we are worth.

Perhaps in this next story is one reason why Good Shepherd Sunday is placed only a few weeks after Easter.

A party of tourists from the British Isles was on its way to Palestine and its guide was describing some of the quaint customs of the East.  “Now,” said he, “you are accustomed to seeing the shepherd following his sheep through the English lanes and byways.  Out in the East, however, things are different, for the shepherd always leads the way, going on before the flock.  And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”

When the group reached Palestine, to the amusement of the tourists, almost the first sight to meet their eyes was that of a flock of sheep being driven along by a man.  The guide was astonished and immediately made it his business to accost the shepherd.  “How is it that you are driving these sheep?” he asked.  “I have always been told that the Eastern shepherd leads his sheep.”

“You are quite right, sir,” replied the man.  “The shepherd does lead his sheep.  But you see, I’m not the shepherd, I’m the butcher.”

As sheep we are stupid, foolish, and especially how often we also are driven by death and sin!  How often we find ourselves in the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “striving after wind”?  Here was one who had amassed great fortune, erected great buildings, had great possessions, gathering the treasure of kings, and delighted in all sorts of music.  Yet when he stopped to look around, it was just emptiness.

When death will come to drive him to the grave, all that he had was nothing.  His labor was nothing; his hard earned affluence would be given to someone else who could as easily waste it all away; his wisdom gave him no advantage over the fool when death came; and his nights spent sleepless in his plans ultimately were a waste of time.  Yet how often one does not stop to think about these things, because he is being driven to keep going, no matter what the cost, no matter how empty the result, no matter how useless the goal – it is the butcher driving the sheep.

In contrast is what the Lord said in Isaiah [55:1-3]:

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.  Incline your ear, and come to Me.  Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting Covenant with you – the sure mercies of David.

Or the voice of the Good Shepherd Himself in Mathew [11:28-30]:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.

Remember that the Resurrection is not an event, He is a Person.  He has proven that He has the ability, the power, and the love to back up His invitation to come to Him.  How important it is that we do not have go seek Him out, but rather He is right here among us.  As the Good Shepherd, He has come searching for us and He has found us.  He comes because that is His love.  He stands with us because that is the depth and power of His forgiveness – something which comes because He did not stagger at going to a Cross for us.  But more, it is because He declared that He has come that we might have life, life abundantly [John 10:10].

The Resurrection has broken the power of death to drive us any more.  The Resurrection has gutted death’s ability to hold us down, to make emptiness and loneliness the only thing which faces us.  Instead, we have the freedom and joy to see a life rich in His presence and blessing.  It is in the little experiments of taking His promises at His face value and realizing that there is goodness and hope which await us.

As we consider this, remember also how important Easter is.  Every argument for Christ in the book of Acts hinges on the Resurrection.  Every letter in the New Testament revolves around the Resurrection.  The book of Revelation centers on the Good Shepherd Who sits on the throne of heaven for our sake.  This is no two-bit hope, but rather something that is so essential if we are indeed to come to the Good Shepherd, to listen to His voice, and to follow Him.

And again, we don’t have to go far.  Jesus is already here.  He has found us, and He stands in our midst.  He stands with His Body and Blood to confirm that this is not merely nice words or high ideals or some sort of fantasy.  He wants us to know for sure that He would give His life – that He has given His life – for you His sheep, but also that He was not stopped by death.  He will bring life to you and me here in this place.  He will give you everything down to His very core to you and me.

In a cemetery in Hanover, Germany, is a grave on which were placed huge slabs of granite and marble cemented together and fastened with heavy steel clasps.  It belongs to a woman who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Yet strangely, she directed in her will that her grave be made so secure that if there were a resurrection, it could not reach her.  On the marker were inscribed these words: “This burial place must never be opened.”  But a seed, covered over by the stones, began to grow.  Slowly it pushed its way through the soil and out from beneath them.  As the trunk enlarged, the great slabs were gradually shifted so that the steel clasps were wrenched from their sockets.  A tiny seed had become a tree which opened a grave sealed tight.

Jesus is NOT Dead.  The Good Shepherd has come and speaks His words of life, encouragement, hope, forgiveness, power, comfort and strength.  He does not direct us to go somewhere, He says to us, “I will go, and you come along with Me; follow Me.”    It is the Resurrection Himself Who speaks this, the Resurrection Who has done all because of His great love for you and me, the Resurrection Who has sought us and here stands with us.  He indeed leads us into the abundance of His life.

The Valentine of Lent

Then we cried out to the LORD God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression.  So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.  He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, “a land flowing with milk and honey”  Deuteronomy 26:7-9

Wow!  Today is Valentine’s Day – what a way to begin Lent!  As well, the lessons present to us quite a mix of thoughts: the Old Testament Lesson (Deuteronomy 26:5-10) is the reminder to the Israelite, as he stands before God with the results of God’s blessings that he reaffirms the extraordinary involvement of God with his nation; the Epistle (Romans 10:8b-13) reminds us of the profound simplicity of our faith, yet at the same time the essential actions which must spring it; and the Gospel (Luke 4:1-13) is Jesus withstanding temptation for our sakes, so that His salvation is indeed no selfish sham.

A number of years ago, a criticism was made to me – I’m not sure it if were really directed at me or at the Christian, or even the Lutheran, Church as a whole.  The criticism is that we keep saying the same thing over and over.  Unabashedly I admit, it is true, although I do admit that I may use some examples or thoughts frequently.  Still on a large scale, it is also quite true that every year we rehearse the same old story again and again – just like the Israelite as he brought the firstfruits before the Lord would rehearse once again the same old story of the major event in his nation’s existence.

Perhaps the Israelite could mention some things which God had done recently for his family, or his tribe, or for the nation.  After all, it is important to see the ongoing involvement of the Lord in recent daily life.

Yet the Lord insists that what was done in the past was so big and so important that it cannot be allowed to drift into the fog of time.  That’s because the events which are remembered are not to be treated as a mere dry recounting of what happened, rather they are the reminder of an extraordinary love story.  Like any such story it is something which is worth repeating again and again, not only to rejoice in what happened in the past, but also to remind us of the relationship which continues down to this day and on into the future.

It is the message of constancy and consistency.  It is to remind oneself that there is a God of special steadfast Love with a faithfulness which will not diminish no matter how many years have passed.  There is a God Who once He has given His Word will never back down, no matter whom the adversary is, no matter how dire the circumstances.  He is a God Who brings release from slavery, release from being a victim, release from an old destructive way of life. He is a God Who brought Israel into a new life, into one far richer and more meaningful, into a life where all around was such an abundance of blessing if only one takes the time to realize the good things at his fingertips.

But the lessons don’t end there – the love story continues: today speaks of temptation – on one hand the Gospel is powerful evidence where Jesus will not jeopardize our eternity by selfishly grasping at the easy and painless way to obtain a kingship of just any sort.  No, He would complete the promise made even from the most ancient of days to Adam and Eve.  He would follow a commitment by God which would not fade even when all mankind treated Him with sullen indifference as well as with open hostility.

The temptation of Jesus revealed that He would follow what had been laid down in the Word of Scripture, even when it demanded giving of Himself to death.  It was the confirmation of the vow that He would never leave us nor forsake us, even when the road became harsh and painful, even when in the sweating of Blood He yearned for some other way, still He would fulfill His commitment to us – that was the value He placed upon us from the beginning.

St Paul, in Hebrews, brings out something else about this love story which resounds throughout the season of Lent: in 2:18, Paul declares, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted,” and in 4:15, “For we do not have a High Priest Who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus’ temptation is the foundation for His invitation, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28] – His temptation proves His ability to actually walk with us even at our weakest and most vulnerable times.  He did this in love, so that you and I will know for sure that there is nothing which can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus [Romans 8:31-38]

These are things of which we need to be reminded time and again because they have a great deal of influence when we are tempted.  Sometimes we forget and sometimes we are overwhelmed when temptation hits.  Sometimes we are so focused on mental gymnastics and supposed great wisdom only to find that it is the common and ordinary temptation which sends us spinning; the little normal, everyday problems which makes the anger rise; the uncomplicated self-prides which nonetheless make us do some of the most foolish things we ever could.

Today calls us off our high horse and in humility view once again just how much love there has to be for Jesus not to cave in, not to run away, not to “fudge” just a bit, but rather to submit to His unbending love for us and in doing so to win against temptation.  Like the Israelite of old, we need to rehearse the same old story yet once again, because only in its retelling are we reminded and reaffirmed that we are not alone, and that we are indeed worth the price to God to do something so remarkable for our sakes.

So we tell the story of Christmas; so we tell the story of the Magi, the first non-Jews to be welcome into the presence of Savior, so we tell the story of the universe-wide event of the Creator giving his life for His creatures; and also do we tell the story of His rising to life, affirming that every enemy which faces God’s People cannot stand the Lord’s commitment to bring us into a “good place.”  To the believer in Christ, this “good place” is not some ideal spot on this earth, but rather a place by His side, in the midst of all He will be doing forever.

Here is a Love story we can never allow to merely fade into the background of life, because it is story which lifts us up and makes us realize how when Jesus is involved, we also “more than conquerors through Him Who has loved us” [Romans 8:37]. This is no newspaper’s dry account of a mere series of events, but rather it is the fond reminiscing of those who are in love, who cherish the events which has brought them together and given them a future filled with hope and joy.

Neither is this a story for the past, a “once-upon-a-time, in a land far away,” but rather one which has profound daily significance affecting how we greet our day, greet our tasks, greet the people we deal with in our lives, and especially how we greet the challenges of being distinctively different in world which does not know nor understand how God could be so committed to seemingly insignificant creatures in the vastness of the universe.

It is the story we not only repeat in our worship, but even what we reenact here at the altar.  What the ancient Israelite never could have had a glimpse of is that this God Who  so richly blesses would demonstrate an unbreakable commitment to His People, would take the extra step to be here in Person, and would give of Himself here in His own Flesh and Blood.

As Luther pointed out, here in Holy Communion is the full Gospel contained, here is the message repeated in various ways and through various circumstances throughout the Bible – this is the love story which has no equal, even to the sharing of Himself as we come to His table.  The message is simple and is repeated here once again at the altar, and yet despite the repetition the comfort and the strength never diminishes, indeed we are this important.

But now we get to the Epistle, particularly where Paul says, ”The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the Word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”  What is Paul emphasizing here?  Simply that when there are two people in love, they are going to be on each other’s minds and in each other’s hearts. They are going to talk about each other, they are going to introduce the world to their Beloved.

It is a natural thing to do.  After all, when your heart is so taken by Someone Who is such a part of your life, to talk about that Person is not a chore or obligation – it is Someone Who surfaces in conversation, whether in making plans or placing values on the world around us.  Come to think of it, He is more than merely a Valentine, He is the One Who has placed His engagement – His future – upon us and is already constructing the place where He is excited to have us stay and join Him forever.

Perhaps we feel a bit sheepish, because we have been distracted.  Perhaps we are embarrassed because we have not turned aside from temptation as He has for us.  Perhaps we have treated His relationship with us with foolish disregard.  But remember that this is a relationship of love.  Jesus has hung in there for us and despite how we have treated Him, He is here for us yet again.  Yet the Love story of Lent is that even as we fail, even as we succumb to temptation, not once are we rejected.  Jesus never turns His back on us, but shoulders His Cross to give us life, He never turns His back on us, but comes right here in Person to demonstrate in the most vivid way possible our value, His commitment and His love.

He does not give up on us, even when sometimes we have on ourselves.  This is what Holy Communion powerfully announces to us – or as Paul put it in the Epistle, “The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in Him will be put to shame.’”  This is after all a real love story.

So on a day in which we celebrate love especially as we begin the season of Lent, it is important that we recognize just how great is the love in which we will rejoice, as we see it in temptation, as we see it in suffering but also as we see it in the coming extraordinary declaration of Easter.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger! (Jeremiah)

Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, “It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard.  Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change His mind about the disaster that He has pronounced against you.  But as for me, here I am in your hands.  Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent Blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.” Jeremiah 26:12-15

There is a saying that you hear frequently, “Don’t shoot the messenger!”  What it means is that whatever the messenger is delivering, it’s not his fault, it’s not his message.  If you don’t like the message, then go to its source and take it out on that source.

That was the way it was with Jeremiah.  Countless times he was treated as if HE were the author of his message and the reaction was usually anger, hostility, and even threats on his life.  Once he was beaten and put into stocks [20:2].  Although in the verses following today’s Old Testament Lesson Jeremiah does escape death, at the end of the chapter another prophet of the Lord, carrying the same message, was put to death by the king.  Later the king destroyed Jeremiah’s manuscript of prophecies [36:23] so that he had to start all over again.  Another time, he was thrown down into a cistern that fortunately was not filled with water, and was left there for some days [38:6].

It was enough to make Jeremiah want to get out of the business.  Even HE hated the message that he had to bring because it was one of such terrible destruction [20:14-15].  In fact, he pleaded with the Lord to release him.  Like Job, he despised the day that he was born [15:10; 20:17-18], yet He had the message to tell, and he had no other option.  He found himself unable to hold back the Word of the Lord [20:9].

With Jesus it was no different [Luke 13:31-35].  It’s difficult to believe that the Pharisees whom Jesus had already called “white-washed sepulchers” [Matthew 23:27; Luke 11:44] would really be all that concerned about His safety.  Probably they were just trying to get Jesus out of circulation.

His reply was directly to the point.  He had His work to do and would not be side-tracked from it.  Does the idea of the third day have any significance in regard to His death and resurrection?  I’m not sure.  But you certainly find that the third day is really being accented here, and that Jesus would do profound work during that time.

Then He identifies the major problem that has faced God’s chosen People right from the beginning.  They continually have rebelled and would not listen to their God, in fact going so far as literally “shooting the messenger” – “killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it!” is how Jesus put it.

It’s a dangerous game, both Jeremiah and Jesus remind their hearers.  Sure, you can do me in, Jeremiah says, “I am in your hands – do with me as seems good and right to you.”  But then he continues with the real issue that they must confront: “Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you bring innocent Blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”

Jesus comes from a slightly different angle, because He’s not just the messenger, He is God the Son – He carries His own message to this chosen and privileged People.  The Revised Standard Version puts it most starkly, “How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, AND YOU WOULD NOT!“   Can you possibly understand the frustration and pit of sadness out of which that sentence erupts?  Later, in chapter 19, Jesus weeps as He crests the hill approaching Jerusalem.

But the tears come not simply because Jesus has been rejected, but because of what His People, so dearly beloved, will have to endure because they had spurned God’s Message. Jeremiah warns that “innocent Blood would be upon” upon God’s People – that’s the Old Testament way of saying that they would be guilty of murder and they would stand judged as murderers.  Jesus speaks of what that judgment would be: utter desolation.

In chapter 19, He becomes more specific: they would be crushed – “not one stone would be left upon another.”  The things they worked so hard to build would lay in utter shambles; the things they had trusted in to preserve their lives would fail them; the things they thought were obviously so solid and sure would abandon them.

Boy, talk about a heavy message!!  Spending time with these passages sure doesn’t put you into mood to go have a party this afternoon.  In fact, they are a bit frightening.  At the same time, they are necessary, because they speak of a reality which we must face, just as much as Israel and the Jews had to face.

The point throughout all this is that what we do with God’s Word is not merely some game which we play, but that there is accountability which is demanded of us.  It won’t do to get sidetracked by the messenger, whether he be a Jeremiah or even Jesus Himself – the Word of God will command your attention, either right now as the warnings and promises are pronounced, or later, when you are called to account with what you have done with the message.

Remember that both of these passages are not addressed to those outside the People of God.  God isn’t dealing with unbelievers – these are the People who know Him, who profess that He is their God, who say that their worship revolves around Him as the Lord and Creator of the universe.  So the Lord stops us short of treating this subject as merely “for someone else, since it obviously doesn’t apply to us.”

No, the Lord comes back with unmistakable power: just what are WE doing with the message that He has sent us?  Paul [Philippians 3:17-4:1] makes us uncomfortable, because again, he describes people in the Church who are “enemies of the Cross of Christ; …  Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” – their end is shambles, their god is their self-interest, their glory is what they should be ashamed of, and their minds play games based on empty worldly values – you know: one-upmanship, advantage, power, money, prestige, beauty and all the rest.

Okay.  We understand what Paul is saying.  So let’s see who he’s talking about.  Oh, this person is a good candidate – or how about that person!  Funny, though – the Lord doesn’t make us responsible for weeding out all the other people who should stand condemned by God.  Instead, the lessons ask YOU how YOU fit into this picture.

Just what do you do with the message of God – even the uncomfortable messages, the uncomfortable ones that God feels are necessary in order to warn and correct us?  Shooting the messenger – whether he be our neighbor, our spouse, our child, someone else in the church, or sometimes even a stranger – shooting the messenger will not change the message and will not relieve you of your responsibility to the Word of God.  And as the texts for today show, God regards this as a solemn and far-reaching responsibility.  The question that He unavoidably poses is “Are you listening – are you really listening to His message.”

Well, we can “shoot the messenger” – or we can come in humility before the Lord, hearing His warnings, His judgments, His concern, even His anger.  Jeremiah identified the pivot for all this: “Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you.”

It probably is true that we aren’t as far off the deep end as Israel was – after all, it’s been a long time since we’ve stoned someone to death – at least, I don’t recall any in my lifetime.  But that’s really not what Jeremiah and Jesus are most concerned about – they confront us with how we react to God’s Word even when it promises to be unpleasant for us.  And we discover that we share the same heritage of rebellion and rejection that Israel had.

And then we “shoot the messenger” – the “silent treatment” for the spouse, or the anger when in innocence your child points out something uncomfortable but valid about you.  How about the little games we can play in terms of gossip when someone identifies something that you don’t want to hear?  Really, when you think about it, it is quite easy to “shoot the messenger” in a large variety of ways.

True, sometimes the messenger doesn’t speak the Word of God – we’re not talking about those instances, although I’m not sure that the Lord would approve of “shooting” him anyway…. Yet there are also times when the messenger isn’t very eloquent and the message may be bit garbled, sometimes he’s the quiet chap in the back seat or the person you never liked anyway – but the Word IS from the Lord.  It means that sometimes we have to listen more carefully than we might at first assume, and consult the Lord until we discover what HE is saying.

However it is good to also have Paul’s Epistle [Philippians 3:17-4:1] as part of the picture. He reminds us of a few essential points: first of all, we ARE members of God’s People.  It means that all the forgiveness and help of God are right at our fingertips.  It’s not something foreign to us, but rather we have experienced it and rejoice in it.  It is the reminder that although God must warn and even discipline us, HE has not rejected US, and as even Jeremiah pointed out, He is ready to reverse His whole course of action as we repent and seek His way.

This is where the Cross of Lent comes in, because there we see the heart of God and His intentions for us clearly displayed. This is how far HE will go in reversing the judgment that we deserve.  And then in Holy Communion the message is without mistake: despite how hard a time we have given Him and even His messengers, He will never miss the opportunity to be here in Person and give of Himself totally to you and me.  And really when you think of it, isn’t this attitude of God always what surrounds every message He gives to us?  There is His forgiveness, His help, His presence, His love, His very being wrapped up in His every approach to us.

Still, it’s not always easy to hear the Word of the Lord.  It’s very easy to “shoot the messenger.”  Yet, nevertheless it is the Lord speaking to us, the same Lord Who we find on the Cross and in Holy Communion, the same Lord Who backs up His message with His forgiveness and help and presence.  So, as we approach the Cross this Lent, let’s listen a little more closely to the message and discover the Lord Who stands behind it.

Why Me? (The Call of Moses)

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of My People in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land … So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring My People the Israelites out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the People out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” Exodus 2:7-12

The call of Moses reminds me of the movie “Romancing the Stone.”  Some of the most memorable humorous scenes involve Danny DeVito, who plays a “bad guy” who gets into the worst fixes.  His cousin stays back where the wine, women and song are, while Danny must do the dirty work – he’s the one who gets beaten up, is stranded out in the middle of nowhere, and so forth, meanwhile the cousin remains untouched and keeps demanding that Danny hurry up and get the valuable treasure.

The principle of sending the other guy to get beat up is a common comedy routine, and it almost seems as though this is what is happening to Moses.  God says, “I have seen the misery… I have heard their crying… I am concerned… I have come down to rescue them… — so now Moses YOU go….” — meanwhile God will stay back and wait for Moses to come back to the mountain with the People.

Obviously, this was no comedy routine, and looking at the text from a slightly different angle, the message is quite different.  God had declared that HE WILL rescue His People, but why He is here calling on Moses is because this man is to have the honor of participating in the salvation of Israel.  After all this will be THE salvation event to which Israel will refer for the rest of their existence – even to today during Passover.  Moses would have the high honor of working with the Lord, in a sense being treated as an equal with the Lord (especially when you see the arguments Moses has with the Lord), but particularly it would be by Moses’ hand that God will do what seems impossible.

Moses’ reaction was to blurt out, “Who am I??” or actually, “WHY ME, Lord??”  I like “WHY ME, Lord??” better because it fits into the verses which follow.  It is not with the sense of awe and wonder of the question, “Who am I??”, but rather the distressed sense of being put-upon, “WHY ME??”  Ultimately Moses will even say, “Send someone else!”

Of course whenever someone asks, “WHY ME??”, the flippant answer comes back, “Why not you??”  After all, why shouldn’t God use you as much as anyone else? But so often when the call of God comes to an individual, like you and me, the response is one of reluctance and inconvenience.

So Moses asks OUR question, “WHY ME??”  After all, what makes me any more qualified than Joe Blow down the street, or a Billy Graham for that matter?  Now, you and I might jump in to prove to Moses that he was very qualified: after all, he was specially preserved by God, trained in the royal household, and he would be merely trading one flock of stupid sheep for another flock of like-minded sheep – he had ability, training, and experience.  Probably we would end up in a long, drawn-out debate with him: he proving he wasn’t qualified, and we contending that he was.

But God wasted no such time.  Yes, that training and experience would indeed come in handy, but the thing that made the difference between success and failure would be none of those – it would be that God was with him.  That’s why in response to Moses’ question, the Lord said nothing about Moses at all, but simply, “I am with you.”

The next statement the Lord makes has fascinated me for years: “When you have brought the People out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”  The sign God gave him would come only AFTER He has accomplished Israel’s release!!  Doesn’t God know that that is just not the way we humans work?  We want “the money on the table,” we want the sign of His being with us before we start or else we won’t make a move.  But God tells Moses that the SIGN will be the accomplished rescue of Israel, when they have now come back to the mountain to worship.

Now that is the SIGN, but it is not as if God would merely be back on the mountain, sitting back and sipping a soft drink, waiting for their return.  God had just said that He would be with Him – what more could Moses want?  The Lord had given His word and we know from the subsequent chapters that Moses and God worked hand-in-hand throughout the plagues and the Passover and the Exodus out of Egypt up to the threshold of the Promised Land.  Throughout the whole rescue of Israel, God would leave His obvious mark in every step of the way.

So it is not as if Moses would have nothing to reassure him until finally at the end, but rather that when all Israel does stand before the mountain, that it would come with profound realization to Moses that “here we are, just like God said it would be; and He was with me as He said He would be, because here we are!”  Haven’t we also have had times like that?  Sometimes although God has made Himself obvious to us along the way, yet every once in a while we seem to arrive at a key point; we look back and see how all the pieces fit together to bring us here to this place, and with a little shock we suddenly realize just how much God has indeed been with us.

We are very much like Moses.  God has also given us a job and we meet it with exactly the same reluctance and inconvenience: we also want to get into an argument concerning our lack of qualifications.  We even get to point of refusing His call to be partner with Him.  And God handles us the same way that He did Moses.

Jesus told us, “Go, make disciples of the world…” [Matthew 28:19], not SHOW the world about God, not merely hold a discussion about Jesus, but MAKE DISCIPLES.  Already bringing the topic up creates what kind of reaction in you?  As you look at Moses, you hear him echoing your own complaints, problems and misgivings.

Jesus’ reply is the same as with Moses: “Lo, I am with you always – even unto the end of the ages” [Matthew 28:20].  At the end of the ages, just as with Moses at the foot of the mountain, we will look back and realize, with all of its power, how this has been so true:  Jesus had been with us always.  However, even now we are given experiences where we can see the reality of His pledge.  Perhaps someone will come to faith, or will have been markedly comforted, or a useful decision will finally be reached, and you will look back and see how all along God was with you and how He fit all the pieces together – indeed how “He makes all things work together for good to those who love God” [Romans 8:28].

But what does this have to do with Lent??   Lent is not merely to be a time of repentance, and it should NOT be a time to wallow in misery and even self-pity.  Lent is a time of experimenting!  That’s why you have the traditions of doing without unnecessary pleasures, or of making extra efforts toward following Jesus.  Ultimately it is an experiment toward greater focus and obedience under our Lord – to see what He has been doing all along.

The reassurance is that He has indeed been with us.  Moses wasn’t left to his own devices to accomplish the rescue of Israel by himself; rather God was rescuing Israel and Moses was privileged to have a hand in it.  So also here, as we seek to be the Lord’s People, Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be doing the work while we are privileged to be partners in the work.  This is the secret of which St Paul speaks in his letter to the Ephesians [2:4-10]:

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

And now we catch the vision from which Paul is speaking:

that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

As with Moses, the outcome is not based on our power or qualifications, but because the Lord is with us.  After all, it was HIS promise, not ours, that “He makes all things work together for good.”  And that helps as we go through Lent, because Moses did not expect the freeing of Israel to take so long and to have to go through such difficulty and go through so many steps.  Yet some months later, there they were at the foot of the mountain.

That’s our expectation for Lent.  We spend the six weeks of Lent, and we have no idea how much it will take to experience the growth we too want to see in our lives.  But just as we end up Lent on the mountain looking at our Lord Who would die for us, one day we will again be looking at the face of our Lord on the mountain of heaven and realize in a whole new depth that indeed He was with us every step of the way.

Of course, as we stand at the foot of the Cross, we are a bit sheepish, as I’m sure Moses must have been as he realized how hard a time he had given the Lord, and now how the Lord still fulfilled His plan using him in spite of his initial resistance.  How often have we too been humbled by the fact that God didn’t argue with us, but simply went ahead with working with us to accomplish His purposes.

How wonderful it is to stand at the foot of the throne of God in Holy Communion, both in repentance for our resistance to His call, and in awe as to how He still is able to continually use us.  Here in His forgiveness, we again experience the promise of Jesus, “Lo, I am with you always,” as He physically gives us Himself afresh in His Body and Blood.  We are reassured again that He indeed always makes good on His promises, and now at the foot of the mountain, in worship and praise, to delight again in how indeed He is with us throughout our lives.

So stop for the moment here at the foot of the cross and at the foot of the throne of the King of the Universe . Use this time of Lent to see how Jesus has indeed been and will be with us, see Him in action when we have comforted someone and strengthened them, or brought someone to know Jesus more intimately, or who even now has faith in our Lord, because in prayer, living and sharing Jesus, through our hand, we have done the work which God prepared for us.  Here at the mountain with God’s People, we too now realize that this is God’s sign that He is with us.

The Persians are Coming: Looking for the King! (An Epiphany sermon)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is He Who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.   [Matthew 2:1-3]

Herod was no gem.  All the way over in Rome, Caesar Augustus remarked in a play on words “I would rather be Herod’s pig (Greek: hus) than his son (Greek: huios).”  That’s because the Law considered the pig to be an unclean animal and was not to be eaten – therefore it had no fear for its life.

However, Herod had no hesitation to kill anyone who might even remotely threaten his throne.  His beloved wife, Miramne, and her mother were murdered; three of his own sons were murdered; his wife’s ambitious brother was drowned; he strangled his own brother; a High Priest standing in his way was murdered.  While he was dying, he commanded that prominent Jews be gathered at the Colliseum and upon his death were to be executed – because, as he grimly stated, since no one would mourn his death, at least tears would still be shed when he died.

Indeed, Herod was a man who knew power and used it.  His throne was hard won by begging, pleading, and bribing in Rome, and it held a delicious irony for him: he, a son of Esau, sat on the throne of David, son of Jacob.  He would surrender this throne to no one.

So when Magi came looking not for the current king of Palestine, but rather the One born “King of the Jews,” it was no surprise that all Jerusalem trembled.  Imagine the talkative stablekeeper who asked, “So what brings you to Jerusalem?” – only to be horrified by the answer.  “Oh, no! You DON’T want to ask Herod about that!!”

But the Magi go boldly “where angels fear to tread.”  Almost daring this tyrant with a capital “T” to do something, the Magi come before him with very little concern.  Why?  Just who were these foreigners?  For this you must turn to the Book of Daniel, there to discover an empire which had a soft spot for the Jews.

Even during the time of the seventy-years captivity, Persia had Jews in high offices – do not forget the influence of men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo.  Most notable was Daniel, who was placed as chief of the wise men – or, the Magi as they were called in that country.  From this group comes the word “magistrate” – “of the level or strata of the Magi” – which denotes wisdom and discerning judgment.  They were the scientists and the keepers of the religion, which at that time worshipped not a multitude of gods but actually only one God, the Creator of all things.

Through Daniel, the Magi became acquainted not only with the Old Testament and its prophecies, they would become familiar with the festival year, and, even more, they would be guided by an actual prophet.  When the time came, Persia believed that God had instructed them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.  Even as “the remnant” of Jews returned, there were many others who stayed behind in Persia.

The Magi were among the cream of Persian society.  Certainly they would not be allowed to cross robber-infested desert without escort, without the elite of the Persian military, the Persian Cavalry (Cataphracti).  And Rome knew well this fighting unit of the Persians.  In the 55 years before Jesus’ Birth, Persia and Rome had quite a history: First Rome conquered Palestine, and then went on to war against Persia.  Persia’s cavalry decimated the Roman troops, and drove Rome from Palestine.  Rome conquered again and put Herod’s father in charge.  Persia again swept Rome out and Herod’s father had to run for his life.

When Mark Anthony subsequently conquered Palestine, he attempted to conquer Persia.  Again Rome’s armies returned in tatters.  As governor, Herod ran for his life while Persia swept Rome out and established Jewish rule.  Getting the Roman Senate to proclaim him “King of the Jews,” Herod returned for three years of war and five months of siege to finally sit on his throne in Jerusalem.  By the time that Jesus was born, in some people’s lifetime they would have lived through seven times, on an average of every seven years, in which Jerusalem was conquered.

Despite the four hundred fifty years between the return from captivity to the birth of Jesus, what Daniel had taught the Magi was not forgotten.  Then one day, signs in the heavens declared that certain prophecies were actually happening now and the Magi set out from Persia to greet a God-given “King of the Jews” – born as the rightful heir to the throne of David.  They didn’t need some mysterious vision or anything extraordinary like that – all they had was what you and I have: the Word of God and faith.

So now the Magi crest the hill with the Persian Cavalry escort, looking not for the usurper presently sitting on the throne, but the one BORN for the throne.  Jerusalem trembled, seeing murderous Herod on one side and on the other side yet another siege by the Persian fighting-machine, with themselves the cannon-fodder between.

Herod was scared: having only a Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem, he could do nothing about these obnoxious Persian Magi.  Nor could he do anything about the threat to his throne, since after all, the Persians had always had that soft spot for the Jews – and Herod didn’t want to offend the Cavalry.

Even though the danger was very real and the threat of Herod’s retaliation hung over their heads, still how many in Jerusalem must have smirked to see Herod be so-o-o accommodating to these brash Magi looking for the One BORN King of the Jews.

Sent on to Bethlehem, it is only when you know how great and powerful that the Magi were that you also realize their astounding humility which brought them on such a journey, to find themselves in a back-water town of Judea, knocking on doors like beggars, seeking information about a Baby of Whom nobody had paid much attention, and about Whom the Magi had no clue.  These great king-makers of Persia had not merely sent an embassy, but came in person, bearing their own gifts, and would pay homage to a Baby Who had nothing to do with their own empire.  Indeed you know that something very important was happening here.

Many things in this story catch our interest.  The faith, understanding, humility, and boldness of these men are quite obvious.  Their gifts are a bit startling as well: gold we have no surprise at, since it was the symbol of kings.  But frankincense was an incense; in religious terms, its smoke symbolized prayer.  And myrrh was often a spice used in preparing a body for burial.  Now why would you bring that to a new-born King?

Traditionally, Epiphany has been the celebration of the non-Jews, the Gentile Christmas, so to speak.  The big part of the joy of this occasion comes from the declaration that the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, was not for Jews only, but for all mankind.  It began the season of Epiphany where Jesus would be shown to be the Savior of the sick, the hungry, the frightened, the seeker, the weak, the outcast – Jesus is the Messiah for ALL people.

These are useful and necessary themes to keep before us in regard to Epiphany, for the repeated message is that we too can stand under the salvation of Jesus, whether we are Jew or Gentile.  What a great comfort that has for us.

But there is an additional comfort in the playing out of the story, which also can be most reassuring for our daily lives.  We view Herod with horror, not only because he committed all kinds of atrocities, but also because he had such power that people were helpless against him.

Yet the Magi stood boldly against him, and HE was powerless against them.  There is a parallel here.  Satan and the powers of this world can also seem so overwhelming that it is easy to feel like giving up hope.  Yet like the Magi standing seemingly unruffled before Herod, we too have had a Hero Who has stood unruffled, unbeaten, against all the powers of darkness this universe has.

Even when Jesus was going to His death, you see Him as One very much in control.  The crowd sent to capture Him was thrown to the ground by His simple declaration, ” I AM ! ” [John 18:5-8].  Before the High Priest, He must give the Jews the ability before they could condemn Him [Matthew 26:59-66].  Before Pilate, Jesus quietly affirms that Pilate would have no power unless it were given to him [John 19:8-12].  Even on the Cross there is the fulfillment that no one would take Jesus’ life from Him, but He would hand it over [John 10:17-18; Luke 23:46].

The message that Epiphany has for us is that we too can stand, not by ourselves, but with Jesus – stand against what seems to be unbounded evil, and still stand firm.  Like Jesus, our bodies may experience harsh treatment, yet like Jesus – because of Him – control doesn’t lie with the king of this world, but with the King of ALL creation.

That’s not easy to always believe, and our faith does waver.  We begin to wonder if Satanic forces aren’t more powerful than we are.  It certainly can seem that way.  What can we do to stop such things as pornography, abortion, gambling, drugs, abuse, even terrorism? – and the list can go on and on.

Your own body and life can be such a battle to maintain control.  Even when you don’t intend to do anything wrong, still you do or say something that hurts someone else.  Sometimes the desire to be like Herod can be so strong – you will defy God and man in your quest to control life; you will destroy anything which you see as a threat to your goals; you will get somebody back and make them hurt; you will cheat; you will open the door to temptation now matter what the cost to others, to yourself, to your future.  Is it worth trying to fight anymore?  It just looks like evil will win anyway.

The Magi remind us that that isn’t true.  Something – Someone – far greater had been in control of their journey, and as they followed His promises and prophecies, they did achieve their goal.  Not that it didn’t take boldness, yet also humility!  It took boldness to stand against the obstacles of their travel, and to stand against Herod.  Yet they came in a humility that made them surrender themselves to the mission of coming face-to-face with the new-born King; the humility that would make them cast aside pride as they looked foolish going door-to-door searching for something which the promises said would be there; the humility that made them not stand, but kneel before the real King.

However, the point is that they met their King.  They achieved their goal.  You also have that same experience awaiting you.  No, you don’t have to go to Palestine or to any other far off place.  All it means is that you get off your seat and come and stand before your King here at the Altar.

And what a response!  Here He comes to share His very self with you in Holy Communion.  Like the Persian Cavalry which protected the Magi, He comes to be with you, but oh so much more! He will be in you and will surround you.  He will empower you with His involvement and guidance.  Backed by the authority of His eternal throne, He will touch your fears.  He will walk with you in your weaknesses, bringing His forgiveness as well as the strength of His unbreakable promises to bear on your efforts to live for Him.  He will guide you to YOUR goal, until that time when you also will kneel before your King and never again have to face Satan and his powers.

The Magi came not to merely observe a little Baby, but rather they came searching for the KING.  They did not “oo and ah” over a tiny form, but rather they fell down and worshipped this One Who was born to be Lord over all things.  They did not come to merely acknowledge a ruler over the Jews, but to bow before the Savior and Sovereign of their lives.  Will you also humble yourself and make your journey to your Lord and Savior now, casting aside pride and seeking to come face-to-face with your King throughout this life and into the next?  If so then come to His Altar, bow in humility before Him and let Him share Himself with you.

Halloween ≠ All Saints Day

This is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death.  He said: “The Lord came … He came with myriads of holy ones from the south, from His mountain slopes.  Surely it is You Who love the People; all the holy ones in Your hand.  At Your feet they all bow down…”  [Deuteronomy 33:1-3]

Shaylyn, my ten-year-old daughter, asked me to tell her the Christian version of Halloween.  I was left without words for a moment.  The more I thought about it, the less I could say.  Finally I had to say that it was simply the Satanic contradiction to the celebration of the day which follows, All Saints Day.

All Saints Day is set aside by the Christian Church to remember particularly those who have died in the faith.  In the Halloween mind, for the night before, the dead are released to roam the earth, often to create horror and fear among the world.  But for the Christian, the celebration is intended to speak of a grand reunion of the whole community of the faithful from all ages and places.  And it is not just for some future Last Day, the celebration has a wonderful connection for today.

One of the more remarkable things about the festivals of the Church year, whether they be the smaller festivals, like All Saints Day and Thanksgiving, or the major ones, like Christmas and Easter, is that they highlight various elements which are found in Holy Communion.  In this regard All Saints Day makes a particularly important connection.

In the blessing of this Sacrament, when Jesus says, “This do in remembrance of me,” the ancient Jewish concept of remembrance was not merely to repeat a commemoration ceremony as we would Remembrance Day.  Rather we are drawn back to a moment which has no time, drawn back to the very Table where Jesus first said, “This is My Body… This is My Blood…”  We do not repeat that occasion, rather we are placed into that first gathering on the night in which Jesus was betrayed.  We are in the presence of Jesus as He speaks these words.

Then, as St Paul writes in his letters about the Body of Christ, we catch a glimpse of the awesome impact of Holy Communion’s connection to All Saints Day.  Where Christ is, there is His Body.  Just as our heads cannot be separated from our bodies, so Jesus cannot be separated from His Body.  Every believer has been made part of this Body, as real as your fingers and toes and heart and lungs are part of your body.  There is no time, there is no location on earth, there are no denominations.  If you are a member of the Body of Christ, then you are wherever Jesus is.

So, as we kneel in the presence of Jesus, if we could freeze the moment of Holy Communion – take a moment to look around.  There’s not just John and James, and Peter and Thomas, but also St Paul and Eusebius, Augustine and St Francis, John Huss, Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Wesley brothers, and, well, you could just keep on going.  It’s amazing how many can fit at that little table of the Lord’s!

And, look!  There’s some people from Russia!  and South America!  There are some newly martyred from Africa, and some from the underground churches in China.  Over there are some worshippers gathered in Palestine, some behind closed doors in Iran, faithful believers in Sweden and stalwart Christians in Australia.

A small group of two or three believers, huddled behind locked doors, or perhaps in some concentration camp, are suddenly thrust into the midst of this great host.  Those who are addicted seeking to be free from this stranglehold on their life come to the Table, there to find many hands lifting them in prayer, many scarred by the same bonds.  The lonely, the downtrodden, the bewildered, the grieving, all find that they are welcome, all have a home.  They are not alone.

There’s Grandma in her apron, and Uncle George.  There’s the son who died young, and the aunt who died old.  There’s the friend from whom the continent now separates us, and Sally from down the street.

There are even Christians not yet born.

They are all here.  No one is missing.  All have come and are at Table with the Lord – at Table with you.

Impressed?  You should be.  This is one of the most extraordinary things about Holy Communion.  ALL have come, from all places, from all time, giants of faith, and those who barely squeak in; none slip through the cracks, none are overlooked, – AND – YOU have come.

We are not just this little group.  We are not just this little church.  We are not just this little denomination.  We are the Bride of Jesus Christ, God’s own Holy, chosen People.  What we do here at this Table at the direction of the Christ Who is the Head of the Body takes place in the midst of a great throng of His People throughout the world and throughout history, as Jesus reaches out through us to all whom He has so powerfully loved in this world.

And there is a wonderful connection of Holy Communion to All Saints Day.  Jesus declared to the Sadducees (who claimed “that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit” [Acts 23:8]) something very essential for us to grasp:

As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.  [Matthew 22:31-32]

When you are in Christ, you LIVE!  All who are in Christ LIVE.

I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  [John 11:25-26]

The extraordinary implication to this was shared with by Berthold von Schenk in his book, The Presence:

We cannot divide the Body of Christ.  The Church militant [on earth] and the Church triumphant [in heaven] form one Church.  Nothing can separate the members of the Church, neither life nor death, nor power, nor principalities.  At the Altar we have fellowship with our risen and ascended Lord.  But there is also a fellowship with all the members of the Church.  At the Altar we join hands not only with the great saints in Heaven, but also with all our loved ones who have passed within the veil, our faithful departed…
[T]he Church tells her children that there is a communication possible; that there is a medium between our departed ones and ourselves, and only one, – it is our Blessed Lord Himself…  To countless Christians the reality of the Communion of Saints has been an unfailing source of love and joy in the face of otherwise heartbreaking bereavement….
The living Christ creates and guarantees this joyful fact.  It is Christ, and not just our wishful hoping, Who assures us that nothing can pluck out of His hand those who loved Him and trusted Him….  It is found in these words, “Because I live, ye shall live also.”…
…We must come to a sense of the continuing presence of our loved ones, and we can do this if we realize the presence of our Living Lord.  As we seek and find our Risen Lord we shall find our dear departed.  They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him….
My loved one has just left me…  But I am in touch with her.  I know that there is a place where we can meet.  It is at the Altar.  How it thrills me when I hear the words of the Liturgy, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven,” for I know that she is there with that company of Heaven, the Communion of Saints, with the Lord.  The nearer I come to my Lord in Holy Communion, the nearer I come to the saints, to my own loved ones.  I am a member of the Body of Christ, I am a living cell in that spiritual organism, partaking of the life of the other cells, and sharing in the Body of Christ Himself.

This is where All Saints Day and Halloween walk separate paths: All Saints Day speaks of Life and Resurrection – Halloween and its attitude merely talks about reanimation without any real life.  All Saints Day points us to the believers in Glory, vibrant and rejoicing in the presence of a living Christ – Halloween can only dwell in the darkness of putrefaction, decay and the misery of at best a mere existence.  All Saints Day springs from a concrete hope and a joy of knowing that there is so much more and deeper life yet to come within the steadfast and faithful love of God – Halloween speaks of fear, helplessness and being victim, and cannot rise above death, terror, cruelty and animalistic destruction.

Most importantly, All Saints Day glories in the Savior Who has answered our need when we were helpless and lost in mess of our world and of our lives.  He comes with a powerful love which fights against the deadly enemies we have.  He comes with a life-changing forgiveness where our minds reject the sin and rebellion of the past and are turned around to a life which intentionally follows God’s will and design for our lives.

Jesus does not trivialize the terrible battle with the world, Satan and our flesh, and He does not ignore the devastation of ourselves and others because of our sins.  In order to destroy such influence in our lives He had to endure suffering and even pay the price of His life for us.  But His effort accomplished the victory with the ringing triumph in His voice, loudly proclaiming “It is finished!” [John 19:30].

Halloween has none of that – instead it has an arrogance, in a sense mocking the dark forces of evil and destruction, where it attempts to glorify our strength and smarts to handle anything which comes our way.  Many horror movies have the sense that somehow “we” can beat the worst, that we will emerge triumphant against powerful odds aimed at us.  Yet Halloween offers nothing by way of actually conquering anything and too often applauds the darkness of the soul which cowers in stark contrast to the Glory of God as it is found in grace, mercy, Steadfast Love, faithfulness, forgiveness and justice.

Thank God there is the bright sunlight of All Saints Day!  Thank God there is a day to rejoice in the triumph of Jesus.  Thank God we celebrate how God has emphasized not a decaying corpse but an extraordinary throng of people who surround the throne of God, many already in heaven, and many here on this earth.  This is a time to be staggered by the great company who here join us, surrounding us, encouraging us, calling us forward in the LIFE of the Lord.  Come and experience yet again the incredible depth that Jesus has given to you to celebrate in Holy Communion.

[1] The remembrance of Passover is an excellent example, where the thrust is to put the participant into the house in Egypt as he awaits the salvation of his God, hearing the cries of those condemned but knowing he is safe behind the shield of Blood – he experiences the events [Exodus 12:1-34] which happened long before he was born, when he was still “in his ancestors’ loins” [see Hebrews 7:1-10 for the concept].

 

[2] op.cit., (Ernst Kaufman, Inc: New York, 1945), pp 128-131

 

[This sermon uses material from my book on Holy Communion, Celebration, from the chapter entitled “Company’s Coming!”, which sought to capture the wonderful picture in Holy Communion identified by All Saints Day.]