Decisions

It’s been quite a busy summer for me.  As a result, unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to write many posts for my website.  I will try to post more articles this fall!

This morning I had a chance to preach at the church where I am an associate pastor, the West Chester Church of the Nazarene.  Here’s an audio copy of the sermon.  I pray that God will speak to you through it as you listen!

 

 

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Epiphany Sunday: The Journey

Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

 1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Herod, the suspicious and cruel ruler of Israel who would do anything to keep his power, a power that was sometimes precarious considering the politics of the Roman Empire at the time, had just been visited by wise men from the East; they, in Herod’s eyes, had made some wild claim that a new king had just been born. Even when he had been installed as the ruler of this land under the advice of the Roman co-leaders Octavian and Mark Antony, and all the more the Roman Senate giving Herod the title “King of the Jews,” Herod’s power was still not solidified; Octavian and Mark Antony were on the verge of civil war in the Roman Empire. And more so, Herod was an Edomite; the Jewish people did not like him at all. The man was suspicious, sly, and cunning; he would have no problem eliminating any threats to his power.

Suddenly several wise men, some translations call them ‘magi,’ appeared on his doorstep in Jerusalem. Matthew is the only gospel which accounts for the wise men, and he only mentions ‘wise men from the East.’ Look carefully – he never specifies that there were three of them; in this passage we only have the mention of three different gifts. We can infer that with three gifts, there were three men who brought them. Regardless of the number of wise men, they arrived at Herod’s temple, catching the ruler off guard when they asked the man, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” One can imagine the thoughts that were going through Herod’s mind: “A child? A child as the ‘king of the Jews?’ That is my proclaimed title! Who is this child that threatens my power!” Herod must have taken a quick breath. His heart must have started racing. He became scared. The sly and cunning, yet ruthless and cruel, Edomite king devised a plan to maintain his power and eliminate this threat.

He called the chief priests and the scribes together, and learned that this ‘king’ was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. And Herod lied through his teeth and told the wise men, who were completely in the dark regarding Herod’s secret plans: “…to bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” But before that, he learned from the magi exactly when the star appeared.

In Matthew 2:16, the ruthless ruler, desperate to keep his power, and enraged that the wise men snuck away, disappearing without bringing any word to Herod, had all the children under two years of age in Bethlehem murdered. This was according to when he had learned the star had originally appeared to the wise men in the East. It was a horrendous act by someone terrified yet desperate to hold on to his greed for power.

But it had been up to two years since the star appeared! It was two years after Jesus Christ had been born in a manger that the wise men finally completed their journey to Jerusalem. And Bethlehem was not far at all from Jerusalem! This is quite often a fact that escapes us as we celebrate Christmas. I am going to come right out and say it because it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine – portrayals of the birth of Christ with wise men present are not biblically accurate. I apologize if I have shaken anyone with that statement. All of December I have driven past nativity scene after nativity scene and saw wise man after wise man after wise man. Half the time I was tempted to leave a note on these nativity scenes that read, “Not biblically accurate. Remove wise men please.” But in the Christmas spirit, I took a breath, kept driving, and did not leave any notes on any nativity scenes.

It should also be noted that Matthew tells us here that they were no longer in a manger at this time; Matthew specifically says “house” in verse 11. Jesus was born in a manger in a stable, possibly a cave, two years earlier. The shepherds were there; the wise men were not there. Two years later, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were still in Bethlehem and had managed to find a house, or at least a room in a house, for their small family. This time though, with the two year old child and his mother, the wise men, more than likely three of them, came at night, following a star, and gave homage and gifts to the true savior and the rightful king of the Jews.

But again, it had been up to two years! I want to stress that, because considering this, it must have been quite the journey for these wise men. They did not show up the next day after seeing the star in the sky. They did not show up weeks or a month or two later. They arrived in Jerusalem, on Herod’s doorstep, then on Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ doorstep, up to two years after they had seen the sign that a king had been born. It must have been quite the trip! For a moment, I almost wonder what the journey was like and what kind of adventures these wise men must have had as they trekked from the East and to the house of this child, who they recognized as a king. I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ and the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. Alas, I do not think the wise mens’ journey was quite like that.

We do not know exactly where the magi came from, or what religion these wise men considered themselves to be. All we know is that wise men, or magi, came from a distant land that was east of Israel. Some have suggested that they were Persians or Medes, coming from the area we know today as Iran. Some have suggested that they came from Babylon, in the area we know today as Iraq. Babylon was advanced in astronomy and would have been constantly studying the night sky. Some have suggested that they came from an area even further east or southeast of Persia. Some have suggested that one of the reasons these wise men even knew about this prophecy of a king being born in the first place was in fact because they were from the Babylonian part of the world.

Over 500 years earlier, the Israelites were exiled in Babylon; many Jewish prophets and scribes were in this part of the world. Still, many Jews stayed in the area around Babylon after the exile was over. A prophecy regarding the birth of a savior would have, more than likely, found its way into a Babylonian or Persian religion at the time; these empires had the habit of incorporating pieces of different religions into their own religion. And the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Medes; the Medes, conquered by the Persian Empire. And if they were from somewhere in Persia, modern day Iran, which is further east than Babylon, modern day Iraq, a journey that would have lasted two years would make sense.

Nonetheless, whether they were from Babylon or from Persia, these wise men recognized a sign from God. They traveled across deserts and mountains, and contended with who knows what else – possibly wild animals and thieves – all the while carrying their treasure chests. They showed true determination to respond to God and travel such a long distance over several years – all to pay homage to a two year old child for a single night in a house in the small town of Bethlehem. Not only is this instance more than likely the human savior’s very first ministry to the gentiles, but it shows the devotion that these wise men and magi had to worship a savior. They were not Jewish by any standard. They were not one of God’s “chosen people.” They were gentiles in every definition of the word.

And these gentiles recognized a sign from God, and came to worship the Christ, giving a two year old child gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I am seriously impressed that these gentiles made this extremely long, arduous journey to worship and show such reverence to a king of the Jewish people when he was so young. Even when Christ grew up and began his ministry, so many Jewish leaders, priests, and scribes did not want to recognize him as the Messiah.

The wise men made a journey, but God also made a journey. Today is Epiphany Sunday. On December 25, the Western Church (Protestants and Roman Catholics) celebrates the birth of Christ. The Eastern Church (Orthodox Churches) celebrates Christmas a couple weeks later near January 7; the difference in dates is because the Western Church uses the Julian calendar, while the Eastern Church uses the Gregorian calendar. Regardless, for the 12 days following December 25 (including Christmas day), the Church actually celebrates Christmas. The carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” is not just a song; it has real significance. Christmas actually ended yesterday! It did not end at 11:59 p.m. on December 25; it is not just a single day deal and we are done. And we all know that the season of Advent is when we prepare for and anticipate the birth of Christ in the four weeks preceding Christmas.

January 6, the day after the 12 days of Christmas are over, is Epiphany. It is a day when the Church recognizes the manifestation of God in human form, specifically to the gentiles, such as the wise men, and it is also a day when the Church recognizes the baptism of Jesus by the John the Baptist; again, it is a day when the manifestation of God in human form is made known!

We have talked about the wise men’s journey, but God made a journey as well. God sent his son, Jesus Christ (who is also God – the trinity is a difficult concept to grasp; nonetheless it is a sermon for another time. But I would be happy to have a conversation about it at any time if you have questions), as a means of redeeming a broken creation from the devastating effects of sin. Sin, disobedience to God, separates us from God and disconnects us from his Spirit. There is no way to regain a true relationship with God, a relationship defined by a connection of holy love, and a relationship which was originally intended to exist unbroken between God and humanity, except through Christ. Sin is a result of the broken world we live in. Ever since the first disobedience of Adam and Eve to God in the garden, the world has been broken. Sin, greed, and selfishness have proliferated out of control and there is no escape, except through the Christ, this same king that the wise men visited when he was such a young child. Only through recognizing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ can we be restored to God in a relationship of love. And then the love of God can infiltrate and begin to fix the brokenness of this world.

As I think about God’s journey to this broken world in the form of a human, I believe the opening verses of John’s gospel offers the best summary. He writes:

John 1:1-14 (NRSV)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being
4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

God has sent his son, Jesus Christ, on a journey. It was a journey that began at the moment of creation, to make his son known to humanity, and a journey that was made complete with the manifestation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine.

And the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the true King, made this journey so that the world, not just the Jewish people, but gentiles all over the world as well, like these wise men who trekked so far from the East, would know God. It was so that all the world would know the love of God. It was so that all of humanity would learn how to love God, love people, and love creation. It was so that this world, a world broken by sin, would take another major step in being restored and being fixed. This would come only through Jesus Christ.

The Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the King – whose birth the Church has celebrated for the better part of the last two weeks, and who today we see that he has come for all people of the world to be restored to God – Jesus Christ came to rub mud in the blind man’s eyes and to bring sight to those who could not see (John 9:1-12). Jesus Christ made the journey so that the man paralyzed and lowered through a rooftop could be told to pick up his mat and walk (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus Christ made the journey for the bleeding woman who barely touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak on a crowded street so that she could finally know a true healing power (Matthew 9:18-26). Jesus Christ made the journey so that he could speak to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Jesus Christ made the journey so that he could show love to the outcast leper when he cleansed him from his disease (Luke 5:12-16). Jesus Christ made the journey to raise the dead Lazarus to life (John 11:1-44) and to bring a father’s dead daughter, his only child, back to life (Luke 8:40-56). Jesus Christ made the journey to cast out the demons called Legion from the demoniac who was running wild in the countryside (Mark 5:1-20).

And Jesus Christ made the journey for the wise men, who made their own journey from so far away in the East to worship and pay homage to the true King.

And Jesus Christ made the journey so that he might die on a cross as an atoning sacrifice for the world and rise again three days later, conquering death and sin for all people.

And Jesus Christ made the journey for you and me. Jesus Christ made the journey for your family members. He made the journey for your sons and daughters, your fathers and mothers, your brothers and sisters, your friends, and your enemies. Jesus Christ made the journey because he loves you, and because he wants to love you with everything that he is, and because he wants each of us to love him with everything that we are. Jesus Christ made the journey because he wants to be in a relationship with every single one of us. Jesus Christ, the one who was there at the creation of the world, the Word who became flesh, the light who cannot be overcome by darkness, wants to offer us healing from our ailments, our sicknesses, and our sins. Jesus Christ wants to heal our blind; Jesus Christ wants us to see when we cannot. Jesus Christ wants us to walk when we cannot. Jesus Christ wants to raise you and me out of death and into life. Jesus Christ wants to give us hope and love, and to show us what that means in each of our lives. Jesus Christ wants to love us. Allow him to love you.

Each one of us is on our own journey in life. We may be on a trek like the wise men, to worship the Savior and the King who has made himself known to us. We may be on that journey, but might be discouraged or falling away. We may even be headed in the complete opposite direction of Jesus Christ, whether it is on purpose or whether it is because we feel that there are circumstances way beyond our control. We might be trying to trudge up a mountain that seems way too steep, or we may have lost our step and be falling down that same mountain. We might be crossing over what seems like a never ending desert. I do not where each one of us is today; only you can know where you are. It is a matter between each one of us and God.

But regardless of where each one of us is on that journey, or whatever direction we are headed in on that trek, God wants to meet us wherever we are. God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to meet the world where it is, broken in sin. Christ showed healing, love, and restoration to the blind and crippled where they were, and he desires to meet you where you are on your journey today. Christ ministered to the Jews and the gentiles; and here with the wise men we have the very first instance of God revealing himself to the outsiders – the gentiles.

Christ is the manifestation of God to all people, and he desires to meet us today, where we are on our journeys. Today is January 6 – Epiphany Sunday; allow Christ to be the manifestation of God and the manifestation of his unchanging and eternal love in your life.

Humid Forest Paths

I had the opportunity to share this message with the West Chester Church of the Nazarene this morning. I hope that as you read it, you will be challenged to be a “doer of the word.”
….

“It was not too long ago that in the hot, humid countryside of Central America, there were two small children walking along a forest path. The path was half in the shade, half in the sun. By now, the little girl was almost beginning to wish that it would rain again, just to give them some relief from the hot temperatures and the humidity. As they walked, a snake warming itself on the sunny part of the path was disturbed by the two humans’ presence and it slithered back into the forest, not wanting to be bothered by the two small, thin human-shaped creatures.

“The two children had nothing. Well, they almost had nothing except for the clothes on their backs and the pants that they were wearing, but even those were pretty tattered by now. And it was not too long before that that those two children had just a couple pieces of fruit to eat and a piece of bread between them; but those little kids devoured those two sweet, delicious pieces of fruit, along with the semi-stale bread, almost the second they had received them from the poor man in the village they had been walking through.

“Somewhere, either in the village the two small children had already passed through or the village that they were coming up upon, the little girl thought for a moment that she could smell the aroma of coffee, similar to the aroma of coffee that her mother and father used to make before… well… before…. The little girl did not want to think about it. She looked at her brother and grabbed his hand. The two were alone now. Their mother was gone. And they had not seen their father in years. Their mother never talked about it, but the little boy, who was just a few years older than his sister, and who was just old enough to start realizing what was happening in the world around him, had figured out that it was not too long ago that there had been some sort of violence in the area where his village was. People from the outside, modern world, might call it a civil war, or maybe a drug war, or something similar and along those lines, but the little boy did not know about all of those things quite yet. He just knew that it was some kind of act of violence that taken his father away. But his mother, she was crying as she sent the two children away from their home. He did not know why or how, but deep down he knew that it would just be him and his sister, and somehow they had to make it in this world.

“That man in the previous village had been so nice; even the boy could tell that the man was poor and did not have much, but as the two little children passed by on the path through the small town in the hot humid weather, even the old man who wore such ragged clothes took pity on the boy and the girl, and just before taking a bite out of the delicious fruit himself, and out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the two kids walking, barely smiling and thin, as if they themselves had not had much food to eat either; and he knew within his heart that he could not eat his small meager lunch while these two kids had nothing. The boy took the fruit and the bread from the man who so graciously offered it, and he and his sister scarfed them up almost immediately. It had satisfied their hunger for now, but it would not be long before the two of them would be hungry again as they continued to walk on the hot, humid, forest path, half covered by shade and half engulfed by the blazing tropical sun.

“Again, the girl noticed the aroma of coffee in the air, reminding her of her mother who had been so long gone. She tried to think just how long it had been, but could not tell exactly. Had it been weeks? Had it been months already? She squeezed her brother’s hand even harder. By now the boy had noticed the smell of the coffee in the air as well, and it too brought back memories that had not totally slipped away through the dreary days on the mountain paths. He did not know exactly what would happen, but at least for the sake of his sister, this little boy would pretend that he knew that everything would be fine.

“By now, they saw the village where the smell of the coffee was coming from. A slight smile crept across both the faces of the boy and the girl, brought to them unconsciously by the memories that were almost unknowingly being brought to the very backs of their minds, though hunger was still on the fronts of their minds. A small house came into view behind the trees. It had already been many hours since they last ate that small meager meal of a couple pieces of fruit and a piece of semi-stale bread, and both of their stomachs were beginning to tighten in their yearning to satisfy their hungry diets. The boy looked at his sister and squeezed her hand, now smiling. The boy started to walk faster towards the direction of the house, his sister almost directly on his heels. “Surely,” he thought, “surely they will give us something to eat.” The two got closer and closer to the house, the smell of coffee permeating the air, and the smell of bread and fruit and roasting meat growing stronger. Through a window he saw a woman, and as he looked toward her, the woman looked up, and caught the eyes of the two small children that were coming in her direction.

“Immediately she began to frown and yell something at them. The boy had heard it so many times before. The door opened and the woman and another man came out, both of them still yelling something, motioning with their hands and pointing away from the house as they yelled at the two small kids. The smile disappeared from the boys face, he looked to the ground and began to turn around. Another similar feeling, a sinking feeling, was beginning to rise within his stomach, but that feeling of heartache, it combined with hunger just long enough to make him forget about his and his sister’s hunger as the sadness welled within him, forcing a tear to form in the boy’s eye. He looked at his sister; she knew what was happening, for there were already tears in her eyes. There would be no food tonight. They had already eaten their meal for the day and that would be it. The next priority for the boy would simply be to find a somewhat safe place for the two to sleep, just like they had done for so many other countless nights as they wandered from forest village to forest village in the humid countryside.”

At this point please open your Bibles to James 1:19-27.

James 1:19-27 (NRSV)

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unsustained by the world.

“It was at that point, that as the heat of the afternoon began to fade and the sun was just starting to make its descent in the hot, barren sky, and when the two children had walked a little bit further, that the boy saw another building; it was a somewhat vaguely familiar building, but it had been such a long time since the two kids had been in one like this, that they simply did not know what to expect if they were to knock on its door. The building was small and not fancy by any means, but to the outside wall it had a cross affixed to it. The boy and the girl did not know what to expect, but the boy realized that it may be their last hope for the evening. The two children thought to themselves that it would be so nice to not have to sleep outside anymore, but for just one night, be able to sleep under the shelter of a roof.

“And the two kids walked to the door of the small building with a cross affixed to the outside wall, the small boy holding the hand of his little sister, the two small children with rags for clothes who had barely eaten anything for days except for what the poor man gave them that morning. And the boy did not know if anyone would be inside or not, but he raised his hand, and knocked on the door of the church.”

Too often in the complicated and diverse branch of Christianity which we call Protestantism, a branch that we are a part of, we learn only half the picture. It is drilled into us (I’m speaking generally of Protestants now) that it is by faith alone which we are saved. That is certainly true; it is by a faith that responds to God’s abundant grace through which we enter into salvation, but that is just the beginning of the picture of this religion which we call Christianity. Salvation is entering into the kingdom of God; and now that we are part of the kingdom of God, salvation transforms into a vastly beautiful picture of love within the world. However it is a kingdom of love which we have entered into that demands action from its participants.

Sola fide; faith alone – the cause that Martin Luther championed almost exactly 500 years ago in response to the then corruption and abuses within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that is truly by God’s grace and love alone that God would invite us to be part of his kingdom. Our response to that grace and love is to have faith in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We become one of God’s own through the work of Christ on the cross; we become, on both an individual and community basis as the Church, representatives of God’s kingdom of love to a world that is filled with desperate, hurting, hungry, and searching people. The Church is designed to be the earthly kingdom of God, comprised of you and me, and should be a bright light of active, holy, missional love on a hill, and a light visible for all the world to see, giving hope to all who need it as the world struggles in darkness.

That is a much richer concept of the full picture; it is a picture that compels those who are a part of this kingdom of holy love to act and do. It is a picture where salvation is the beginning of true life, and not necessarily the ends which we so often treat it as. It is a picture that is not simply content with merely hearing the word, but is only content with demonstrating this word of love to all people and all creation.

James challenges us, his fellow Christian brothers and sisters, we who claim to be a part of this kingdom which is based upon a foundation of an absolute, holy love that can only be found in both the Son of God and the Son of Humanity: Jesus Christ. James challenges us to not merely be hearers of the word, but be doers of the word. In fact, James says some challenging words in verses 22 through 24 which cannot be taken lightly: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” One who is only a hearer of the word forgets what the kingdom of God is like almost immediately; one can conclude that for someone who is only a hearer of the word and not a doer, their actions and their lives may not demonstrate who they claim to be.

There is power in this word – in what we call scripture. It is a power that brings us to life and gives the words on scripture’s pages application for our everyday lives; but it is a power given to it by God’s Holy Spirit, active and breathing this scripture to life every single day, both in the past and the present, and from now into eternity. And moreover, there is power in the Word, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of love and the incarnation of the ultimate message of this scripture: holy love. And by that power of holy love found in God and in scripture, there is power for our own lives to be changed. It is a change that is wrought in us so that we are no longer simply hearers of the word, but we become active doers of the word, living participants in the beautiful, loving kingdom of God. It is a change where we can become free from the bondage and death of sin, and become alive to the holy love that is so abundant within God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

James says in verses 19 through 21, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” By the power of God’s Holy Spirit working within our lives, we can turn from evil and from sin; we can rid our lives of unrighteous anger. We can rid ourselves of the sordidness and rank growth of wickedness that is caused by sin. And we can be restored into the image of God – the image of holy love. By welcoming with meekness the implanted word, we can become “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” We can become doers of the word and not merely hearers of the word.

There is a hurting world out there; it is a world that is in pain and oftentimes filled with people who simply do not know where they can turn to. Some of us may encounter that world today, for others of us it may be later this week, but we will encounter it; in fact, the Church is called by God to go out and encounter it. Even today some of us may be a part of that hurting world, and some of us may be desperately seeking that hope and love which is found in the kingdom of God and which should be so abundant in the Church.

Those two little children, that boy and that girl who were hungry, tired, weary, wearing ragged clothing, and who did not have a place to sleep, they do not have to be found walking on a humid mountain path in Central America. Those children can be found in the beautiful cities of Europe, in the deserts of Africa, in the rural farms of Asia, in the islands of the Caribbean, in the mountains of South America, and in the outback of Australia. Those two little children can be found wandering the streets of our own North American cities, even as the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the history of our planet. Those two kids can be found in the rural towns of the midwest, suffering through poverty. Those two little children can be found in the homeless and hungry beggar who we encounter at the train station, and even in the man or woman that we pass by as we walk down the streets of West Chester, Pennsylvania. No matter where we go, there is hunger, there are people who barely have enough clothes, and there is poverty. Whether it is the widow or the orphan, there are people who are in need of a helping hand. There are people seeking both hope and love.

I ask of us – of this congregation, of our denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, and of the global, universal, catholic Church which we are a part of – do not let our religion be worthless as James warns us. I pray that each one of us may not only be hearers of the word, but doers of the word and active participants in God’s kingdom of love, who live by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to not only effect changes within ourselves, but who go out and do the loving work of Jesus Christ which still needs to be done in our broken and hurting world.

As we leave here today and encounter those two small children in the world, what will be our response? Will we merely be hearers of the word with no change in our lives, deceiving ourselves, and rendering our religion worthless? Or will we be doers of the word, caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping ourselves sustained not by the selfishness of the world, but by the loving kingdom of God, and inviting others into the presence of holy love? When we encounter the poor and hungry man or woman, and when we encounter the heart that is crying out in pain and simply asking for love, will we be doers of the word, helping those who are in need? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are being treated with injustice in the world, will we be doers of the word, standing up and demanding justice for those who cannot ask for it themselves? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are not being shown mercy, no matter who it is, will we be doers of the word, representatives of the kingdom of God, and ask for mercy on their behalf? Or will we merely be hearers of the word?

Will we be doers of the word and be a light for the kingdom of God? Or will we merely be hearers of the word, deceiving ourselves, and forgetting just exactly what the word is the moment we walk away?

When I think of our congregation at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene, I am encouraged. When I walk through our doors, I am confident that I will find a loving group of people. I see in this congregation a group of people who love God with everything that they are and who love each other with that same holy love. I see a group of people who are demonstrating this love to those two small children, those people who are in need. It is demonstrated with our goal to raise $1,000 for an Alabaster offering this month (a goal we can reach!), our continuing drive to bring goods in for the West Chester Food Cupboard, our food backpack drive last month for local school children, and our help with Safe Harbor in the recent months.

Let this passage be a reminder to us to not ever give up on being doers of the word; allow these words to remind us to not ever give up on being a people who act on the faith and the grace by which we enter salvation. Let us not forget the whole, beautiful picture that is the kingdom of God and the fulfilling gospel of Jesus Christ. Allow James’ words to be an encouragement to never be content with merely hearing the word. Let this passage remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, ridding ourselves of any sordidness or rank growth of wickedness, and continuing to transform us in holiness and love for others.

“When those two hungry and tired children knocked upon the door of that small church building, seeking help in their hour of need after walking all day on a hot and humid forest path, the door opened. We, the people of the Church, answered, giving food and shelter and demonstrating the love of God to both the little boy and his sister.”

Do not ever be content in being merely a hearer of the word, but live welcoming with meekness the power of the word and the power of God to change our lives, continually caring for the orphans and the widows, and all others who are in need.

“caught in a bad romance”

I had the opportunity to preach this sermon on what defines loves at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene yesterday morning.

John 15:9-17 (NRSV)

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
10
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
11
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
13
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
16
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
17
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

At the core of this passage is Jesus’ instruction for his followers to love one another. These are instructions that are demonstrated by Christ’s life and teachings; it is also a theme that is present in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, mostly everyone knows the latter half of 1 John 4:8; we recite it to each other all the time: “God is love.” However, many times in talking about love, whether it be the love of Christ or the love of God, or even in our culture when popular or well-respected authority figures instruct us just to “love one another,” we never really elaborate on what defines love. One of the most popular songs by the “Black-Eyed Peas” is titled “Where is the love?” Another song from the early 1990s by (the musical “great”) Haddaway asks, “What is love?” Movies, popular music, books, poetry, and philosophy: they all talk about love. Most of the time (though not all of the time), answers about love are not very deep and only skim the surface.

We rarely hear a description of what love actually is. Maybe it is simply assumed that we know? Or maybe we just think we know? A lot of what we think we know is actually just about the feeling or emotion of love itself. But as many of us know, feelings of love come and go; feelings are fleeting. Even if love feels so strong, that feeling still may dissipate after years and years. And if we, humanity, really think that we have got a grip or a handle on what love really is, why is it that everyday on the news we hear about wars in various parts of the world, someone being shot on the street corner, a store being robbed downtown, a millionaire banker stealing millions more in their greed, or pop culture stars (ironically, they are often times the very same ones who are telling us that all we need to do is “love one another”) getting divorced and married to someone else after only a couple months? Not only does so much of humanity base its idea of love off of only a feeling or an emotion, but how are we supposed to know what love is, if on a daily basis humanity is separating itself from God – God, who is the very beginning of all love, the author of all love, and where all love flows from and out of?

Humanity separates itself from God through our very own sinfulness and selfishness; but true to what love actually is and not what we think love is, and true to God’s eternal demonstration of that love, God still shows us and demonstrates his love to us whether it is through grace, patience, mercy, protection, justice, and blessing and granting our needs and prayers. God does not base love, his holy love, off of only a fleeting feeling or emotion, but through a practice of love. And it is a practice of love that is found in sacrifice and obedience to God which we can build our love with. Perhaps today, each one of us must change our concept of love from feelings and emotions to a practice of love that is consistent with the practice of love that God continually demonstrates to each one of us. Perhaps our view of love needs to be reoriented so that it does not have a foundation in us, but rather that it becomes a love that has a foundation in God; then we may truly find what love actually is and learn how to show that love to one another.

What, exactly, is this love? Christ tells us in verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Christ tells us in verse 17: “I am giving you these commands that you may love one another.” But Christ does not stop there; Christ elaborates on what exactly his love is. It is not a fleeting feeling or emotion that comes and goes, but it is a practice of love that finds eternal fulfillment; it is a love that gives us joy, it is a love that gives Christ himself joy, and it is a love that gives others joy.

Love means sacrifice. Christ says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He then follows this piece of instruction with: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Christ is, in fact, alluding to his very own death, saying that his death is an act of love for his friends. His own death is a sacrifice of himself so that humanity, and you and I, might be reconciled to God. But Christ tells us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Christ loved us so much that he was willing to die for us so that ultimately we may be together with him. Sacrifice to the point of death: that is the depth of love that Christ has for us, yet it is also the depth of love that Christ desires us to have for other people. Sacrifice is an integral part of love for others; we, as followers and friends of Christ, are called to that level of love for one another. Perhaps today it may not mean death; but what does it mean? Our lives are valuable to us, but what else is valuable to us? Time? Money? Material goods? Food? Water? Shelter? Our unique skills? Perhaps this level of love means sacrificing those things for others when they are in need so that we may show the love of Christ to our neighbors. Perhaps it means a death of our selfish selves, and living anew in Christ, so that we may freely give of these things in a way that is like the love of Christ. (We cannot forget that there are countless numbers of people living in poverty all over the world. Many of them are Christians; our own brothers and sisters are going without food, clean water, and shelter everyday. What does loving them through sacrifice look like in your life?)

Love means obeying God. Christ foreshadows that love is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” but then adds the stipulation: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Christ also tells his disciples in verse 10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Here is Christ’s commandment: “That you love one another as I have loved you.” Christ calls on us to live in obedience to God and to Christ. It is an exercise in the selfless nature, not the selfish nature, to live in obedience to another. Christ even calls those who live in keeping with the commandments his friends. Perhaps in our own lives, living selflessly and not selfishly, to others is what the practice of love actually is. Maybe this means taking the time to listen to another’s story. Maybe this means giving of yourself in a way where there is no gain for you. Maybe it means spending time with another person who you do not necessarily want to spend time with. Maybe it means humility and respecting another person’s wishes. Sacrifice and selflessness: these are examples of what love actually is. Both of these are demonstrated by Christ.

God loves all of us; in fact, there is so much love within God that in the beginning, God created people. From the very beginning, and from the outpouring of God’s love, God desired to be in relation with others; that is the reason God created us – so that we may be in communion with God and with each other. In fact, it is something that is evident in the very nature and character of God himself! If we look at God, God is one, but God is also three (in one); three very distinct aspects of God all in relation with one another in the trinity – God is relational even within himself. And God is love; out of this relational and self-giving love, God created humanity. God created the world that we live in. God created the mountains, the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land that we walk on. God created the birds, the deer that roam the woods, the big cats of the jungle, the fish that populate the sea, the bees that pollinate the vividly colored flowers in our gardens, and even the snakes that slither around, all to be in harmony and balance with one another. And out of love, God entrusted us to have a role in taking care of this world. (The responsibility we have as stewards of God’s creation is something that we simply cannot forget about, but it is critical as we give others a glimpse into the kingdom of God. Out of love for God, love for others, and love for what God has made, we must therefore do a better job of fulfilling this responsibility.)

And out of love God gave us free will, even if that meant the possibility of turning against the very one who created us, even if that meant that people may choose to live in disobedience to God and even if that meant the resulting physical manifestations of evil, sickness, and disease within this world, things that have come about from living in a world filled with generations of people who have long since removed themselves from a foundation of love in God.

But it also means, by the basic characteristic of freedom found in love, we may choose to respond to God’s grace and the love that is inherent in his kingdom. It is only in the hope we have in Christ and the renewing of ourselves by the Holy Spirit, and by the present work we are called to in the kingdom of God in this world, that these evils will be overcome.

Nevertheless, out of love and desire for God to be in communion with us and for us to be in communion with God, God loved humanity even in our sinfulness against him. God chose a group of people as his own, and through that group of people, all the people of the world would one day be reconciled to him. God made a covenant with Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. And through Israel, and through Christ, through whom we Gentiles are grafted in to God’s chosen people of Israel, becoming one of God’s chosen people in the Church today, that covenant and promise with Abraham still holds true. It is through Christ and the Church today that God calls us to live out his message of practicing love in both sacrifice and selflessness.

Moreover, as a testament to God’s grace and love, God provided a way for humanity to return to him through both obedience and faith in God. In the Old Testament, this was the law given to Moses; that through this law, the Israelites in their own disobedience to God, might be once again reconciled to God. Part of that involved sacrifice in order to atone for their sins, a sacrifice of their very best animals and livestock to God. God desired their best; today God desires the very best of what we have to offer. However, today this is not through the sacrifice of animals and livestock, but in our time, our talents, our skills, our belongings, and in fact, you and me. God asks us to give it all over to him and God asks us to give ourselves over to him in obedience.

In the Old Testament, ultimately it was a law that taught love. The prophet Micah tells us the meaning of the law, writing: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). In Mark, when a scribe asks Christ what the most important commandment is, Christ tells him: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Paul, an expert in the Jewish law, tells the Church in Galatia: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). And here, in this passage in John, Christ tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The meaning of the law: to love God with everything that we are and to love each other in the same way that God loves us and in the same way that we love God. This is a practice of love that involves sacrifice and selflessness.

Ultimately, as Israel abused this law and its rulers and religious leaders manipulated and exploited this law and obedience to God, God sent his own son, Jesus Christ, so that the law of love in obedience to God may be made known: Jesus Christ, who was there from the very beginning, who is part of the trinitarian, relational, loving nature of God, and who is love itself. In this way, Jesus Christ is the manifestation of the law given to Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that law. The law given to Israel was meant for love; Christ, the manifestation and fulfillment of the law, is love itself.

However, just as Christ tells us in this passage that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Christ alludes to and foreshadows his very own death. The law demanded sacrifice of the very best, and in order for Christ to truly fulfill this law it meant his own death. This moment, of Christ suffering and dying on a cross which was designed for humiliation and shame, is God’s love embodied in a practice of sacrifice and selflessness. However, in this atoning death of Christ, it not only meant a redemption for the people of Israel but it meant the possible redemption of all of humanity throughout all of history, so that as long as we have faith and we believe in Christ, Christ, too, is our atoning sacrifice. And through Christ’s resurrection, Christ conquered the sin and the death and the evil that separates each one of us from God; through the grace of God found in Christ, our sinfulness is overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection. It is overcome by love itself manifested in Christ! Moreover, through this we may learn to have a foundation of love in love itself: Jesus Christ.

This story that is found in the Bible, from the very first verses in Genesis to the very last verses in Revelation, is the greatest love story, ever. It is a story of God loving humanity, then humanity in pride, selfishness, arrogance, and disobedience to God (each of these in sinfulness), separating ourselves from God. But God, in his vast love for us, for humanity, for his created beings, wanted for all of us to be in communion with each other once again. So God created a way, and ultimately that led to the sacrifice and resurrection of his own Son; through God’s grace and through Christ, each one of us may be redeemed to God, and humanity and creation may be restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed in God. It means that we may once again find love, true love of sacrifice and selflessness which emanates from God, and have a foundation for practicing that joyful, fulfilling love in God; out of the joyful, sacrificing, selfless love that is found in Christ, we too may find fulfillment. But it is not a fulfillment that we keep to ourselves, but it is a fulfillment that we are called to share with others. It is a love that Christ asks of us, now as his friends and no longer as servants, so that we may love one another as Christ has loved us.

Christ asks us to show this practice of love to one another: this includes our neighbors, the people around us, and even our enemies. What does this sacrificing and selfless love look like in your life? How does sacrificing and selfless love transform your relationship with your husband, your wife, your fiance, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your brother, your sister (and your brothers and sisters in Christ), your father, your mother, your coworkers, your friends, and even your friends who you find to be just a bit annoying? What about the person who cuts you off while you’re driving? How does this view of a sacrificing and selfless practice of love, of loving others in the same way that Christ loved us, form your relationships with those who you would consider to be your enemies, the people who have done wrong against you, or the people who you hold, for one reason or another, a grudge against?

Christ selflessly died for us so that we may be restored to God, so that this overarching love story between God and humanity throughout all of history may be complete in you, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. How does the idea of sacrifice, whether it is of our time, our interests, our money or other material goods, affect our relationships with all of those people I have listed?

It is a contrast between selfishness and selflessness. Culture, society, the world: they will always tell you to put yourself first. They will tell you to put yourself above others and get what you want or what you think you need even if it is at the expense, manipulation, exploitation, or unjust treatment of others or entire other groups of people. The world, in discussing love, inevitably returns to selfishness. The gospel, on the other hand, implies selflessness; Jesus Christ tells us to put others before ourselves. (A warning though: this is one of the reasons the gospel is so dangerous; it is not selfish, but selfless and sacrificing. Sacrifice and selflessness are problems for a world that promotes manipulation, exploitation, and injustice – all for a selfish purpose – whether it is on behalf of a person, business or corporation, or a government.) Selflessness is what Christ demonstrated in his life; sacrifice and selflessness are what Christ showed with his death on the cross, dying so that humanity may have an opportunity to be restored to communion with God. In this way we can know what love actually is; love is not selfish, but selfless. And through Christ’s act of selflessness, our own selfishness, pridefulness, arrogance, and sinfulness are overcome by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Ultimately the practice of love, founded in God and demonstrated through sacrifice and selflessness, does conquer sin and our separation from God.

God’s Holy Spirit works in us and creates in us a new and restored person, that we may show what true, holy, sacrificing and selfless love is to our family, friends, and even our enemies. Christ instructs us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Demonstrate and practice this fulfilling yet sacrificing and selfless love, in obedience to God, in your lives and in your relationships with all who you encounter.

“paddling in perseverance toward Christ”

This is the last sermon that I will preach at the Kansas City Rescue Mission. K.C.R.M., it’s been fun. May God continue to bless your ministry to those in need.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
2
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
3
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

On August 4, 2009, just a little less than three years ago, I was sitting in my kayak at Kaw Point, where the Kansas river meets the Missouri river. I was participating in the Missouri River 340, one of the longest river races in the world. It is a canoe and kayak race that stretches between Kansas City, KS and St. Charles, MO. The race organizers describe it as “340 miles of wind, heat, bugs, and rain,” and you only have 88 non-stop hours to complete this distance. A large number of people who sign up and start the race at Kaw Point drop out somewhere during those 340 miles. They face dehydration, heat exhaustion, or simply, exhaustion. The record for the course is 36 hours and 48 minutes, set in 2010 by a tandem team. The record for a single person completing this race is 37 hours and 46 minutes, set in 2008 by the man who currently holds the Guinness world record for the longest distance paddled in 24 hours.

There I was, sitting in my 14 foot kayak in the murky waters of the Kansas river (during later visits to Kaw Point I have even seen snakes swimming around, poking their ugly heads several inches out of the water as their bodies trailed behind them), about to embark on one of the first real adventure races I have competed in. I did not know exactly know what I was getting myself into. I was somewhat nervous, but was prepared. I had a little over three and a half days to paddle a kayak, by myself, for 340 miles down a river I had never been on before – yeah, I was a little nervous. Somehow, I had even convinced my mother to come out and be my ground crew for the event; she would meet me at the various mandatory checkpoints along the way, helping me with food, water, and other supplies.

As the days passed by on the river, I was sure to drink plenty of water in the stifling August Missouri heat, sun, and humidity. You and I know that summers can get more than a little warm and more than a little humid up here. I made sure that I was eating plenty of food; I needed the energy. Ever so slowly the mile markers passed by. Even at the first checkpoint, 50 miles into the race, people were already dropping out due to dehydration and other issues. However, I looked ahead, thinking about the next checkpoint, and focused on making it there. To tell the truth, I did not want to think about the end of the race; I could not think about 340 miles all at once. It was overwhelming. I only thought about the distance to the next checkpoint, whether it was 50 miles, 27 miles, 36 miles, or whatever it might have been. The goal before me was the next checkpoint on the river.

Each day, I paddled over 100 miles and did not stop until it was four or five o’clock the next morning. And even then I only stopped for a short meal and a few hours of rest. During the entire 340 miles, I only slept for about eight hours; for that first major ultra-marathon endurance race, my ultimate goal was simply to finish within the allotted time and to make it to each checkpoint before the cutoff time so that I would not become disqualified.

During the day the heat and sunlight kept me awake; during the night I had to force my eyes to stay open. Closing my eyes just for a second might mean falling asleep and being swept into the debris that is so abundant on the muddy Missouri. Even worse, I could tip over. The river has barge traffic and sand dredges all along it; if I allowed my exhaustion to get to me, it may have meant losing focus and coming too close for comfort to one of these. I had no desire to be swept under an oncoming barge or through a sand dredge.

On the final night of the Missouri River 340, after waking up from only an hour of sleep at a city park in Hermann, MO, my right shoulder suddenly felt as if someone had beat it to a pulp with a sledge hammer. That moment was the first time I truly considered dropping out of the race; I was in so much pain that I could barely move my arm. I told myself that if I felt okay by the time I left before the sun rose, with one more hour of sleep, I would continue the race. Thankfully, by the time I was ready to leave and finish the race later that day, and with the help of a few ibuprofen, the pain had dissipated.

Furthermore, paddling in the darkness on the water, my constant state of exhaustion played tricks on my mind. Trees on the riverbanks suddenly looked like dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park”; I thought I was seeing construction on bluffs where there was no construction. I thought I saw parking garages that were built right on top of the Missouri river at three o’clock in the morning. It was a difficult race, but it was a race that I had to persevere through. It was a race that was in no way easy for me, a beginner to the sport of ultra-marathon endurance canoe and kayak racing. But I had a goal, and that was to make it to each checkpoint on time and to ultimately finish the race that was before me.

The author of Hebrews tells us the same thing about following Christ. While they did not have the sport of canoe and kayak racing during the time of Christ (Christ, however, did spend a lot of time on boats, so if they did have canoes and kayaks…. Well, who knows….), one of the popular sports of the day was running, such as in the original Olympic games from ancient Greece. The author of Hebrews tells us that the Christian life is like a race, and we must run it with perseverance, looking the entire time to Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Each of us knows that in following Christ, and in responding to God’s abundant grace, and living as a disciple of God’s law of love, fulfilled and manifested in Christ himself, this race is not an easy one to run. Each of us knows that we may go through difficulties when we put Christ first, many of those possible setbacks coming from the world around us.

We may become tired and exhausted as we face apparent obstacles before us. We may become discouraged or our worries may bog us down. There could be any number of things that appear unexpectedly in our lives. As a result we might be tempted to put a halt to this race that we are running (or paddling) toward our goal in Christ. Just like the huge barges that appeared unexpectedly during the day as I paddled, tired and exhausted, with blisters the sizes of dimes and quarters forming on my hands, I had to maneuver my way around them, keeping the goal of the next checkpoint at the forefront of my mind.

Each one of us, through everything we are facing in life, cannot become discouraged; we must keep the hope and the promise that is found in Jesus Christ as our focus and as our goal!

On Friday we will remember the death of Christ; he died on a cross so many years ago so that each one of us, and all of humanity, would have an opportunity, through our mediator Christ, to be reconciled to God. Christ was an atoning sacrifice. The author of Hebrews tells us to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely.” These weights and sins distract us from our goal in Christ and from our fulfillment in Christ. Today, I would ask each one of us: what are the weights and sins that are pulling us down? What are the sins that are clinging so closely to you and separating you from God? Are we putting our faith in something, or someone, besides God? Are we not demonstrating a love and respect for our neighbor that is true to the example of Christ? Ask yourself: what is weighing me down? What sins are clinging to me that I can cast aside in order to run freely to Christ? Just as Christ was put to death on a Friday so long ago, today we must put to death the sin that is separating us from our goal in Christ!

However, death was not the end for Christ. On Sunday, Christ rose from the dead! He conquered the death, despair, and destruction that sin leaves in our lives. Remember the hope that we have in a risen Christ! Remember that we are running a race toward a Christ who is alive and who is working in our lives today! Remember that Christ has already conquered death and sin and we can hand our worries, our doubts, our anger and hate, and our idols over to Christ! And through Christ, these things will no longer be in our lives, but through our resurrected Savior and Messiah, we too are resurrected out of our death and our sin; we have a new existence in Christ. We have new life as we run this race toward Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and we run this race without the weight of our sins burdening us down!

Christ: “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Christ has already endured the cross and taken his seat beside the throne of God. Christ endured the hostility of sinners, so that each of us may not grow weary or lose heart! I realize that truly following Christ can be difficult, but again, do not grow weary or lose heart! Christ has been there and has experienced it; with Christ as our goal and as our focus, even with all of the distractions and the difficulties of this marathon, we too “may not grow weary or lose heart!”

Each of us must remember that we are not alone in this race. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” In this race we need the encouragement and the support of the community that is found within our friends who will cheer us on when we struggle or doubt, or whatever else it may be. Many times, these encouragers are our family and friends. A lot of times they are people that we find in the Church, there to help us grow, and encourage and challenge us to become stronger in our walks, runs, marathons (and even paddles) with Christ. I could not have finished all 340 miles of that first ultra-marathon endurance race in only three days if it were not for the encouragement of those fellow racers who paddled their canoes and kayaks next to me in the exhausting darkness of the humid night, or during the miles of windswept river with the wind blowing against me; I could not have finished without the encouragement of my mother when I met her at the checkpoints, or the motivation that other race volunteers gave me along the way. Each of us, in this race towards Christ needs one another. We need the support of community from other believers who are persevering through this same race, who also have Christ as their goal.

It is Easter; remember that Christ has risen. Remember the race that is set before us and run it with perseverance and encouragement. Run it without the weight of sin. Run it and do not grow weary or lose heart. Christ has already conquered death and sin; know the hope of Christ and the goal that is before you in Christ!

wisdom in foolishness; power in weakness

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NRSV)

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification,
31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

God uses those who are considered weak and powerless in the world for God’s purpose. It is amazing how God uses the people who we might talk about and say: “There’s no way that God would choose to use that person! Nothing good could ever come from that person!” Society might look at people in prison, people who might not seem that bright, people who might have messed up in their life, people who might be going through addictions, and say the same thing: “Those people are foolish and weak. There’s no way anything good could come from them.” People don’t want to associate with those considered foolish and weak. People don’t want the foolish and weak hanging around. People don’t want the foolish and weak in their lives. The foolish and weak won’t help them advance in their jobs. The foolish and weak won’t help someone become more popular or make more money. Society has already made their decision on the foolish and weak, and it’s not good.

But when Paul writes his first letter to the church in Corinth, he tells us something different: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”

The idea that God would use the low and despised, the things that are not, the foolish, the weak, and the least expected, is not a new theme. In fact, it’s a theme that is found all over scripture! We see it in the story of David, who became the standard-bearer of kingship for Israel in the Old Testament; David was the king who everyone else measured up against.

What were the beginnings of the story of David? In 1 Samuel 16, Samuel, the chosen prophet of the Lord, chooses and anoints the young David as God’s choice for king. Yet David was not the oldest of the family; he was not the first-born child. David was the youngest. In fact, when Samuel shows up to find the new king, the father Jesse brings out all of his sons to ask which one will be anointed. Samuel says none of them; he asks the father Jesse if he has any more sons. Jesse replies, “There remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” The youngest, David, finally came, and Samuel knew that he was the one to be anointed as God’s choice for king. Jesse least expected it.

As we progress further in David’s life, the young shepherd encounters Goliath, the Philistine, feared by all of Israel’s army. There was not a single soldier in the entire army who was brave to face Goliath. But who could blame them? Goliath is described in 1 Samuel 17 as being “six cubits and a span” (I have no idea what that equates to today, but the bottom line is, Goliath was a big man!) The Philistine Goliath, according to 1 Samuel, wore “a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield bearer went before him.” There is no doubt that Goliath was an intimidating warrior! Who could blame the soldiers in Saul’s army? Not a single person wanted to face him. They were all terrified!

And then David comes along: the youngest son, the shepherd, the one who Jesse did not even expect to be anointed. David accepts the challenge to face this intimidating Philistine warrior. Refusing to wear Saul’s armor, David walks out onto the battlefield with only a sheep herding staff, five stones in his pouch that he picked up out of the dried and empty river bed, and his sling. He walks out there against this giant who struck fear into even the most hardened soldier of Israel, and Goliath laughs in his face.

To Goliath, David was foolish. David was powerless and weak. To Goliath, David was nothing. But David said to Goliath, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, who you have defied.” What happened next? David strikes Goliath with the stone and Goliath falls over dead.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”

God takes the low and despised and turns the person or the situation around for God’s purpose. Even when David sinned against God by having an affair with Bathsheba and subsequently having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed, God still brought something good out of David’s sinfulness. God did not desire for David to sin and it was in no way God’s purpose for David to sin. God did not want David to disobey his law by committing adultery and murder; but even through the horror of the situation, God brought something good out of it. Even today, God still brings good out of bad situations. The eventual good that I am speaking of from David’s situation is the goodness and love of God manifested in humanity, incarnated in Jesus Christ. This is the genealogy of Matthew.

This theme of God using the foolish, the weak, the powerless, the low and despised, the things that are not, resurfaces yet again. Christ was not born out of nobility. He was born of a woman whose community thought she had been unfaithful to Joseph, her soon to be husband. In actuality, she was not unfaithful, but a humble young woman who was simply being faithful and obedient to God. And Jesus did not arrive as a powerful king; he was not wearing the shielding that the intimidating Goliath wore or the armor that Saul tried to give to David. Jesus was born as a helpless, little, weak, crying, human baby. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were even forced to flee to Egypt from the powers that were. By the world’s definition this was not strength, but weakness, foolishness, lowly, and despised.

When Christ began his ministry, he ministered to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the demon-possessed. These were the people who society, who the Pharisees and religious leadership, who the nobility, thought were foolish, weak, low, and despised. The disenfranchised – these were the people who Jesus, the incarnation of God, ministered to. These were the people who Christ offered healing and redemption to; they were the ones who the Messiah performed miracles for. And when we look at the disciples of Christ throughout history who lived out God’s message of love and peace, these were the ones who God used to “reduce to nothing things that are.”

In Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5, Christ says, “Blessed are poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers…. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. And blessed are you when people insult you because of me.” People that seem lowly and despised in the world and who the world may look at as powerless, people who show mercy, people who search after God and are insulted because of God – Christ says, “Blessed are those….”

And then Christ died in the way that a common criminal of the Roman empire died. It wasn’t anything special; there was no ceremony. He was crucified just like any other criminal. He died; as the world saw it, his life was finished, powerless, helpless, and foolish.

Remember Paul’s words: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” Through this foolish and powerless death of Christ, God allowed for the atonement of the sins of all humanity so that through Christ we may once again be restored in right relationship with God. And God shamed the so-called wise and the so-called strong, and reduced to nothing the things that are. God raised Christ from the dead, conquering death and sin and bringing life. The same is true today for us: through God’s “foolish” and “weak” message of Christ and the cross, God conquers death and sin within us, redeems us, and brings us to a life that is only found in God.

In considering this passage in 1 Corinthians and the message of Christ, we must critically examine our definitions of the words “wisdom” and “power.” We must ask ourselves how the wisdom and power of this world are different from the wisdom and the power found only in Christ’s message; we must ask ourselves what the purpose is.

Paul’s words apply to us today just as much as they applied to the Corinthians. Paul writes that by worldly standards, not many were wise, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth. Wisdom, power, and nobility – these are very real things that the people of our world, society, and culture are searching for. But our world, society, and culture are searching for these things on its own without God; without God, it is a pointless and vain search. We have already begun to understand what these words truly represent; their definitions can only be found in the message of Christ and the cross.

The “wisdom” and “power” that the world searches for are not the same wisdom and power that God represents. If we look around at the world today, it is not hard to observe that the “wisdom” and “power” that the world and society are searching for is born out of greed, selfishness, and pride. We can see where that has gotten us; rather, we can see where that has not gotten us: violent wars, economic hardship and depravity, epidemics, sickness, disease, addictions, hate and jealousy, murder and rape, etc. We can see what happens when our motivations are born out of selfishness, pride, and a desire for personal gain.

On the other hand, the wisdom and power that God represents and the wisdom and power that is found in the message of Christ and the cross is born out of love. As Paul states, Christ’s act of love becomes for us wisdom, power, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

We cannot seek God’s wisdom and power out of selfish reasons or even out of an attempt to somehow manipulate Christ’s act of love for our personal gain. God did not bless David with a defeat of Goliath so that David could manipulate and exploit it for his own use and gain. David defeated Goliath so that God’s wisdom, power, and purpose may be made known. David tells Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:47: “…so that all the earth may know that that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

It is not about us; it is about God. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Wisdom and power are found in the message of Christ and the cross; God uses us as vessels so that God’s wisdom and power may be made known. God uses us for God’s message, the proclamation of God’s story, God’s love, and the sharing of the good news, redemption, sanctification, and righteousness that is found in Christ.

Wisdom and power found in Christ cannot be manipulated for our own gain; it is only to demonstrate God’s message of love found in Christ through which we are ultimately restored to God. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 4, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” We are the fragile vessels that hold this treasure of power and wisdom found in Christ!

God uses the weak, the foolish, the low and despised, and reduces to nothing the things that are. God uses these so that the amazing wisdom and power of God may be made known! Ultimately, this wisdom and power is manifested in the message of Christ and the cross. Ultimately, it is so that God may restore us back into a right relationship with God. Ultimately, it is so that God’s love for all of humanity will be known.

I would ask each one of us reading: will you allow God to use you for the purpose of God’s love? Will you be the humble servant of God so that his wisdom and power, found in the message of Christ and the cross, will be known? We are not wise, powerful, or of noble birth by the world’s standards, but through God there is wisdom in foolishness and power in weakness.

chapel sermon, kansas city rescue mission, 2.1.2012

Luke 2:22-40 (NIV)

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”),
24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required,
28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.
34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,
37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.
40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

Upon seeing the boy Jesus, Simeon, a righteous and devout servant of the Lord, had said, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory of your people Israel.” And the prophet Anna, another servant of the Lord who was present, (the scripture states that she was continually at the Temple, fasting, praying, and worshiping God) had described the child in reference to the redemption of Jerusalem. Jerusalem – this was the holy city of Israel, the Mecca, if you will, of the people of Israel. And despite being God’s chosen people, these were a people who had some good times and some bad times in God’s eyes; they had gotten in trouble on more than a few occasions. But nevertheless, this is the story of Israel, and it was their capital Jerusalem that this boy Jesus would one day redeem.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and come to today. There was a young boy growing up in the city, about six years old, and just starting elementary school. His eyes were bright and full of hope. He was ready to make friends, learn, play, laugh, and run around with the other kids. The boy had a younger sister who was just about a year younger than he was, and he cared about her so deeply. Their mom was single. He never knew his father, and his mom rarely, if ever, talked about him. But in order to take care of her two children that she loved more than anything, she had to work two jobs. As the boy grew up over the school years, he saw his mother less and less; she had to continue working more and more in order to take care of her kids. Eventually, when the boy was in middle school, she got sick and had to go the hospital; she didn’t have the health insurance to pay for her medical bills. The boy now had to take care of his younger sister. The boy had to find money to get them both the food and clothing that they needed.

Though through some of the friends he had made at school, the boy learned that he could sell drugs in order to make the money he needed to take care of his sister. But through selling drugs he became more and more familiar with the violence of the world through the beatings, fights, and shootings that he witnessed; he didn’t like it, but he realized it was the way his world worked. It was therefore the way he would have to operate. Eventually, as the years slowly passed and he was a student in the high school, his mother died. It was now only the boy and his sister in this world, alone. He began to drink alcohol and use the drugs he was supposed to sell in order to deal with all the pain and hurt that he felt on a daily basis. There was the pain of abandonment, the pain of the violence he witnessed too often, the pain of losing his mom, and the pain of worrying that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his sister. When the boy was in high school, he was arrested on drug charges and thrown in prison. This boy, who so many years ago had eyes that were bright and filled with the hope and the love and the joy of life, had become jaded by the dark realities of the world he had become accustomed to. He saw no hope.

But in this scripture we have Simeon and the prophet Anna, at the temple of Jerusalem, speaking of the young boy Jesus as a light of revelation for the gentiles, a hope of salvation for all nations, and the coming redemption of Israel. And here, separated by oceans, continents, and thousands of years of history, was another boy who had grown up in poverty without a father, who had lost his mother, and was forced to resort to selling drugs, violence, and alcoholism. Where was the light of revelation for him? Where was the salvation and the hope of redemption? On the one hand we have this boy, a gentile by every definition of the Jewish term, and on the other hand we have this boy Jesus at a temple in Jerusalem, who was supposed to represent the hope, redemption, and salvation in the midst of a painful and suffering world.

Anna saw the boy Jesus and referred to him as the redemption of Israel. Let’s take a quick look at the story of Israel. It is one characterized by a cycle of obedience, disobedience, violence, but yet one that is characterized by a hope for the future with the redemption of a promised Messiah. Abraham, so long ago, was told that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars; yet he was forced to sacrifice his only son only to have God stop him at the last minute and enter into a covenant with him. Generations later we have the beginnings of the twelve tribes of Israel, again marked by distrust, violence, and a brother sold into slavery by none other than his own family in a fit of jealousy. Generations later and the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are oppressed as slaves by the Egyptian Pharaoh, subject to beatings and even more violence. Leaders arise like Moses and Joshua, who led them through the desert. Meanwhile many wonder what hope they have for a future; many of them even give up. Finally they are brought to a new bountiful land, but yet again it is a process marked by war and blood as they take control of their new land. The Israelites beg God for leaders, only to have kings mistreat and abuse them. They start to worship foreign idols instead of the one true God. They even kill God’s prophets among them. They are forced into exile in Babylon, and years later are allowed to return, a broken people who have lost their identity in God. More religious leaders rise up, some bad, some good. Legalism abounds, and finally the birth of this boy Jesus happens. It is a moment that changed history, but the Jewish people didn’t know that at the time. Here was the one who was supposed to be a Messiah, a savior for the people who would rescue them out of this cycle. When some Jews began to recognize who he was, they thought he would lead them into victory over the Roman empire, but that’s not how the story goes.

Christ came and told them he was the fulfillment of the law. Christ demonstrated the redemption that God promises – he gave it to the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, and to the people who were tormented by demons over and over again in life, and to the man who was blind, who could finally see when Jesus rubbed mud in his eyes. He gave redemption when he brought Lazarus back from the dead. He gave hope when he healed sick sons and daughters and performed countless other miracles. This boy Jesus grew up into the Christ who gave hope to those who thought they had none. Christ demonstrated love to the poor and the outcast of society who thought they had nothing in life.

Christ was killed, crucified on a cross, but not just for the redemption of Israel, but for all of humanity and for the hope of all nations and gentiles. All people would one day have a hope of hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. And even through death, perhaps the worst you and I can imagine, and death where surely it is the very end, and there is without a doubt, absolutely, positively, and most certainly no returning from, Jesus Christ came back. Christ rose again to demonstrate to all the hope of a risen Lord and Savior, to give hope that even the worst in this world can be overcome, and to give hope that the evil in this world can be conquered after all. On every level, this is the message of Christ. This is a good news message that has persisted through persecution, doubt and critics. It is a gospel message that is alive today through a risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and a living God. This is a gospel message that proclaims the renewal of life and the renewal of hope. It is the renewal of the Jerusalem story that we, through Christ, are now a part of. And it is a gospel message that simply will not go away until all things are renewed through Christ.

This is even a gospel message that brings hope to that boy who grew up in the city, who was once hopeful with bright eyes looking for joy and happiness. It is a message that can even overcome the pain, despair, and hurt that boy has faced in this world; it is the good news of a very real Jesus Christ that will even offer that young man the redemption, hope, and love that he desires. It is a chance to receive the father that he never knew growing up. It is a chance to be an entirely new person in Jesus Christ and change the very fabric of a life to live in the faith of Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity to once again show his sister the love that he tried to show her so many times, but failed. It is a chance to show the people around him the the light of a revelation to the gentiles, the glory of God’s people, salvation from the evil of this world, and participate in the redemption of Jerusalem.

Christ has come to redeem Israel; the amazing thing is that we, once considered gentiles, are now a part of this people through Christ. God has come to restore each one of us so that we too may be a part of the loving kingdom of God, so that we may know God as our father, Christ as our savior, and the Holy Spirit as working within our lives to continually change us to become more like Christ.

This is our story – a story of people broken through the brokenness of this world, who without the grace of God would continue in our self-destruction through hate, jealousy, disease, drug-use, cancer, alcohol, addictions, wars, fights, and violence. But it is a story that has hope in a Messiah who overcomes all of these things of a selfish and prideful world and mends our own internal struggles, addictions, illnesses, and worries. It is a hope of being a part of a redeemed Jerusalem and being a child of God. God’s grace is there, available to all through the love of a living Christ. And so I finish tonight with this question: How will we respond to the hope that exists in Jesus Christ?