Thursday, January 31, 2013

Luke 6:12-19

Dear Theophilus,
Your relating of these Sabbath events fascinates me—not necessarily because I am interested in the Sabbath, a foreign concept to which I am grateful for helping me get time off work, but rather because you talk about Jesus’ efforts to change the hearts of people.  I have known many religious people over the years, and their efforts always seem to be focused on actions, but much like our not-so-beloved Pharisees in these tales.  Religious leaders seem to be constantly focused on the actions of the people, believing, I suppose, that the hearts of the people will follow later.  That, or they simply aren’t concerned with the hearts but are content with proper actions.
I wonder how many people will debate this over the years—the difference between the heart and the hands in the work of faith.  Obviously, one can’t have a heart committed to God and hands committed to a life of deviance and crime.  Well, at least I suppose they can’t.  It makes sense to me to think that the work of one’s life, the usage of the hands, would follow the leadership of the heart—and if the heart is fully focused on God, then what is produced in the life of the believer will be a fitting tribute to one’s God.
Jesus doesn’t try to coerce anyone by guilt, or remonstrate them for what others would call sinful lives.  He calls them back with gentleness, not necessarily using guilt like I might, but rather pointing out an alternative way and encouraging them to see its superiority.  It makes sense what he says, judging by the number of followers he has.  I’d just like to hear what he would have to say to me today—how would my life change, and would it necessarily be better?  Can he guarantee what he promises, or am I left to blind faith and hope?
In short, Theophilus, I understand why so many followed him, and I understand why those in power didn’t like him.  He would have been so refreshing after generations of leaders rebuking individuals for not toeing the line set down in accordance with the laws.  He’s like a wind that rushes down and upsets the religious landscape, and when people manage to get their heads around what Jesus is saying, they recognize his brand of religious teachings as far more palatable, and so they rush after him.  The leaders, on the other hand, see crowds flocking to hear him teach what they consider to be violations of the law, or at least very loose interpretations of it, and they are irate that they’d chase after this new thing, rejecting their staunchly conservative values and teachings.  They love the structures, but the people strain to see the value in them, and fall in love with a new type of religion.
I think it’s impressive that Jesus went out to pray by himself in the mountains.  I have so little trust in religious and secular leaders today who seem so interested in forwarding their own brand—they’re always on, always seeking out some new growth strategy, and it’s hard to trust them.  Jesus, alternatively, seems so comfortable with who he is.  He seems grounded, and he takes this time off to further ground himself, to make sure that he is being consistent, living with integrity.  He must have turned his back on the crowds to go invest this time in prayer, and while I don’t know what he was praying for, I have to imagine that some would have drifted off after finding him unable to keep up a constant level of amusement for the crowds.  It doesn’t seem to be about the entertainment for Jesus, but rather about seeking a new level of relationship, about teaching the crowds something meaningful, something worth doing. 
After spending an entire night in prayer with God (Someday, Theophilus, I’d love to hear how you might do this.  How do you spend a whole night talking with someone you can’t see or hear or sense?  What do you say for hours on end to a being that you’re not even sure is there?  How do you know that you’re not just wasting your time, talking to the air while assuring yourself that someone is listening?  Do you ever feel like a fool for praying?), Jesus called his disciples together and chose twelve.  I don’t know how big the crowd was—it might have been fifteen, or it could have been two hundred.  With all of the miracles Jesus performed, I would guess it’s on the larger end, but it couldn’t have been easy to follow Jesus, between the constant travel and the threatening presence of the Pharisees, hanging like a black cloud over all that Jesus did.  Surely, some potential disciples would have felt threatened by the heavy hand of power, be it the religious leaders or the never-distant Roman empire.  I wouldn’t want to find myself in an outlying, controversial group in those days.  Death was never too distant.  The twelve, who were called apostles, were Simon, whose name was changed to Peter, and Andrew, his brother, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, James (son of Alphaeus), and Simon (called the Zealot) and Judas (the son of James) and another Judas Iscariot, about whom we will hear much more later, who will live in infamy as a traitor.
After singling out these twelve, they stood in a level place, and the remainder of the disciples and thousands from Judea, Jerusalem and the coast of Tyre and Sidon gathered around him.  What a sight it must have been!  Jesus held the attention of the masses who had gathered to hear him, to watch him perform miracles.  Many were healed of diseases, and others had spirits cast out of them.  The crowd would surge as he performed these great acts, trying to touch him whenever they senses power breaking out.  He healed them all, each one who came, and the ones who left were replaced by ten more crying out for his presence, for his power, to change them, to make them whole.
It would have been a scene from a movie, with some trying to control the crowd and others willing to risk everything just to be near him.  I doubt those Pharisees and other scoundrels went far, but probably stayed near the edge, shaking their heads and discounting the passion of the people.  It would have left an impression, and Jesus would have been the center of everyone’s attention, minding each soul that appeared before him, paying attention to their needs. 
What incredible stories circulate about this man!  His celebrity is larger than any I can imagine, and even I find myself drawn to the story, to the man.  I do not have record of what he said—perhaps it is lost to the pages of history, recorded in some dusty hall and then never seen again.  Or perhaps your records complete the account I have related?  I eagerly await word.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Luke 6:1-11

Dear Luke,
I want you to know that I understand your struggle.  It’s not an unfamiliar one for many who come to Jesus with certain expectations, as you mentioned in your last letter.  We expect Jesus to live and act in a certain way and, when he doesn’t conform to what we expect, we try to figure him out, much like the Pharisees were trying to do, albeit quite a bit more antagonistically than you are. 
How I interpret all of this is that Jesus has come to help us understand life, all of it, in all of its complexities and relationships.  Jesus came to teach us how to live, how to celebrate life and the wonder that is within it.  Whereas many in the religious world had spent centuries drawing careful lines about what boundaries in which we might find God, Jesus comes to explode those boundaries and help us see that God has created everything and loves all of creation.  The only line that he draws is that we have to understand that we are called by him and we must follow him.  Beyond that, he calls us to enjoy life, to celebrate the wonder in it.  We have to turn from the sinful things in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to hideout from life in the church—we’re to go out of the church and help people see that Jesus was a God of abundant life.  I don’t want you to think that there are no boundaries in life, that there aren’t things we can’t partake in, but we don’t have to live in constant fear of messing up—instead, we should recognize that Jesus calls us and changes the way we see life, so that discipleship is something we do all the time, not only when we’re in church.  Radical thoughts, I know, but you’ll continue to see Jesus change people’s expectations of what it means to be a follower of him in almost every story we have.
Speaking of this, we turn next to another conflict with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees have is so deeply ingrained in their minds what the religious life is like—the only problem with this is that their idea of religious life is so defined by rules about what one can and cannot do, that they have made the rules their god, and their hearts are far from God.  Jesus has come to call them back to faithful religion, but they’re not going to listen, because they are so certain as to how God should be worshiped that they are afraid of hearing contrary news.
Jesus and the disciples were in the grain fields on Sabbath, and if you’ve ever been poor and in a grain field, you know how tempting it is to eat some of the heads of grain.  The disciples were doing just that.  It’s nothing that you or I would think would be a problem, but the Pharisees lit upon this as doing work on the Sabbath.  I doubt that anyone else saw it as work, but the Pharisees were so zealous for their rules that the slightest violation, or any action that could be interpreted as a violation, was an egregious sin against God.  Thus, the Pharisees pounced, questions why the disciples were breaking the rules about the Sabbath. 
Jesus must have had pity for their enslaved hearts, prisoners to the elaborate system of rules that kept their hearts far from worship, but he kept pushing on them, hoping they would see the error of their ways, just as Jesus will challenge you and I, Luke, that we might see our ways as filled with errors.  Jesus asked the disciples if they remembered reading about King David and his companions eating bread that was, by law, only for the priests of the temple to eat.  Seeing their faces go blank at his question, he told them that the Son of Man, as he called himself, was lord of the Sabbath.
Luke, Sabbath is an often abused idea in our culture.  It’s meant to be a day of rest, of enjoying God’s abundant creation, but we have often neglected the practice, instead using it as a day to complete all the labors we haven’t finished in the six previous days.  Rather than enjoy what God has done, we place special emphasis on what we have to do.  We get it backwards.  Truly celebrating the Sabbath involves joy and trust in God rather than rules that seek to limit.  Some of the rules could be beneficial, but any time we start setting boundaries, we drift into the world of the legalistic, and Jesus wants our hearts to pursue God with reckless abandon, rather than be legislated into following him.
There was another clash between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath.  Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath and a man was present who had a withered right hand.  Knowing what we do about Jesus’ healing powers, we can sense the problem straight away—if Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, it’s considered work, but healing would be a great gift to this man.  Luke, what would you do—constrain this man’s life for one more day, or bring joy and faith in God to this man’s life straightaway?  The scribes and Pharisees watched to see what he would do, wondering if they would soon have a reason to accuse him of being a lawbreaker, while suspecting that he might do exactly that! 
Jesus knew what thoughts their minds held, and to put them in a tough position, he had the disfigured man come and stand beside him, doubtless feeling awkward about being the center of attention, while Jesus looked at the gathered crowd and asked, “Is the law of the Sabbath meant to help us do good or harm, to restore life or steal it away?”
One could feel the tension rise in the room, and the Pharisees shoulders slumped, sensing the impossibility of the situation.  They couldn’t give the (obvious) right answer, for that would free Jesus to heal the man, handing him a victory and accepting another bitter defeat, and they couldn’t stand in a synagogue and argue that the laws of the Sabbath were intended to harm humanity.  Surely they knew that would turn the citizens against them.  They were stuck, despising Jesus for embarrassing them and wishing for any solution to the quandary this man presented.
You or I, Luke, might reasonable give up our witch hunt and follow this brilliant man, this inspirational leader, even if you didn’t believe he was the Son of God.  We might follow a man who triumphed over those that opposed him and seemed destined for incredible things.  We might also wonder why the Pharisees opposed him, but that would be underestimating the sense of pride these men had.  They couldn’t drop their opposition, and they would see it through.
Jesus didn’t hear any answers to his question, and after a suitable pause he said to the patiently waiting man beside him and told him to stretch his hand out, and when he did a sense of wonder held all in the synagogue, and the joy of the now-healed man was transparent, radiating to every corner of the room.  Jesus does marvelous things!
But somehow, the Pharisees and scribes managed to shield themselves from this joy.  It was as though they could turn away all positive feelings about the man and focus only on his faults.  Their anger & fury was evident, and while many in the synagogue may have wondered why they were so angry about such a wonderful thing, the Pharisees were too busy discussing their plans for Jesus to notice or care about the reaction of others.  They were intent on ruining the man, and no crowd would keep them from this.
Interesting times these must have been for the disciples.  If you chose to follow Jesus, many may question the good sense of your decision, as you probably have of others, but none will oppose you as violently and maliciously as these Pharisees opposed Jesus and the disciples.  We live in different times, and while it is still not easy to be a Christian, it’s not nearly what it once was.  The biggest challenge is not from society but rather from the God who calls us to love him with all of our sinful hearts—to give up sin and follow him is more difficult than you can imagine, Luke, and it is a commitment that I seek to follow every day of my life, and I pray each day for new strength for my efforts to be a disciple.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Luke 5:27-39

Dear Theophilus,
I can’t imagine what it was like for those religious elites who were seated around the room, watching Jesus confound their expectations.  They must have been frustrated beyond belief, to watch miracles untold and hear others praising God, while they wanted to have Jesus cast out of the village, out of their world, but could find no good reason to do so.  Jesus seemed to enjoy needling them, riling up their defenses, and they must have bristled every time they overheard a conversation of people amazed at what he was doing.  They were so certain he was a fraud, worthy of death, and yet they could find nothing to confirm this suspicion. 
I fear having such cemented expectations, that I know exactly what I am going to find when I read these accounts of his life.  I am not certain where this expedition ends, but I want to have an open mind, to let the words and actions of Jesus speak for themselves, rather than meeting my own certainty about where they will lead.  Jesus lived an amazing life—there is no debate about that.  How amazing, and how it impacts me today, is a question worthy of pursuing without expectation.  If those religious elites had been able to set aside their certainty that they knew everything there was to know about Jesus, they may have found a very different man than the one they were so violently opposed to.  I’m sure the ire of the Pharisees is a well to which we will return again and again as we explore the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
I have learned that Jesus did not go and celebrate this triumph over the Pharisees as you or I might have done.  I can picture myself at a large party, toasting the Pharisees and the bewildered look on their faces as I have a laugh at their expense.  Instead, he was passing by a tax booth and saw a collector named Levi.  He called the man to follow him, and Levi left everything behind to do just that.
Theophilus, I can’t help but wonder if you or I would respond the same way to the call of Jesus.  If we were busy at our employment, and he walked up, would we sense an urge to follow the man?  Did everyone who Jesus called follow him, or do we only have accounts of the few that chose to do so?  Jesus would have had a massive following if his power was overwhelming in the sense that none could resist his call, and yet it’s hard to imagine refusing the bidding of one who is clearly so powerful?  Maybe it is a question of inertia—maybe some are so set in their course that even a bidding from one with authority as everyone said Jesus has can be resisted by a desire for comfort and a certainty about what life holds.  I imagine some weighing the call of Jesus versus the life they lead, one that may not be filled with highlights but puts a roof over the head and food on the table.  Did people resist the call because they didn’t want to take the risk?  Or did Jesus only call those who he knew would answer?  I can’t help but wonder, particularly as I wonder if Jesus calls me, if Jesus only approaches those with the right makeup.  Was Levi one of the few that answered, or one of the few that was called?
After Levi left his tax booth to follow Jesus, it’s said that he gave a huge banquet for Jesus at his house.  I’m sure you know the type—the one that starts small and grows larger by the minute.  Levi was so overwhelmed by the call of Jesus that he invited everyone he knew, and by the time they had called everyone they knew there was a huge crowd of tax collectors and others gathered around the table with Jesus.  For those who like to paint Jesus as the epitome of holiness by isolating him in the church, it could be tough to meld that image with Jesus as the center of a massive party with every type of individual pressing in on him for attention.  But perhaps the idea of what is holy is what is distorted—maybe, by the life he chose to live, Jesus is trying to help people see more than just the church as holy.  Maybe Jesus is trying to help us understand that dinner parties and festivals can be holy, too.  I don’t think that much of the activity I hear about from my friends is holy, but they’re not aiming for that, either.  I just think that locking Jesus up in the church doesn’t seem to be the right type of behavior.  At this particular party, those same Pharisees and scribes noticed his behavior and were rather offended by it.
They complained to some of those Jesus had called, wondering why he was eating and drinking with sinners.  Jesus overheard their backbiting comments and replied to them with his wisdom.  “The well don’t call the doctor, but the sick are in desperate need of one.  I have not come for the righteous, but have come in hopes that sinners might repent.”
Doubtless this quieted them down for bit.  It’s easy to imagine the disciples staring at the Pharisees, waiting for a reply.  In the meantime, I wonder where the line is for us.  Jesus seemed constantly surrounded by crowds, and he seemed at home at dinner parties as well as in the synagogue.  I wonder what type of violence has been done to religion by trying to restrain so much of the celebratory life that might happen at such events.  Perhaps the church would be wise to recognize beauty in the world the same way that Jesus did—not in celebrating raucous behavior, but in enjoying each other’s company.
The Pharisees did manage to come up with a reply.  They referenced John’s disciples, and questioned why it was proper for them to fast and pray while Jesus’ disciples seemed to spend more time eating and drinking.  I must admit, Theophilus, it’s a fair question—this does seem to be a leap away from what you or I would consider religious behavior.
Jesus reply is one that I have not managed to make complete sense out of.  He told them that wedding guests never fast while the bridegroom is there, and that there will be a day when he will be taken, and fasting will be appropriate in those days.  I suppose, Theophilus, that he was referring to himself.  He went on to tell a story about how no one would ever tear a piece of fabric off a new garment to affix it to and old one, for the new one would be torn and the fabrics would never match.  Jesus also used this analogy with wineskins—no one puts new wine into old skins, or else the wine will be ruined when the skins burst.  New wine goes into new wineskins, and this wine is preferable to the old.
I can’t say that I’ve made total sense of this statement, but I suppose it refers straight back to the idea of Jesus at a dinner party—like the Pharisees, I’m unable to make sense of what I do not expect.  It seems to make sense that Jesus would spend his time in the temple praying, but he has come to change everything, and we should be willing to go along with these changes.  We need to have open minds, as hard as that can be, and recognize that Jesus will act in ways unexpected.  It all seems a bit much for a man like myself, trying to venture out but not certain that I’m ready for the rules to change before I’ve even begun to play by them! 
I hope you can make sense of this all for me, Theophilus.  I depend upon your guidance for this lost soul.  I’m on board with Jesus when he talks about letting religion out of the church, that we might begin to find God at work in dinner parties and other celebrations of life, but I’m not sure exactly where to draw lines, about how to understand all of this. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Luke 5:17-26

Dear Luke,
Each of us has to decide who Jesus is in our lives.  He can be a great teacher, a healer, even a miracle worker, and nothing more if we so choose.  We can admire the man for who he is and choose to relegate the realm of the divine to the fantastical world, or we can choose to confront the idea of his divinity and acknowledge him as a Savior.  Jesus doesn’t make it easy on us, but I don’t know how comfortable I would be following Him if it was easy.  He challenges me and what I understand to be true, and I’m forced to wrestle with the fact that he had this power and authority and chose to use it to tend to those around him in need, those who were physically crippled as well as those in fetters to other types of sin.  It’s probably radically different than what most people would do with that kind of power, but in his life he displays a different ethic.  As I said, I think that the spiritually curious have to deal with this—that Jesus is different than what we might expect, and to follow him may never lead to riches, influence and power, but that there is untold wealth and abundance that God pours out if we are willing to acknowledge that what we think is important now may actually not be that vital to life.  Jesus is trying to lead us down a different road, and those who choose to follow must be willing to go, no matter the cost.
I know this sounds a bit intimidating to you now, but be patient and let your anxieties go.  All will be made clear in time, I assure you.  In the next chapter of Jesus’ life, he reveals a little more about how he is not going to conform to everyone’s expectations, how he has a different set of priorities, and how his power is not restrained to healings and exorcisms.
Picture Jesus teaching in a house one day, with Pharisees, teachers and other religious authorities crowded near.  They’ve come from near and far to hear the man, to watch him heal and examine his religion.  Word traveled to them, and they wanted to come examine him, to know what to make of him and determine how much of what they’ve heard is true.  I would think that many came with a healthy skepticism, wanting to get to the bottom of the question of Jesus’ power and identity.  Jesus was filled with God’s power, and so he was healing those who came before him, one miracle after another, and there was a surging crowd surrounding the house, preventing many from entering because so many are in need of his healing touch.  I can almost see people dangling from windows, just trying to catch a glimpse of the man they have heard so much about.
Now picture a group approaching the house, some young men carrying a litter with another paralyzed man on it.  They can easily pick out the house because it’s surrounded by so many just like them, friends bringing other ailing people to Jesus.  For a moment, their hearts sink because there is no possible way to push through the crowd and wind up within range of Jesus, but these are not your average young men, who might be discouraged by the crowd.  No, this is a resourceful group, and one of them points to the back of the building, to a low corner of the roof, and each suddenly has a twinkle in their eyes.  The paralyzed man misses it, but the next thing he knows he is being carried up onto the roof of the house, while other curious eyes follow these developments, and then he is set down while the other friends get to work pulling back some of the roof tile. 
Jesus, inside the house, looks up as some dust from the ceiling falls around his feet just in time to see daylight piercing through a newly-created opening in the roof, and before anyone knows what’s happening a very confused man is lowered down into the center of the room, while those in the room somehow push back to make room for this large addition to their congregation.  Everyone else is staring at the man on the litter, who seems as bewildered as they, but Jesus keeps looking up at the faces staring down from the hole in the ceiling, faces filled with faith that Jesus can heal their friend.  A sly smile starts at one corner of Jesus’ mouth, and completes itself by the time he looks down at the man lying at his feet.
“Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The focus is torn from this intimate scene by the immediate murmuring that begins in all parts of the room.  The teachers and religious elites that have come to watch Jesus begin tearing apart that statement, wondering who this man thinks he is if he believes he is able to forgive sins.  Their shock is evident as they proclaim in heightened whispers that only God can do this. 
Jesus understood their anger, the enraged and confused looks he was receiving as whispers tore across the room.  He spoke with quiet confidence as the room hushed to hear him.
“Why are your hearts so filled with questions?  Which is easier—to forgive sins or heal paralysis?  Let me show you proof of the authority that the Son of Man has, that you may believe that I can forgive sins.  Friend, stand up and return home.”
The stares of everyone in the room immediately transferred to the man, who slowly rose up, just as Jesus had commanded, wonder wrapped across his face, and tested each limb as an untrusted ally in the cause.  His smile beamed, and while it only found skepticism in the other faces in the room, Jesus met his gaze and smiled gently.  Then the man looked up at his friends, the ones whose faith had led Jesus to heal the man, who were laughing like children above the ceiling.  The crowd parted as this man carried his now unneeded mat through it, and he soon found his voice and began glorifying God for the miracle that had landed upon him.  At the door to the house he met his friends, who wrapped him in an embrace as they were amazed at all that had happened.  Soon the whole crowd was glorifying God, and many were talking about the strange things they had witnessed.
Luke, I know this is just another healing story to many, but take note of how Jesus is teaching people and doing more than just physical healing.  He’s addressing the soul, the heart, and urging people to look beyond the physical realm.  He’s pushing on the religious authorities to ask questions of their own hearts, and he’s more interested in healing this man’s soul than his body.  He heals the body, but he knows that there are different types of healing.  Jesus dwells in different realms than we can grasp with our human minds, but he has come to us so that we might be changed by him.  I hope that your big questions lead you into serious contemplation about who Jesus is, about how he interacts—notice his intense focus on the people who are before him, society’s elite and those that have been cast out—and be amazed by his love.  Everything Jesus does is rooted in this love, and as we delve deeper into the story, our understanding of the power and range and unplumbed depths of that love will only grow.

Friday, January 25, 2013

1/25/13 E-News


Potluck!!!—This Sunday!

Playground—The playground should be finished! Unfortunately, it will not be playable until Tuesday, after it is inspected. Make plans to come play!

Chili Cook-off—Thanks to everyone for braving the cold! Congratulations to Marilyn Suber, our chili cook-off champion!

New Hope News

Sunday School—This Sunday, the adult class will study the Synoptic Gospels.

Pray For:

All those dealing with the flu

JoAn Wright, as she recovers from shoulder surgery.

Pray for those who do not know Christ.


Keith's Random Thoughts

Many of you probably know that I have struggled with anxieties for the last 8 years. It's been a tough slog, and I recently started to see a new therapist in the hope that I can put this particular struggle to bed.
One of the things we were talking about was my struggles with accepting God's unconditional love. I love to talk about it, and throughout Scripture I see a witness of a God who pours his love out upon his people whether or not they deserve it. Somehow, the Devil worms its way into the human heart and convinces us that while God can love everyone else without condition, when it comes to ourselves, we often believe that due to our unworthiness, we are beyond the reach of God. It is absurd to write, and even more absurd to believe, and yet somehow I manage to stress myself out over this.
What my therapist mentioned is that after a certain amount of time believing this, it becomes an idol that I worship. Rather than trusting the God who reveals himself in Scripture, I have made God in my own image... And anyone who has read a page of the Bible can say that is wrong. It would be far wiser to trust God and his grace, and allow myself to shape my behavior based on this love, rather than try and mold my life to earn his love, a futile thought.
So I continue to struggle, but perhaps I can begin to struggle to accept God's love, rather than earn it, and my anxieties can be seen for the lies that are and the struggles they create.

Text for this Sunday
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

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Luke 5:12-16

Dear Theophilus,
I wish I could know the feeling of standing before Jesus, of hearing him teach and being able to decide whether or not to follow based on the tangible reality of Christ before me.  I admit my envy for Simon—whatever his opinion of the man, and I’m sure he had formed one based on how quickly word traveled about miracle workers, he was able to stand in awe before Jesus because of a personal experience.  You and I do not have such luxury—we are forced to read accounts of these stories, but the decision we are called to make is the same as Simon’s, only without the luxury of our eyes meeting Jesus’.  I am convinced that such an experience would make my decision easy.  Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my behalf, but it’s just so difficult to know what is real and how that relates to my life.
I wonder what Simon, James and John expected after they agreed to follow Jesus.  I wonder if they expected life to be one highlight reel after another, with boats overflowing with fish on every shore and followers constantly leaving behind boats to follow Jesus.  I wonder if they figured they’d be celebrities, trying to shield Jesus from throngs of would-be disciples and those in need of healing.  I wonder if they knew or expected anything, or if the power and authority of the man overwhelmed them to the degree that they were completely unprepared for what might come, knowing only that every experience was a worthwhile one because of the one that had chosen to follow.
I would imagine the next experience changed whatever expectations they had.  It might have been easy to think that healings were only the beginning—that soon the man would be taking over Jerusalem from the Romans—but in the next instance, they encounter a man with leprosy in some nameless city they were visiting.  While the disciples may have been inclined to keep their distance, the man bowed so low his face scraped the ground and begged for Jesus to heal him.  He kept repeating the words, “If you choose,” as though he knew that Jesus had the power to heal him but completely trusted his wisdom as to whether or not to do so.
Jesus, doing the unthinkable, stretched out his hand and touched this leper, this outcast of society, this unclean man, and said only the words, “I choose.  Be clean.” 
It was as though Jesus had flipped a switch—immediately, every part of his body was cleansed from this terrible disease, and the face of the man with leprosy was transformed.  Where once had been a face with despair written in every corner, there was now complete astonishment, and one could sense the shouts of praise that were welling up within him.  Before they could see the light of day, however, Jesus ordered him not to tell anyone about what had happened to him and sent him to the nearest priest, that he might, in accordance with the law, be ritually clean as Moses commanded.  He ordered the man to take an offering as a testimony.  I think Jesus could have asked the man to jump over the nearest house and he would have been prepared to do it, such was his gratitude. 
I don’t know if the man followed Jesus’ command to tell no one.  He may have tried, but every patch of skin on his body bore witness to Jesus’ healing power, and I doubt that he could have shielded all of it from curious eyes.  Word continued to spread throughout the country about Jesus’ powers, and the crowds that gathered to hear him speak only grew, as did the numbers of those wishing for healing from Jesus.  I am sure that if I had any condition in those days, I would bring it to Jesus, in the hopes that I, too, would be made well.  Jesus had to find solitary places in order to spend time in prayer.  It’s strange to think of Jesus praying if he really is the Son of God—I would have expected him to have a bit more of a direct line, but maybe he did it to teach us how important it is.  I wish I knew, Theophilus, the answer to this and every other question.  Can you illumine my search, and cast some light upon this path I walk? 
These stories seem to revolve around the power and authority Jesus has, over the human body, over demons, and even his authority over these disciples—he calls them in such a way that they don’t seem to have a desire to cling to the things of old.  I wonder where this authority leads, what he uses it for—to claim power over a city would seem to make the most sense to me.  He could rule Jerusalem—it would be the healthiest city ever!  He could have healing time once a week.  He could overthrow the Roman empire, or claim any number of titles for himself.  Who would oppose him?  It is such a curious tale, a story of a man born in poverty who has riches that we cannot understand, yet that amaze us.  Even the wealthiest man alive seems like he would be captivated by this man.  And yet, as I mentioned earlier, it is so difficult to wrestle with the truth of the story, with its impact on me, today.  Is it more than just a good story of a great man?  Or is that enough?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Luke 5:1-11

Dear Luke,
What marvelous words!  I love the stories of Jesus’ healings—they do something inside me, lifting up my heart, confirming within me that he is more than just a brilliant man who has a great way with words.  His healings and others miracles give evidence to a side of him that is more powerful than any ordinary man.  I hear these stories and find confirmation of his divinity.  I hope that someday the same is true for you.
It would be easy to follow a healer like Jesus if he didn’t have teachings such as the ones you mentioned.  His words had such an inflammatory effect on some—while they were certainly not unprecedented in the Jewish tradition, I’m not sure any of us react well to being directly confronted and accused of being unfaithful to our religious tradition.  I probably wouldn’t deal well with it, either.  It doesn’t excuse the mob’s reaction, but as we have pointed out, the words of Jesus challenge us to the core, and if we are to follow him, it is not a decision to be made lightly, for it is not easy to follow the man.  The elements and circumstances of the decision to follow Jesus are what we find next in the story.
As you mentioned, once word spread across the community, crowds flocked to Jesus, drawn by his power and his wisdom.  They wanted to be healed just as much as they wanted to see the man heal others.  I don’t know if I could ever tire of watching Jesus command a sick woman to rise up and be well!  These crowds began to be so numerous that he could scarcely find the air to speak, and so he had to find creative ways to create some distance between himself and the crowd.  For example, on the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret, people pushed so close in order to hear him speak that he was forced to improvise.  Fisherman had come in from their task and left their boats at the shore while they washed their nets, so he boarded one of these boats and asked the owner, a man named Simon, to put it out a little from shore, so that the crowd might not trample him in their excitement to hear him!  He sat down on the edge of the boat and taught the crowd while he was a little way from the shore.  I can picture the individuals at the front of the crowd, pushing deeper into the water, the gentle waves lapping at their knees as their hearts strain forward to hear the teachings of this man.  One can almost sense their eagerness as they inch forward, some more daring than others, getting as close to the man as possible.  I wonder if a few didn’t even dare to swim out and hang on the side of the boat.
When his teaching had concluded and the crowd had begun to dissipate, he turned to Simon and, with a curious twinkle in his eye, asked him to put the boat out farther, into the deeper water, that the nets might be let down once more for a catch.  He said it as though it was a simple request, but it was met with weariness and resistance.  Simon tried to be polite, for he had hung on every word with the same passion as the crowd, but his exhaustion won out in his reply.
Master, all night long we have labored in these waters.  Our nets returned empty to the boats each time, though we tried everything.  I will do this because you command it this one time because you ask.
His wooden motions revealed his physical exhaustion, but there was something in his face, some sense of wonder at what the man was asking him to do.  He was skeptical that this teacher knew something about fishing that Simon did not, but he also knew that the teachings he had heard today revealed that this man was more than just your typical rabbi. 
Still, it was a shock when the bets went down and were suddenly filled with so many fish that they began to break.  The boat began to rock back and forth as Peter raced from one end to the other, trying to comprehend what he was witnessing.  His eyes raced from the overflowing nets to the jubilant face of Jesus, who was clearly filled with joy at the scene unfolding before him.  As he listened to Simon signaling his partners to come help, Jesus’ shoulders began to shake with laughter at the look of urgency on Simon’s face.  Simon was so caught up in the task of fishing that he failed to notice Jesus again until both boats were so filled with fish that they threatened to sink.  As the water lapped perilously close to the ship’s railings, Simon saw Jesus and the abundance within him and fell down before him, his face filled not with thoughts of fish but with deeper things, with a recognition that the teacher in his boat was more than a brilliant man who understood the prophets and the art of fishing.  This man held within him every treasure that Simon desired in life and some that he hadn’t begun yet to understand, and Simone saw himself, covered in fish and human exhaustion, and all he knew to do was to fall at Jesus’ knees.  The words he spoke were scarcely audible, but Jesus heard every one of them, spoken from the depths of Simon’s heart.
I am a sinful man, Lord, and I beg you to go away from me.
At that moment the fish barely mattered, as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, paused, too, to watch the scene unfold, to see clearly that the rest of their lives would never be the same because this man had boarded their partner Simon’s boat.  Somehow, over the commotion of the fish clamoring for release, they heard the reply of Jesus as if it was spoken directly to each of them.
Do not fear; you will no longer be fishermen, but rather you will spend your days catching people.
The fish were hauled in and the boats were brought to shore, but everything was done differently, as though they knew it was the last time they would ever do so as their life’s work, as though they knew that these fish didn’t matter the way they once had.  What was a record catch for the three of them was now a footnote in the pages of the histories of their lives, and the nets were torn would not be mended by their calloused hands.  When they finally reached the shore and the witnesses that had gathered at the sound of Simon crying for help, it was all left behind as Simon, James and John left everything to follow Jesus.
Luke, I pray that this story of call might not intimidate you, but would rather amaze and astound you at the heartfelt reaction of three men to Jesus.  I know that many struggle with this story—they want to follow Jesus, but fear leaving everything behind.  I do not promise that following Jesus will be easy, and I assure you that there are things that you will have to leave behind that, right now, seem like things you could never imagine setting down.  But when you are confronted with the majesty of Jesus, no sacrifice seems too small.  We all struggle with what to set down and what Jesus calls us to hold on to, and I dare not say that I have figured it all out, but I will pledge that we get help along the way, that we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves.  Jesus calls us to a heartfelt, total conversion when he calls us, and we are to leave behind the sin and trappings of our old life, and I promise that it is not easy, but I assure you that it will not be as intimidating when you are called as it seems now, weighing the pros and cons of discipleship from an emotionally removed perspective.  When Jesus calls, just as Simon, James and John recognized, you see that everything you gain in Jesus far outweighs what you will ever leave behind.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Luke 4:31-44

Dear Theophilus,
I can’t imagine that God looks favorably on those who attempt to throw his son off a cliff!  I hope they came up with some mighty good excuses before they had to face God on judgment day—I know I would be rather perturbed by their efforts, especially if it’s understood that those harsh words of Jesus were meant to save them!
It’s tough to wrestle with the difficult words of Jesus.  As a hot-blooded male, I know myself well enough to know that I would be rather riled up if Jesus inferred that I might be on the outside looking in, especially if I lived my life in the understanding that God’s love was very close to me.  How would you, Theophilus, as a man of faith, respond to such harsh words from Jesus and from John?  If I were in your shoes, I’d be angry at the man, and my defensiveness would probably close any doors of receptivity that might have been opened when he first stood to preach.  It’s easy to look back and say I would have heard what he said objectively, but I know myself better than that—I would have been steamed!  I’m not sure I would have been angry enough to push Jesus off a cliff, but I can’t say for certain that if a mob began to move in that direction that I would have the resolve to step aside.  I certainly wouldn’t be one standing in their way, trying to urge them to use caution and carefully consider how they might amend their ways to be in line with the words of this carpenter’s son. 
I’m not sure any of us like to hear words that challenge us.  I think we much prefer to hear words of affirmation, words that confirm our choices and our path in life.  This entire project has upset me to a certain extent because it goes against the choice I have made to not have faith in God.  To some degree it remains an academic exercise.  But I know that if I carry on in the same direction, at some point it will surely challenge more than just my mind—and then I will have a decision to make.  I hope that I will reach that point with an open mind and an open heart, but I fear that my own defenses will raise their ugly heads and that I will be casting the possibility of  faith off the proverbial cliff.
Jesus could never have survived a public ministry that consisted merely of confrontation.  Eventually, a crowd would have managed to succeed at trying to kill him.  Also, there would have been little merit to any claim that he was more than a prophet—his words needed to be backed up with actions.  To that end, Jesus went to Capernaum, which is a city in Galilee, and taught there on the Sabbath.  His teaching was amazing—people who listened to the man teach were astounded at the power and authority with which he taught.  It was clear that he was not just another itinerant teacher or preacher—he was something more.  His actions that followed his teachings were the proof of their suspicions. 
Where he was teaching, an unclean demon was inhabiting a man.  (I will confess that these things are not easy for me to relate—the whole idea of spirits and demons are so foreign to me that I feel as though I am telling some child’s tale, but this is the story that was related to me, so I will tell it as it was told me.)  In the midst of Jesus’ teaching, the man (or the demon, however that works!) screamed, “Leave us alone, Jesus of Nazareth!  What is your business?  Are you here to destroy us?  You are the Holy One of God—I know just who you are!”
At this point, surely the entire synagogue was still, eyes racing between the man and the teacher.  Minds were whirling even faster, taking in what the man had said, piecing together these accusations with the thoughts they had while he was teaching.  Everyone waited to see what might happen next.
Jesus, speaking not so much to the man as to the demon, rebuked him, “Quiet, and come out.”
Simple words, but what happened next was not so simple.  The man was thrown to the ground before everyone, and while people gasped they could sense the demon emerging from this man without harming his body.  I wish I could know if they saw something visible rise from his body, but there is no report as to this question.  Their attention was torn between Jesus, standing sternly before them, and the man on the ground, somehow shocked still at what had happened.  They were amazed, asking each other what Jesus had said, incredulous at how he spoke with power and authority, having not seen a man command an unclean spirit to emerge from a person like this. 
You can imagine, Theophilus, how quickly word spread throughout the region.  People must have raced from the building to relay the events to neighbors and friends—such a thing would have been hard to describe, and while I’m sure the tale got larger and larger with each telling, I have pieced together what I believe to be true to relate to you.  Even without exaggeration it is an incredible tale—one I would have to see with my own eyes to truly believe.  I search and search for some alternate explanation for the facts that are before me, but I am empty, uncertain what to make of it all.
Had it been just this healing, perhaps we could say it was just a singular instance of the unexplainable occurring before us.  However, Jesus went from this synagogue to Simon’s house, where his wife’s mother was suffering from the fever.  The reports of Jesus’ power had reached this place, and so the people asked Jesus about this woman, if he could heal her, if he had power over every body.  Before a wide-eyed group, each trying to capture every movement of the man, Jesus stood over the woman and rebuked the fever with the same sternness and authority with which he had spoken to the demon. 
The fever left as quickly as the demon had, and the woman visibly recovered before their very eyes, the fever vanishing and all traces of illness leaving her body.  She regained her strength so quickly that she was up and serving them as though nothing had ever happened. 
Well, one healing is incredible, and two will cause news to travel even faster.  Before the end of the day every sick person in the region was racing to Jesus, some brought by friends and family.  It mattered not what kind of illness they had—Jesus laid hands upon them all, curing each one.  Demons were being cast out too quickly for anyone to count, some of them screaming at Jesus, calling him the Son of god.  Jesus rebuked the demons, ordering them not to speak of their knowledge of his identity as the Messiah, but all around were amazed at what was occurring before them.  Some stayed for hours just watching the man, not believing what their eyes were relaying to their minds.  Friends spent time trying every different explanation for what was happening, but each one, by the end of the day, had to accept the miraculous.  Some went away not believing, convinced there had to be an alternative explanation, but no satisfactory one was offered. 
The next morning, you can imagine the crowd that was searching for him.  A man who can cure every malady is in high demand, and they had many ailing who wanted his attention.  Even the well didn’t want to see him go, for this was such a singularity that they did not want to see him departing, for such a thing must be held onto, examined from every angle, until an explanation is found.  They found him in a deserted place where he had gone, and they wanted to learn from him, to listen to him, to have him lead them.  They tried to prevent his leaving, but he insisted that the good news of God’s kingdom must be announced and proclaimed in other cities also, for he wasn’t sent for the purpose of just one place, but for every place.  Against such words they had no argument, and while they still insisted that he stay, they did so half-heartedly, knowing that a man with such power would not assent to their arguments, knowing that they were filled with enough stories to keep the town buzzing for generations. 
As for Jesus, he went to the synagogues in Judea, proclaiming his message, and challenging all those who heard about him.
As for me, I read this story with jealousy, wishing I could have been there, wishing I could have seen the look on Jesus’ face as he cast out demons, wishing I could interview the man who was healed.  I want to know if the demons were real, if Jesus’ power was palpable to witnesses, if the stories still travel the countryside.  I want to hear the man preach, to experience the authority with which he spoke, to know if he really is who the demons claim that he is.
What wonders are contained in this man’s life!  I hope to someday know about them all, that each may be held up before the light and examined as a precious jewel, that I may know if it is real treasure or merely counterfeit stones, the work of a fraudulent, but brilliant, artist.  I can only hope that my pursuit of the truth will lead me to a place where such revelations may come.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Luke 4:14-30

Dear Luke,
I must say that I am cheered by the final sentence of your letter—I believe that the devil does indeed tempt us to despair, to give up, to reach for each answers when the truth, especially a difficult truth, draws near.  Faith in Jesus Christ is not easy, and I believe it should change your life, and as such, it demands a thoughtful, mature response.  To make an emotional decision now without intellectual understanding and a community to support you leaves you in danger of feeling lost when the first crisis of faith hits later, and I am certain it will.  A deep faith, built upon a carefully considered faith in God, will be able to last through the storms of life.  When waves are washing over your head and the storm beats at the door, you will be glad you endured to the end and made your decision then, rather than rushed to judgment because you grew impatient in your search. 
As for some of your other questions, I must let you come to those conclusions.  I do not believe that one can know about the existence of God and not be driven to worship him, but understand that I have never stood in your shoes and wondered about the benefits and costs of coming to faith.  Faith in God is the milieu in which I lived this life of mine, and so it is impossible to remove myself from my context and consider the case from your side.  The more I learn about God, the more drive I am to worship.  I hope that you reach the same conclusion, and yet I will let you reach it in your own time.  I do not pressure you to decide, believing you to be fully capable of such a decision, and yet I will support you every step of the journey.
Your previous story is certainly a strange one in these times.  It’s hard to imagine telling this to a child and having them believe it at face value, what with society’s current dismissal of demons and the like.  Yet, like you, I believe it to be true.  While there were no witnesses beyond Jesus, multiple sources confirm it, and so we must wrestle with it, with what it means for the story as well as for the bigger picture of all of creation.  The reality of the devil and his temptations seem to be clear with every page of the newspaper, but he is readily dismissed by many.
It seems as though the temptation of Jesus was a sort of preparation for his public ministry.  Maybe it was thought that if he could resist that temptation that nothing else would prove to equal the pressure of that particular crucible.  From what I have heard, he leapt directly from one trial to the next.  The Spirit’s power filled him as he left the desert, and he returned to Galilee, where a report, probably of his baptism, began to spread throughout the country.  Thousands hung upon his every word, and he was the talk of most towns.  Jesus visited many synagogues, and his name was praised by all.  It was one of these synagogue visits, surprisingly to his hometown of Nazareth, where he had been raised, that things suddenly went very wrong. 
 It was the Sabbath, and so Jesus, being a good Jew, went to synagogue.  I’m sure countless Jews pressed to the front to capture every word that was said, and so when Jesus stood up to read the scroll of Isaiah, a prophet, and unrolled it, one could probably hear a pin drop in the room.  Word had spread fast about this man, and now he was here in the flesh, and no one wanted to miss a thing.
Jesus read from the scroll, I am covered in the Spirit of the Lord, who has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  I will announce release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
With that, he sat down, having given the rolled scroll back to the attendant.  Not a single eye deviated from Jesus, and he said very simply to the awaiting crowd, “As you have heard these words, this Scripture is fulfilled today.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive—he spoke graciously, and they wondered at this man who had grown up as the son of Joseph, the carpenter. 
But Jesus continued, and this is where the story wanders into deeper waters, where it changes from a feel-good story about a man’s homecoming to a life-threatening tale of anger and passion.
Jesus continued in his teaching.  You will probably quote the proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself’ to me, and you will demand that I do the same things here that have been reported in Capernaum.  But I must say that a prophet does not find acceptance in his hometown.  I am not the first—think of Elijah, who was not sent to any of widows in Israel, when there was famine for over three years, going to help the widow in Sidon, at Zarephath.  Or remember Elisha, who did not heal any of Israel’s lepers, but instead cleaned Naaman the Syrian.
Not exactly light words for his homecoming, and the crowd reacted with fury and rage upon hearing them.  They did not stop at words of hatred, but rather drove the man out and up the nearest hill, in the hopes of hurling him off the cliff and ending any dispute.  Jesus somehow escaped their murderous intent, slipping through a crowd blinded by anger and going on his way.  It’s hard to imagine that Jesus might have endured in a challenge with the devil and then been caught up by a crowd seeking his head because of a short sermon he preached against them, but this will not be the last time a group turns against Jesus for his harsh words.
Luke, I hope that you get a picture of Jesus as someone who challenges each of us.  In my life of faith, I have been challenged constantly to not grow comfortable and complacent, to continue seeking God in all I do.  I don’t believe that Jesus challenges us to make us angry, but, like this crowd, it is easy to grow defensive in the face of confrontation.  I believe that God does it out of love, because he wants us to keep growing, but we don’t always hear it in love.  Don’t believe that Jesus does these things just to rile us up, but rather think of them as an opportunity to re-examine your life and make sure that you are living faithfully.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Experience God's Kindness, Part 2, 1-20-13

Malachi 3:6-12

 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.



Let's talk for a moment about indulgence.  We all have indulgence foods.  Indulgence foods are the foods that you know are not healthy, that you know are not good for you, but you eat them anyway, just because they are so good and they make you feel good.  Indulgence foods are the foods you eat when you've just received some goods news and want to celebrate.  Indulgence foods are the foods you would eat three times a day if someone came out and said they were healthy.
What's your indulgence food?

I love big hamburgers.  The type that you have to stare at for a little while to figure out how to pick it up without it falling apart.  The hamburgers that just look messy, that take up way too much of the plate.  I think they're simply marvelous.  Plus, when you cover the rest of the plate with french fries, to the point that they're spilling over the edge of the plate when you set it down, it's a beautiful thing.  But do you know what it isn't? 


So what do I do?

Order a salad with it. 

The salad makes it healthy.  Because I have a salad, I can eat whatever I want.  Cookies and ice cream for dessert?  Had a salad?  More fries?  Sure, I had a salad.  Rachel didn't finish her burger?  I'll take care of it—had a salad.

We do this with God sometimes.  Sometimes we knowingly do things we aren't supposed to, but we say a little prayer beforehand and think that makes it ok.  The bad news is that it doesn't.  If we know it's wrong, a little prayer won't make it right.

We know what food is healthy.  We know what food is unhealthy.  If we're really honest for a moment, as hard as this is going to be, we can all take a moment and admit that fried chicken isn't good for us.  Let's just own that for a moment.  We can go back to denial soon, but we can all share the confession that we eat food that isn't good for us.

Now, let's imagine that we all decided to eat healthy.  We know what a healthy diet is.  If we all decided to follow it, it would change our lives, right?  We'd be different people!  We'd feel better, we'd move and sleep better—our bodies would be closer to the ideal, closer to how they're supposed to work.
But we don't eat like that.  We like to indulge every now and again.  Sometimes, it's hard to eat healthy.  Sometimes we just don't like to.
But deep inside, we know how we're supposed to eat.  And if we did really stopped eating bad things and started eating good things, we'd be healthier.

Our faith isn't so different.  We're talking about repentance today.  Repentance isn't fun.  If we do it the way it's supposed to be done, it's not easy.  But it's important. 

See, the thing is, in Scripture, God tells us how we're supposed to live.  We know we're supposed to put God first and trust him in absolutely everything.  We know we're not supposed to worry and we're supposed to love everyone, regardless of what they've done to us or someone we love.  We know we're supposed to let our lives get caught up in service of others, and we're called to spend time alone with God in prayer.
But we don't. 

This has effects.  Just like eating bad food has effects on our health, the sinful choices we make have effects on our lives.  We don't function as well as we should.  We don't live the abundant life God wants us to live.  We don't live to the highest of our possibilities, because sin prevents that.

In our Scripture reading from Malachi today, God is talking to his people about this.  See, the rule is that they were supposed to give the first 10% to God.  Didn't matter what it was, the first 10% went to God.  The first, the best—nothing was too good for God.
But that's hard.  Giving 10% to God is hard enough, but giving our best 10% to God—that's even harder.  Especially if we're called to do it before the rest of the harvest has even come in.  That's pretty radical dependence on God, so we hedge our bets.  We hold some back.  We hold back some of the percentage, and we hold back some of the best, just in case God doesn't come through.
This is the sin the people were guilty of—they weren't living up to their end of the tithe.  God called them on it.  He told them to return to him, to repent of their sins, and amend their ways.
He then went on to tell them that he would bless them if they followed the law.  He says he'll open up the windows of heaven if they tithe—blessings will spill out upon them, and they'll live the abundant life God talks about.  If they are willing to trust God completely, God promises that he will come through—he tells them to test him, to give him the chance to prove that he is faithful.  But they have to trust God.

Friends, we're in the same position.  God knows that we aren't fully dependent on him.  God knows we're holding something back for ourselves, hedging our bets in case God doesn't come through.  We say we depend on God, but we're afraid and uncertain of what total dependence on God is, so we hold a little back. 
And it's sinful.  It's the construction of idols in our hearts, idols in our lives, and slowly, we begin to worship them.

So what Romans says is this—that the kindness of God, the blessings and riches and mercy of God, is poured out upon us to lead us to repentance.  When we see the love and wonder of God, it should be to us a reminder that we aren't living as God intended for us to live.  It's like the produce section at the grocery store—it's a reminder to us that we're eating too much mac and cheese, and that we need to change our ways. 

What God is saying is that if we repent of our sin and return to him, it's the first step in moving toward the abundant life Christ talks about.  God promises us that if we trust in him completely, if we follow him with all of our life, he'll bless us in ways we cannot understand.  God takes our repentance and does a work in it—he changes us into a different kind of people, a kind of people who delight in doing his will.
But we need to repent, and honestly repent—this isn't like just getting a salad with a massive heart attack on a plate.  This is changing how we live, true repentance.  This is going to God in prayer and allowing him to do a work in you.  This is hard, hard work.

Repentance isn't easy.  But it's necessary.  God's kindness should lead us there, but God doesn't then leave us alone—he changes us, transforming us into the kind of people who delight in doing God's will, in living the life he has imagined for us, one caught up in love of God and love of neighbor.  But to get there, we need to repent.

Let us pray 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Luke 4:1-13

Dear Theophilus,
I cannot tell you how tempting it is to jump straight to the end of the story.  So much of the story is weighted there, and yet I feel like a thorough examination demands that we wade through the details en route to the finale.  I am grateful for the list of Jesus’ ancestors—there are some big names in there, as well as some that I have never heard.  I agree that we could invest significant amounts of time into researching each and every name, but I trust that they are there to give weight to the man’s life—to link him to the past, which is so important in the Jewish tradition.  Jesus did not simply arrive out of nowhere, but rather is a continuation of a long history of faith.  It’s easier for a man like me to grasp his story when placed inside the truth of a larger story.  I would daresay that it’s easier to believe in a God who has a long tradition of belief than one who seems to arise new out of the desert. 
I turn from this to actual stories about the life of Jesus, which should consume the bulk of our correspondence through the duration of the story.  We know so little about how he arrives, but suddenly the stories come in a deluge, pouring down upon us one after another, some with little or no context and others with more.  John has played his part in the play, and while he may yet appear again, the focus shifts now to the primary mover in this tale:  Jesus of Nazareth.  While the historical record of many of these reflections I do not doubt, the aspect of the miraculous, of the supernatural, I turn a skeptical eye toward.
After the baptism you mentioned, an event that I find, frankly, a little hard to believe happened as you say it did, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the same Spirit that filled him at baptism into the wilderness.  It seems an unlikely sequel to the previous event—surely people were demanding to spend time, to know this man who was claimed by God in a booming announcement across the heavens.  Wouldn’t he want to stay and capitalize on such a public event?  I must say I don’t fully understand the reasoning for him fleeing into the wilderness at such a time, but considering that we are still discussing it today, clearly there was a reason for it. 
For forty days he fasted in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil.  I can only imagine the hunger that consumed him by the end of his time there, and I will admit that I would not have the strength to resist any temptation if I didn’t eat for forty hours, let alone forty days.  Perhaps this strength is our first hint that Jesus is different than we.
At this nadir, the devil came and said, “Take this stone and turn it into bread if you are the Son of God.”
Jesus, hunger surely dripping from every pore, looked beyond the simple task and saw something deeper beneath it.  When he replied to the devil, he quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures:  “One does not live on just bread.”
How valuable it would be to see this in real life, to see the facial expressions upon each player in the scene—I’d love to see the stony resolve of Jesus, weakened by hunger but determined to defeat his tempter.  I can imagine the wry smile of the devil as he offers these temptations, and the shock of watching a hungry man turn down a simple request for food.  I can imagine the scene as hushed, still, as all of creation waits to see if the man will turn down what the devil offers, as generations of men have been unable to do.
Knowing that each man has a weakness and unaware, or perhaps unwilling to fully realize, that Jesus was not just a man, the devil took him to a place where all the kingdoms of the world appeared before them, and the devil offered their glory and authority to Jesus, for they are in the devil’s hand, and he is free to give it to whomever he pleases.  Granted, it would not be given freely—only with the condition that Jesus worship the devil.
Looking upon all the world, all of its glory and splendor, all of the wondrous riches and resources, Jesus looked the devil in the eye and once more quoted those Scriptures:  Worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.
Surely, the devil’s mouth opened a little in shock at such a reply.  The devil has seen countless men bend at far lesser offers, and here is this man, turning down a chance to rule the world.  Jesus’ spine must have straightened a little as he saw the devil’s shock, and he must have believed that he could win this battle with whatever strength he had within him.
From there, the devil whisked him to the highest point of the temple, from the point where they could see all of Jerusalem and the lands that surrounded them, and the devil tempted him, “Jump from here, for if you are the Son of God, it says in those same Scriptures you love to quote that ‘God will order his angels regarding you to protect you’ and ‘not a toe on your foot will be dashed against his stone, for their hands will lift you up.’
That sly devil uses the Scriptures Jesus knows so well to twist Jesus into a difficult place, but I can almost see a twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he looks at the devil and replies simply, strongly, “It also says, ‘Don’t put God to the test.’
Such wisdom and knowledge must have frustrated the devil more than he knew he could be frustrated, and it is not difficult to hear him scream in dismay at the replies of Jesus, for he had met an adversary he could not tame.  I wonder if he knew fear at that moment, or if he set his jaw and went about finding any possible way to defeat the man.  He left Jesus, knowing that other opportunities would arise, and prove more advantageous to him then.
Relaying this information to you, it’s easy to get caught up in the tale.  I’m composing what I believe to be a factual case for your information, and yet I can’t simply relay this without having to wrestle with the truth of the whole case.  If this scene is true, and I believe it is, it clearly indicates that Jesus is more than just a man, and that there is a world more than just what I can see.  If so, does that prove the existence of God?  And if that is true, must I then give my life to him in worship?  Do those two things necessarily go hand in hand?  Or can I believe that God is real and yet have no desire to worship him?  Or perhaps find no consequences if I choose not to worship him if I find him not to my liking? 
I wish the case was clear, Theophilus, but a lifetime of ambiguity has left me in a place where it is so difficult to see clearly what is before me.  I know there are many chapters yet to write, in this tale as well as my own life, and so I will strive for patience.  Perhaps it is that same devil that leads me to despair now, tempting me to give up the search before I have truly begun!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

1/17 E-News


Men's Breakfast—The next men's breakfast will be this Saturday, January 19 @ 8.

Chili Cook-off—Next Wednesday, January 23. See if you can topple reigning champion Dewey French. (Let the church office know if you plan to bring a pot of chili.)

New Hope News

Church Office Closed —This Monday for MLK day.

Sunday School—This Sunday, the adult class will study Luke's Gospel.

Prayer Service—The Sunday night prayer services will continue in February.

Pray For:

All those dealing with the flu

Our new elders—Walt, Peter, Larrie & JoAn.

Pray for those who do not know Christ.


Keith's Random Thoughts

Jesus Christ is Lord.

Everything else in this world can be pretty confusing. I don't know what the best way to tackle gun control is. I know we need to address the issue, but I'm not sure what the most effective way to do so is. National debt? I've solved it many times over in theory, but the reality of what effect those cuts would make them difficult. I don't know how best to keep our children safe, and I'm not exactly sure how best to combat the decreasing attendance in mainline denominations. Heck, I don't even know who to believe in the Manti Te'o and his fake girlfriend hoax.

But I know that Jesus Christ is Lord. I know that Christ has been Lord since before God spoke a creative word over the formless deep, and I know that Christ will be Lord long after the sun has ceased to shine and the waves have ceased their constant assault on the beaches and the mountains have fallen into the sea. I know that Christ reigns in power, and that no one, no thing, can dethrone him.

Of this I am certain.

Some days, that is all. But I also believe that it is enough. If I know nothing else in this world, that will get me through.

Jesus Christ is Lord.

Text for this Sunday
Malachi 3:6-12

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

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