When Achievement Becomes “Rubbish”

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Philippians 3:4b-11

No Confidence in the Flesh

   If anyone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

     7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Today’s epistle passage continues the series from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. And in this passage, Paul reflects on his achievements before becoming a follower of Jesus and being chosen by God as the leading missionary to the gentile world.

You might remember that before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Paul had been one of the most respected leaders in the Jewish religious establishment of his day. In today’s reading, he recites some of his qualifications. He was descended from a long line of Hebrews and a member of a prestigious tribe – the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was also a member of the Pharisees, which was a group of Jews who pledged to obey the law of God as strictly as possible.

But Paul’s credentials even went beyond what’s listed in this passage. What Paul doesn’t say here is that he was a student of the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel, so he was considered to have about the best education it was possible for a young Hebrew to get.

Paul was also a citizen of the Roman Empire, which was fairly rare for Jews of his time. The New Testament scholars say he seems to have been trained in Greco-Roman rhetoric, because his speeches and letters have the kind of structure taught in that discipline. Those speeches and letters also show that Paul had a pretty good background in Greek philosophy – good enough that he could use principles of that philosophy in his ministry among the Greeks.

On top of all that, Paul had been the leader of the Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus. In the early years of the movement, most of those who followed Jesus were Jews, and most of them continued to observe the religious traditions of their people. Historians believe many of them went to the Jewish synagogues on Saturday and then participated in Christian worship on Sundays. Because they continued to practice the Jewish faith, the followers of Jesus were vulnerable to Jewish authorities.

Although Roman law applied throughout the area, the Romans allowed the Jewish leaders to enforce discipline within the synagogues. That meant Paul and the other Jewish leaders could throw Christians out of the synagogues, or even have them lashed or imprisoned. They could spread the word among Jewish congregations not to do business with followers of Jesus and harass them in other ways. And while the Jews weren’t technically allowed to execute people, if a Jewish mob occasionally stoned followers of Jesus, the Romans weren’t about to get too worked up about it. That’s what happened to Stephen, and while that stoning apparently wasn’t an ‘official action’ of the Jewish leadership, Paul stood by and watched the coats of the mob who killed Stephen.

So the point is that Paul was pretty much a big shot among the Jewish leaders of his day.

But now, Paul says, having encountered Jesus and become one of his most devoted disciples, he regards all those achievements of his former life as so much ‘rubbish.’ In addition to coming to a deep, personal faith in Jesus, Paul has also experienced a major change in his thinking. He no longer believes that he can accomplish ‘a righteousness of his own,’ by observing the law and following Hebrew practices and rituals. Now, Paul says, he has become convinced that his only way of being righteous in God’s eyes is by faith in Jesus.

Paul also believes that the ultimate source of Jesus’ great power is not his wisdom as a teacher (as great as that wisdom obviously was) but rather his suffering and death on the cross. And Paul expresses a longing to share in those sufferings, because that will allow him to share in Jesus’ resurrection, as well.

For those of us who are trying to follow Jesus 2,000 years later, it seems to me that Paul’s teaching – and his example – call us to embrace two ideas.

The first is that trying to achieve a level of righteousness through our own ‘religiosity’ is a waste of time. And not only a waste of time, but also dangerous. When we fall in love with our own ideas about what a righteous person should do and not do, we can end up failing to recognize real righteousness because it doesn’t match our preconceived notions. It’s important to remember that all the Jewish leaders who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion did it because they believed they were serving God and promoting righteousness. But they had come to mistake their own customs for real righteousness. That can happen among Christians, just as it did among the Jews of Jesus’ day.

The second important idea here is that as followers of Jesus, sharing in his righteousness means being willing to share in his sufferings. Almost none of us will be called to the same kind of suffering Jesus himself experienced. But if our lives don’t include any real and meaningful sacrifices for the sake of our discipleship, then we should probably ask ourselves whether God is going to regard that discipleship as real. If our discipleship doesn’t cost us anything, it’s probably not going to allow us to share in the righteousness of Jesus.

Let’s pray together: Lord, take away our desire to achieve righteousness by doing and saying religious things. Help us instead to follow Jesus more and more closely so that we can share in the true righteousness that comes only from him. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 51; Amos 5:6-15; and Luke 18:9-14.)

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Launching an Earth Stewardship Action Network (and some steps YOUR church could consider)

Caring for Our Environment, Serving Those in Need

By Keith Mills

Our new Earth Stewardship Action Network has been given a mission of earth care and earth justice, and everyone in our Presbytery is invited to participate in this ministry in some way. Our intention is to be both faithful and practical; a specific example follows.

At a Presbytery of the Western Reserve meeting in early 2016, a vote was taken on a potential General Assembly overture that PC(USA) not divest from fossil fuel company investments, believing this move would be counter-productive and divisive. That motion carried, but with the strong recommendation that PCUSA congregations take action to reduce their carbon emissions, specifically though energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

Therefore, all Presbytery of the Western Reserve congregations are invited to commit to decreasing annual building energy use by at least 10% over time. This is a win/win path that reduces church utility spending — which can be redirected to missions, programs and staff — and reduces our pollution emissions. One justice issue around air pollution is its link to poverty: pollution tends to most dramatically affect low income neighborhoods, as inner city rates of asthma and COPD are among the highest in North East Ohio.

Reducing energy use starts with simply turning off church lighting and equipment when not in use. Each church can restrict hours the building is open, by, for example, closing the church on one night.  Upgrading at least 80% of church lighting to LEDs and using motion sensors over time is recommended, as these investments fairly quickly result in reducing lighting costs. Using setback thermostats reduces heating and cooling costs when the building is unoccupied. Finally, tracking energy use over a period of time helps to confirm that we have actually reduced energy use, and takes weather differences into account.

This path has been followed by many congregations across the country, and is both faithful and practical.   A proposal to Committee on Outreach, if and when approved, will provide monetary grants for congregations who commit to moving along the energy reduction path. Any congregation can start small, installing 5-10 LED bulbs at a time.   Energy efficiency project loans for larger projects are available through PCUSA.

Please contact the Earth Stewardship Action Network at earthstewardship@preswesres.org if you would like to share an earth stewardship example that you are passionate about, or if you have questions for (or would like a visit from) one of our Network members.

Every blessing,
Keith Mills

Jesus and the Living Water That Flows From Him

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John 7:37-52

Jesus at the Festival of Tabernacles

     37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

     40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

     41 Others said, “He is the Christ.”

       Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

 Unbelief of the Jewish Leaders

     45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

     46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.

     47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

     50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

     52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

Today’s gospel reading comes from the Gospel of John, and it comes at the end of a section of that gospel that tells about Jesus’ attendance at the Festival of Tabernacles, which was an annual festival held at harvest time – a sort of Hebrew version of our Thanksgiving holiday. In earlier parts of the story, we’re told that by this time, Jesus had started to attract a wide following, and that his brothers had encouraged him to make an appearance at the festival as a kind of promotional opportunity for his ministry. But of course, that kind of self-promotion wasn’t what Jesus understood his ministry on earth to be about. So instead, he went to Jerusalem quietly – “under the radar,” we might say. And once he got there, he went to the Temple and started teaching those who gathered around him.

John describes some of the controversy that had started to spring up around Jesus, with some people regarding him as a good man and an amazing teacher, while others had been convinced by the religious authorities that he was a ‘deceiver.’ John also reported that the rumor was circulating that the leadership wanted Jesus dead.

Today’s passage takes place on the final day of the festival. And in order to get the point of what’s happening, it’s important to know that one of the rituals of the Festival of Tabernacles involved publicly pouring out water before the worshipers. On this occasion, Jesus stepped forward before the assembled crowd and announced what he had told the Samaritan woman at the well – that he was the source of “living water” that would quench the spiritual thirst of those who experienced it. And what’s more, that this living water would allow those who drank it to become a spiritual spring flowing into the lives of others.

That’s a metaphor that we followers of Jesus should probably think about from time to time – that if we are really ‘drinking in’ the Holy Spirit as it flows out of the teaching of Jesus, then that Spirit will be flowing out of us as well, so that others will encounter it through us. Jesus didn’t intend that his followers would just receive his teachings and the Holy Spirit they open us to – but rather that we would become a conduit for those teachings and that Spirit to flow into the lives of others.

The last part of today’s reading tells more about the controversy that surrounded Jesus. Some people thought he was the Messiah (That’s what ‘Christ’ means.), while others pointed out that he came from Galilee. As we know, the prophets had foretold that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. The people at the festival seem to have known that, but what they didn’t know was that Bethlehem is where Jesus had been born.

Eventually, even the temple guards who had been sent to arrest Jesus were so moved by the power of his teaching that they went back to the temple without him. The chief priests and the Pharisees criticized the guards for failing to arrest Jesus. But the only reason the Pharisees could give for Jesus to be arrested is that they and the other bigshots didn’t believe in him.

On the other hand, the common people who actually sat and listened to Jesus (apparently including these temple guards) found themselves deeply affected by his teachings. The bigshots found Jesus threatening to their power and privilege, but those who actually listened to him with open hearts found themselves drinking in the living water Jesus had talked about, and pouring out that living water for others – exactly as Jesus had said.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you would open our hearts and minds so that the teachings of Jesus and the Holy Spirit that flows with them would fill us – and even overflow us into the lives of others, so they would come to experience the spiritual refreshment and new life only he can provide. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 29 and 82; Genesis 25:19-34; and Hebrews 13:1-16.)

Transformed into a Powerful Witness

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John 4:27-42

The Disciples Rejoin Jesus

     27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

     28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

     31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

     32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

     33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

     34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Many Samaritans Believe

     39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

     42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Yesterday’s reflection was based on the first part of this story, which began with Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well near the Samaritan town of Sychar.

We talked about how odd it was for a woman to be coming to the well in the heat of mid-day, and passed along the speculation from some Bible scholars that she came then to avoid gossip about her unusual marital history. As Jesus discerned, she had been married five times, and apparently was now living with a sixth man.

In the course of their conversation, Jesus had offered the woman “living water” – apparently referring to his teachings and the new life that comes to those who follow him – and promised that living water would quench a deep spiritual thirst within her. He had told the Samaritan woman that a time had come when the old quarrels between Jews and Samaritans about where to worship would no longer matter – all that mattered now was that people worship truthfully and with their whole heart. And Jesus had revealed himself to the woman as the Messiah.

Now in today’s passage, the Samaritan woman races off in excitement, leaving her water jar. That would have been one of the woman’s most valuable possessions, and leaving it behind shows how excited she is. It’s pretty clear that the woman is in a hurry to tell her neighbors about her encounter with Jesus.

It’s very interesting to look closely at what the Samaritan woman says when she arrives back in her town. First of all, she just tells people that Jesus had demonstrated supernatural knowledge – he had known things about her he had no way of knowing. (The woman is obviously exaggerating a little – as far as we can tell from the passage, Jesus didn’t tell her ‘everything she had ever done,’ but OK. She gets some leeway – she’s just met the Messiah.) Anyway, as she’s talking to the townspeople, notice that the woman didn’t flatly state her opinion that Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, she floated the idea in the form of a question: “Could this be the Christ?”

That’s all it took. The woman gave witness to what she had personally experienced, and then she asked the question: Could this be the one? And combined with her obvious excitement, that’s all it took. Her neighbors followed the woman out of the village with belief ‘half-formed’ in their minds and hearts. They came to Jesus, and as they listened to him, their faith became complete. What began as a second-hand faith became as vivid and personal to them as it had been to the woman when they encountered Jesus personally.

This Samaritan woman would have been considered an unlikely person for Jesus to work through. She was a woman, she was a foreigner, and she was a person with a questionable marital history. But this woman was powerfully transformed by her experience with Jesus. Instead of an object of scorn and gossip laboring to the well in the noontime heat, she became an instrument by which a whole community came to Jesus. When you think about it, she became the first ‘Christian evangelist’ in the Gospel of John. She was the first one to tell others about Jesus and lead them to faith. And she did it by expressing her excitement, by bearing witness to what she had experienced personally, and by asking people to consider whether Jesus could be what they had been waiting for.

And what’s more, she became a model for the rest of us in our witness, as well. All of us who have had experiences of faith can bear witness to those experiences, and we can invite others to encounter Jesus and ask themselves whether he might not be the savior they’ve been waiting for – to save them from the burden of their own sins and mistakes, to save them from the shallow materialism of our ‘consumer culture,’ and to introduce them to a new and vibrant way of life.

Let’s pray together. Lord, inspire us by this woman’s example. She didn’t let others’ opinion of her stop her from telling what she had seen. She let her excitement be seen by others, and she invited them to decide for themselves if Jesus is the Christ. By your Spirit, move us to imitate her. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday,
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Genesis 11:27-12:8; Hebrews 7:1-17; and John 4:16-26.)

A Surprising Encounter at the Well of Jacob

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John 4:4-26

     4 Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

     7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

     9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

     10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

     11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

     13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

     15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

     16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

     17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

    Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

     19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

     21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

     25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

     26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

This story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the listed reading for the next three days. But since the third of those days is Saturday, I’m going to combine the first two days’ readings so we can think about it for two days rather than three.

And like a number of stories in the Gospel of John, this is a pretty long one, so please bear with me if today’s reflection is a little longer than usual. For my money, this is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.

The story takes place as Jesus travels through the region of Samaria. That in itself is significant, because lots of the Jews despised the Samaritans so much that they wouldn’t even walk through the region – they’d walk all the way around it. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be ethnically and theologically ‘impure,’ and wouldn’t allow them to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. So just by walking through Samaria, Jesus was demonstrating that his mission in the world was sort of breaking down the walls around Jewish religious practice. Jesus was reaching out, as he would on so many occasions, to those considered ‘unworthy.’

As Jesus sits by a well alone at mid-day, he holds a conversations with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water. That’s a second surprising thing here. Religious Jewish men – and especially rabbis – were told to avoid conversation with women, who were considered frivolous at best, as well as objects of sexual temptation. But Jesus asks the woman for a drink, which would presumably mean drinking out of her jar. The woman expresses her surprise – Jesus’ request would be something like a white southerner during Jim Crow days wanting to drink out a water fountain designated for “colored” people.

But when the woman answers by observing that Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans, Jesus says something else that surprises her. He says that he has something for her – a “living water” that would satisfy a deeper thirst in her. And what’s more, Jesus says, this living water would start to flow out of her, to become a source of eternal life for others. And then he goes on to surprise the woman again, by revealing that he knows the facts of the woman’s unusual personal life. She’s had five husbands, and she’s living with a guy she’s not married to.

It’s common for Christian interpreters to characterize the Samaritan woman as promiscuous, or at least as sinfully cavalier about her marriage commitments. But that might say more about the interpreters than it does about the woman. We have no idea how her five marriages had ended, or anything else about her circumstances.

It does seem reasonable to speculate, as some interpreters have, that the woman’s unusual history had made her the target of gossip in her community. Most women in that hot climate would go to the well for water first thing in the morning, when it was cool. But this woman had gone at mid-day, so there must have been some reason for that. And avoiding gossipy neighbors is a reasonable possibility.

But whatever the reason for her unusual schedule, Jesus doesn’t offer a word of judgment or condemnation. He just tells her that God is doing a new thing. God is washing away the barriers between people, ethnic distinctions, gender boundaries and apparently perceived boundaries of ‘propriety.’ God is now concerned only with finding those who are willing to worship him “in spirit and truth.”

When you really step back and look at this story, the whole theme that runs through it is that on this occasion Jesus did and said a lot of really surprising – maybe even ‘shocking’ – things.

And there was even one more surprise to come. Because it is to this Samaritan woman with the unusual past that Jesus reveals something he has revealed to no one else in the Gospel of John: that he is the Messiah.

The woman doesn’t immediately fall on her knees and worship him, but she does respond in a powerful way. Leaving her water jar by the well, she runs back to town and starts spreading the word that she might just have met the Messiah out at the well.

We’ll think about the conclusion of this story tomorrow.

Let’s pray: Lord, we know you often work through surprising people in surprising ways. Guard us against rejecting your work when it is done through people who might seem ‘inappropriate’ to us. And guard us against being shocked to learn that you intend to work through us, as well. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 27 and 80; Genesis 11:1-9; Hebrews 6:13-20; and John 4:1-15.)

John the Baptist’s Self Awareness

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John 1:19-27

John the Baptist Denies Being the Messiah

     19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”

     21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

      He said, “I am not.”

     “Are you the Prophet?”

      He answered, “No.”

     22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

     23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

     24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

     26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

Like yesterday’s gospel reading, this one comes from the beginning of the Gospel of John. It follows the famous introduction, which opens with “In the beginning was the Word,” which we reflected on yesterday. Having set the scene with that well-known interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, the gospel immediately goes on to recount the ministry of John the Baptist.

Actually, you might remember that John the Baptist is mentioned in that introduction, too. In verse 15, we’re told that John the Baptist ‘testified’ to Jesus, and that he said, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” In other words, John acknowledged that Jesus was greater than he, which is something he might well have been hearing all his life, given that his mother and Mary were relatives. But in those opening verses John also said that Jesus had existed in some other realm before coming into this world. That’s a pretty startling insight, when you think about it.

Anyway, in today’s passage, John the Baptist has apparently started his ministry, and the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem send a delegation to ask John who he was. We’re told that John freely admitted that he was not the Christ. (Which means the same thing as “Messiah.”). Presumably the religious leaders wouldn’t have thought for a minute that this unkempt guy with bits of locusts and wild honey in his beard could actually be the Messiah. They expected a Messiah who resembled King David, a heroic warrior-king who would drive out the Romans. They probably just wanted to know if John the Baptist was delusional enough to have a “messiah complex.”

But when John “confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ,’” the delegation from Jerusalem started trying to pin down exactly who he thought he was. First they asked him if he was Elijah, who had dressed and eaten in the same bizarre fashion – camel’s hair clothes and the bugs-and-honey diet. So it might seem reasonable that John the Baptist actually thought he was Elijah. But John denied that, too.

Then they asked him if he was “the prophet.” Jewish religious thought of the time understood that at some point a great and mysterious prophet would appear. But John said that wasn’t him, either.

And when they finally just asked, “Who are you?” John literally gave them a “straight answer” – he said he was the one sent to “make straight the way of the Lord.”

The gospel accounts describe a great movement of people in response to the ministry of John the Baptist – “all the people” coming out to confess their sins and repent and be baptized. It would be very easy under those circumstances, when there were thousands of people responding to your call, to have an inflated self-image. But John the Baptist seems to have had no illusion about his place in the great scheme of salvation history. He saw that he was just an ordinary man who had been given an extraordinary job to do. He was preparing the way of the Lord.

I sometimes wonder if the strange clothes and painful diet might not have been meant to present John the Baptist as the most humble figure imaginable. He must have been pretty gross, actually. John certainly described himself in humble terms, as not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. But God used this strange and humble man to call people to a new awareness that their way of being God’s people was missing the mark. And in bringing people to that new level of spiritual awareness, God used John to get the world ready to receive his Son.

I also wonder if John might not be intended as a message to people like us – a message about our own role in salvation history. Maybe our role has something very important in common with John’s. We’re also unworthy to untie the shoes of Jesus. Most of us couldn’t claim to be charismatic heroes, any more than John could. But we’ve also been given the task of preparing the way of the Lord into the hearts of the people around us. The Great Commission commands us to ‘go and make disciples,’ but the truth is that we can’t make disciples. Only Jesus can make disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. But we can prepare the way for him into the lives of others.

We can prepare a way for him by living lives of discipleship that make others want to know why we do it. By opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit until the fruits of peace and joy and love are unmistakable in us. By forgiving others who don’t deserve it, because we know we don’t deserve the forgiveness we’ve received, either. By loving others until they ask why. If we can live that kind of lives, I don’t have much doubt that our master will use us to make straight his way into the hearts of people around us.

Let’s pray: Lord, help us to be more like John the Baptist – move us to lay aside our own egos so we can do the work you’ve given us to do – to make a straight way for you into the hearts of the people around us. With every day we live, let our lives be more about you and less about ourselves. Amen.

 Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 42 and 133; Genesis 3:1-24; and Hebrews 2:1-10.)

Why John the Baptist Matters

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Luke 1:5-17

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

     5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

     8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

     11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Starting today, our readings are the gospel accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. The passage that’s listed for today includes verses 1 to 25, but the first few verses are an introduction to the whole Gospel of Luke. So let’s just think together about the part of the reading in which an angel foretells the birth of John the Baptist.

The first thing we should say about this passage is that the Holy Spirit wants us to understand that the story of Jesus isn’t complete without John the Baptist. All four gospels make a point to tell us that John’s ministry set the stage for the ministry of Jesus. We might not include John the Baptist in our nativity sets, but clearly God considers John to have played a crucial role in preparing his way into the world.

Church tradition says that Luke, as he was doing research for his gospel, interviewed Mary. Some scholars believe it might have been other members of Mary’s family who actually passed along her story. But in any case, Luke was inspired to let us know that John the Baptist went before Jesus in a way we might not always think about: Like Jesus, John arrived in the world by a mysterious and maybe miraculous birth.

Just as Mary would give birth Jesus ‘before her time’ – before she was married – Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist ‘after her time’ – at a point in her life when she was thought to be past childbearing age. It seems possible that we might be intended to see that as a kind of sign – that John was being born out of the older tradition of the priests and the prophets, while Jesus himself was the firstborn of a new covenant God was establishing through him. The angel tells Zechariah in this passage that John would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” which clearly establishes his connection to the prophets.

We might tend to see John the Baptist as a scary sort of guy, but the angel foretells that he would be “a joy and delight” to his parents, and that many others would “rejoice because of his birth.” Like the angels who would appear to the shepherds, John would come as a herald of great joy.

We might think of him as scary because he came preaching “a baptism of repentance,” and we tend to think of that as angrily confronting people and demanding that they repent of their sins. But the word translated as “repent” actually means ‘have a new mind.’ So it’s possible that he was offering people a new way to understand what God was doing in the world, and that people could see that they had been going about the life of faith all wrong, so John might not have needed to confront most people with angry condemnation. (The exception seems to be some religious bigshots who seem to have come to him with questionable motivations.)

Anyway, the angel tells Zechariah that his coming son John was not to consume strong drink, that instead John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” As you might remember from the story of Pentecost, being filled with the Holy Spirit could sometimes be confused with being drunk. So maybe that’s the reason John was to refrain from alcohol altogether – to prevent that kind of confusion.

Then the angel tells Zechariah about the impact John’s ministry would have. According to the angel, John would do three things: First, he would bring people back to the Lord, serving as an instrument of spiritual revival among his people. Second, he would “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children” – he would play a role in God’s work to restore proper relations within the lives of his people. Third, John would turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” and in doing that, he would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” By preaching his “baptism of repentance,” by getting people to change their minds about what God wanted from them, John was getting the world ready to receive Jesus.

It seems to me that as we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Messiah in the coming days, stopping to think a little about the ministry of the John the Baptist offers us some guidance on how we can really ‘get ready for Christmas’ in a way that’s more significant than shopping or baking. First, we can open ourselves to the joy of being in a renewed and deeper relationship with God. Second, we can take advantage of the opportunity the season offers to be renewed in our relationships with those who matter in our lives, and to be intentional about reconciling with those from whom we are estranged. And third, we can examine our lives to see if there’s anything that comes between us and God, anything about our relationship with God that we need to think about differently so we can embrace “the wisdom of the righteous.”

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for your servant John’s role in preparing the world for the coming of Jesus, and we pray that you will use his story as a way of preparing us to celebrate that coming, and as a way of giving us changed minds that are ready to receive him anew in this holy season. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 94 and 146; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Titus 1:1-16.)

 

Jesus Talks about Judgment and Light

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John 3:16-21

     16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done through God.”

This famous passage is part of a longer conversation Jesus had with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish high council. It begins with one of the best-known verses in the whole Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The remaining verses of this reading cover two topics – the nature of God’s judgment and Jesus as ‘the light of the world.’

But before we think about those ideas, we should probably stop and think a little about the Gospel of John in general. I say that because for the rest of this last week before Christmas, our readings will come from the Gospel of Luke, and only today’s is taken from John.

In the other gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – the teachings of Jesus are reported in fairly brief and straightforward sections. But in John, quite a bit of the material is related in the form of long conversations between Jesus and others. And in these cases, Jesus actually explains things to his listeners is some detail. He doesn’t just give a brief summary of an idea; Jesus seems to go out of his way to make sure his listeners understand the point he’s trying to make.

In the case of this passage, Jesus is presenting the idea of judgment in a way that’s a little different from the way we normally think of it. Jesus says that although he himself is the instrument of God’s judgment, he hasn’t come into the world to condemn anyone. Instead, Jesus says, he is the way by which people can escape condemnation. And what’s more, he says that people sort of ‘judge themselves.’ People either embrace him as their savior – and accept the offer of eternal life he came to bring – or they reject that eternal life by not ‘believing in him.’

And it’s important to note that when Jesus talks about ‘believing’ in him, he’s thinking about something that goes ‘way beyond just saying, “Yeah, OK, he’s the Messiah, I get it.” Jesus’ vision of ‘believing in him’ seems to mean genuinely committing your life to following and serving him. Committing your life to discipleship. And the vision of discipleship that’s expressed in the Gospel of John is one that includes a commitment to learning from Jesus – learning in a way that’s life-changing. This vision of discipleship seems to include thankful worship in appreciation of your new life, and being regular in prayer, and being committed to serving others in his name.

Every one of us (myself included) needs to be challenging ourselves to embody these aspects of discipleship more and more with every passing day. If we’re not, we should be praying that the Holy Spirit might be at work in our hearts to move us to ‘believe’ as Jesus intends it.

The other subject Jesus talks about here in this passage is the idea that he is “the light.” We know we live in a world that can be pretty dark. But in Jesus, as the prophet foretold, “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light.” Some people hide in fear of that light, because they are ashamed to have their actions made known. But those who are trying to open themselves more and more to Jesus become increasingly willing for their lives to be examined by his light. That’s not because we’re sinless – we never reach that state in this world – but rather because the light of Christ becomes a healing force in our lives. That light shows us his way, and it helps us see the things about our own lives that need to be changed to make us more like him – and more useful to the building of the kingdom he came to establish.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the great love you showed the world by coming into it in the form of Jesus, and we thank you for the chance to escape condemnation for our sins by following him. Move us daily to hunger for a life of more and more devoted discipleship, so that others come to encounter Jesus in us. Amen.

Every Blessing,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 40 and 122; Genesis 3:8-15; and Revelation 12:1-10.)

Remembering to Build the Temple

Reformed and Always Reforming, Seeking God Together, Serving Those in Need, Speaking Truth to Power, Worship Study Prayer

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Haggai 1:1-15

 A Call to Build the House of the Lord

     1In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:

     2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be rebuilt.’”

     3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

     5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

     7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

     12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.

     13 Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. 14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.

For my money, the Book of the Prophet Haggai might just be the most under-appreciated book in the whole Bible. In fact, I’ve only heard one other guy preach a sermon on Haggai, and he joked about how obscure the book is. Haggai only has two chapters, both of which involve the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian exile. Today’s passage is a little longer than our usual readings, so I’ll be a little briefer in my comments.

Haggai tells about the time after the king of Persia had issued a decree that the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside, who had been dragged off into exile by the Babylonians, could now go home. (The Persians had subsequently conquered the Babylonians.) Some portion of the exiled Jews made the trip back to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been in ruins for about sixty years.

When they got back to the ruined city, the exiles set about rebuilding. And it seems that their first priority for rebuilding was to rebuild the city wall. That makes sense, since there were enemies all around them trying to stop the rebuilding of the city. Apparently their second priority was to rebuild their homes. From this passage, it seems that when they rebuilt their homes, they didn’t just throw up simple shelters, but rather constructed “paneled houses.” The scholars say that means houses that were nicely built and fairly luxurious.

The problem was that the people never got around to rebuilding the temple. They were living in nice houses, but the temple was still lying in ruins. So God sent the prophet Haggai to complain.

Now, obviously, it wasn’t that God needed the temple to live in. This is a God who has created a universe that’s run on schedule for 13.8 billion years. He didn’t have to worry about being homeless. And in the minds of the ancient Hebrew people, the temple of Jerusalem didn’t really represent God’s ‘home,’ so to speak, as much as it represented God’s ‘throne room.’ The Hebrew people understood that God reigned over the universe from that structure. So by leaving the temple in ruins, the people were expressing a lack of respect for God’s role as Lord of their lives. That’s the point God sent Haggai to raise with them.

One of the things about this passage is that God wasn’t threatening to punish them with some great catastrophe, like a flood or an earthquake or another foreign invader. Instead, the people would experience a general withholding of God’s full blessing. The chosen people would not really flourish as they might have. They would get by, but not really do that well. The message was pretty clear: If you fail to honor God by acknowledging him as Lord and by keeping his reign at the center of national life, then you will not know the full blessing he has in mind for you.

Obviously, we live in a very different kind of society. In spite of what some people might mistakenly think, we Americans are not God’s new chosen people. We live in a pluralistic democracy that accepts people of different faiths and people of no faith. (Or at least, we usually accept people of different faiths.)

Our understanding is that it’s the followers of Jesus who are, in a sense, God’s new chosen people. So the challenge to us – whatever country we may live in – is to honor God by keeping him at the center of our lives. Not to be consumed with ‘building our own houses’ – with advancing our own interests and our own agendas. But rather to be focused on helping God build his kingdom, in which peace and justice will rule, in which the needs of the poor will be met, in which the hungry will be fed and the sick will be healed, in which those of us who claim to be his people will hold ourselves to the highest standards of personal integrity, will honor our marriage vows and not exploit others for our own pleasure or enrichment.

And it might seem obvious, but I would say that’s true of our life together as well as our individual lives. Sometimes decisions we make as churches can be driven by worldly concerns instead of genuine commitment to God’s kingdom. Bigger membership, growing budgets and nice meeting houses are of less interest to God, I’m pretty sure, than congregations who are genuinely making spiritual growth, bearing witness to outsiders and service to others the central principles of their life together.

That, I think, is probably the 21st century equivalent of rebuilding the temple of God in the center of our lives, and of our life together.

Let’s pray. Lord, move in our hearts to cause us to make your reign the center of our lives as individual believers, and of our life together as congregations of followers of your Son. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
Henry

 

(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Revelation 2:18-29; and Matthew 23:27-39.)

Jesus Teaches on Following and Leading

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Matthew 23:1-12

      1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

     5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people called them ‘Rabbi.’

     8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Master, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Today’s gospel reading has some interesting points to reflect on. These points all relate to a basic principle that Jesus expresses on a number of occasions in the gospels: that leadership among the people of God is not intended as an honor for leaders, but rather as a responsibility to the people of God. In this passage, Jesus points out some of the mistakes and shortcomings of the religious leadership of the Hebrew people of his time, and he uses those mistakes and shortcomings as object lessons in teaching his own followers about the nature of godly leadership.

Jesus starts by pointing out that for all their shortcomings, the Hebrew religious leaders actually did have authority, by virtue of the fact that their teaching follows on the long traditions of their people, and that it is based on the Torah. That Torah was understood to be the Law of God given to the people through Moses, so the Hebrew religious leaders were considered Moses’ spiritual successors. And Jesus seems to uphold the Jewish leaders’ claim to theological authority.

It seems surprising to read that Jesus tells his followers that they should obey the teaching of these Hebrew religious leaders. (It’s especially surprising in light of the following passage, in which Jesus calls these religious leaders “hypocrites” and “blind guides.”) But Jesus tells his followers that they should not imitate the behavior of the religious leaders, because they do not “practice what they preach.”

It seems to me that we tend to think that we have the right to ignore any religious figure whose actions seem unacceptable, but Jesus doesn’t seem to buy that. As the saying goes, Jesus tells his followers to do what the religious leaders say, but not what they do. That runs against the grain of our normal default outlook. We sort of take it for granted that religious leaders who commit sins should be run out of the church.

But Jesus seems to be saying that even teachers and others who have serious spiritual flaws can play a constructive role in the life of God’s people. I suppose we might say that God has to work through sinful people, because when you get right down to it, that’s the only kind of people there are.

Jesus then goes on to list some of the failings he sees among the religious leaders of the covenant people. First of all, Jesus says that they place heavy burdens on people, but don’t do anything to help people meet them. He seems to be talking about the very detailed and demanding rules about ritual purity and keeping the Sabbath and so on. These detailed rules that become deeply entrenched in Jewish life. For some people, taking part in these rituals was even becoming a financial burden, so that practicing their faith was causing genuine hardship for people. The teachings of the religious leadership were actually making life harder for these people.

And then Jesus goes on to criticize the leadership for their efforts to glorify themselves instead of God. The leaders, he says, loved to strut around in public in religious attire and be treated like bigshots wherever they went. These leaders had become more interested in the praise and admiration of others than in pleasing God.

But Jesus cautions his own followers that in their ministry, they are to refrain from letting others treat them with great honor and reverence. In fact, he says, they are not to let people address them by religious titles, like ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Father.’ Instead of allowing others to honor them in that way, the leaders of Jesus’ movement were to deflect all honor back to God. It’s to be intentional humility, not glorification, that is the hallmark of the leaders among Jesus’ followers.

It seems to me that those who are called to leadership among God’s people – and especially among the followers of Jesus – are challenged to lead by example. They are to set an example of discipleship by being committed to spiritual growth through study and prayer and worship. They are to set an example of service in Jesus’ name to those who are suffering and in need. And they are to set an example of growing more holy by being more concerned with their own sins than they are with the sins of others. And they are to set an example of humility, wanting God to be glorified, not themselves.

And when the leaders in his church grow closer to God in all those ways, Jesus seems to be saying, they will be leading others closer to God, as well. When the leaders of the church demonstrate the kind of humble servanthood that Jesus himself showed, then the others of the church will be led to do likewise. That, it seems to me, is the heart of Jesus’ vision of leadership among his followers. And it’s a stiff challenge to those of us who are called to any form of leadership among the people of God.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you will turn the hearts of our leaders to show the humility and servanthood that marked Jesus himself. Share with them your vision for the church, and empower them to lead us in fulfilling that vision. Draw them closer to yourself, so that the rest of us will be led closer to you, as well. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 53 and 147:1-11; Amos 8:1-14; and Revelation 1:17-2:7.)