The Journey Begins

I was fairly “bummed” that we had to cancel the Ash Wednesday service last night. It is truly one of my favorite worship opportunities of the year. I enjoy the quiet, reflective atmosphere and the almost chant-like music; it puts me in the right frame of mind to draw closer to God during the 40 days of Lent.

But, rather than being disappointed in not having the service, I decided I would share some of my reflections with you here. I hope they are a blessing as we begin this journey called “Lent” together.


 

“The Journey Begins” – Jonah 3

The story of Jonah is familiar to most of us.  But, we usually stop the tale too early.  Some of the most interesting parts of the story happen after Jonah is spat out by the whale.  We read some of that story in the third chapter of the book (the link is above to “The Message” version of the story.)

Jonah finally does as he has been commanded by God and he enters Ninevah.  After walking for one day, not even reaching the center of the city, Jonah preaches one of the shortest sermons in the history of the faith. “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”

From what we read in the story; that is all Jonah says.  He turns around and leaves the city.  As amazing as that short sermon might be, I find the reaction to it even more amazing.  The people of Ninevah change their ways.  They put on sackcloth and cover themselves with ashes as a sign that they understand that their fate lies in God’s hands alone.

And, not just the men symbolize their repentance.  Not just the working men.  But the king, all of the people, regardless of their status.  Men and women alike.  The cover themselves in sack cloth and ashes, and they fast.

But that’s not it, either! Not just the people.  The animals are cloaked in the evidence of death, the evidence of the sins of the community.

That’s one of the most powerful parts of the story for me.  Ninevah’s reaction recognizes both the sins of the individual, and the sins of the community.

Ash Wednesday reminds me that I have sins in my life with which I haven’t dealt.  Ash Wednesday reminds me that not only am I responsible for my own sins, sins I commit, but I am also responsible for the sins that I knowingly allow to happen without saying anything.  When I see someone abused verbally, I’m as guilty as when I lie.

On this day that begins Lent, we are reminded of the sin that burdens our lives and keeps us from doing God’s will.  Often, I feel that it is easy to confess my sin and ask for forgiveness.  It is not easy, however, to fully understand the weight of sin and fully turn away from it.  It is easy to think my sins are small in comparison to the rest of the world around me.  However, when I consider the weight of sin I begin to realize that I am just as broken as everyone around me and that I need a Savior just as desperately as the next person.

That is one of the things we see in the story of Jonah.  The story continues after the people of Ninevah repent.  We learn about how Jonah feels about Ninevah’s reaction to his sermon.  Now, if I could get that kind of a reaction to my preaching, I’d be overjoyed.  But not Jonah.

Jonah, God’s prophet, is dismayed when the people of Ninevah realize their evil ways and turn to God.  Jonah becomes irate with God and says, “This is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place.  I know you are a loving God and would forgive Ninevah.”  The sub-text is that Jonah doesn’t want Ninevah to be forgiven.  I believe that is because it is always easier to feel good about ourselves when we have someone at whom we can look and say “At least I’m not like them!

Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better.  Indeed, Lent, we learn on Ash Wednesday, is about realizing that God is a forgiving God.  It is about realizing that we need that forgiveness not more and not less than everyone else.  Lent is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it.

As we open ourselves to God and realize the sins that impinge on that relationship, it is good and right for us to confess our brokenness before God, to turn from our wrongdoing and to seek God’s forgiveness.

If we had been gathered together to worship, we would have symbolized this confession of our sins by writing or drawing them on a piece of paper, then symbolically offering them to God by burning those papers. That’s an option for you, today, as well. If you have a way to safely burn a piece of paper, you can make your own “burnt offering” to God. If you don’t have that option, or are worried about setting your home on fire (PLEASE DON’T!) there are other ways you can confess before God:

  • You could type your confession into a document on your computer, then delete the file
  • You could write your confession on a piece of paper, then tear the paper into tiny shreds
  • You could simply set aside some time of prayer, beginning by actually confessing to God, then spending time listening for God’s voice and feeling God’s forgiveness
  • You could chose to confess to a close friend or spiritual leader (whom you trust to keep your confession confidential)
  • Or you can choose any other way to practice confessing your sins before God.

The goal is to somehow acknowledge your brokenness and then offer that to God as you seek God’s help in healing and restoring your relationships, with God, with others, and with yourself.

My prayer for you is that you sense God’s loving presence in a special way this Lent, and in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Come, let’s journey together through these 40 days, and beyond.


 

Word Made Flesh – John 1:1-18

 

I have misplaced my MP3 recorder, so no audio this week. (hopefully I’ll find the “safe place” I stored it before next Sunday!) But, here’s the text of the sermon… God bless!

—–

Our Bible brings us four stories of the life of Jesus, the Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (the four gospels) each tell a slightly different story because they have different audiences, and different purposes for telling their stories. Scholars believe, with very little dissension, that the order of these stories in our Bible does not reflect the order in which these stories of the life of Jesus were written.

Most scholars believe that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke, and John’s gospel came pretty late in the game. One of the primary reasons for this conclusion is the way in which the fourth gospel is written. By the time that John is penned, we are starting to see theology enter into the mix. John doesn’t simply retell the story of Jesus’ life, rather we are led on a theological journey. John wants to answer the question “What happened?” But, he also wants to answer two other questions, “Why did it happen?” and “What does it mean to us?”

Today’s text is a great example of this theological focus in John’s gospel. To give you some reference, let’s take a moment and look at how the other 3 gospels begin telling the story of Jesus:

Mark begins with a declaration about who Jesus is: The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here, following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Then the story continues to tell of John the Baptist and how Jesus comes to be baptized and then goes into the wilderness.

Matthew’s gospel is written for a primarily Jewish audience, and so his writing begins by detailing the lineage of Jesus, showing that he is a descendant of Abraham from the House of David, which are two vitally important aspects of the Messiah.

Luke begins by stating outright that his writing is the result of much research, then goes on to tell the story of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the old couple who miraculously conceive a child. Then Elizabeth’s young cousin, Mary, also conceives in a miraculous way.

Do you notice the similarities? Each of these gospels situates Jesus in a tradition of miracles and prophecy. John really isn’t all that different, but John begins with a twist. He doesn’t start with Abraham, or the Prophet Isaiah… John situates the birth of Jesus in a much more foundational place. Did you hear it?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Maybe this will help:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Abraham and Isaiah won’t do for John. He starts the story of Jesus at creation. As God spoke creation into being, Jesus, The Word, was with God, was God. John makes the bold claim of Jesus’ divinity in the first 14 verses of his gospel. For John, the good news was the word God’s creative redemptive spirit became flesh and lived among us.

Or, as The Message puts it: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

The rest of John’s gospel is really about showing this point, Jesus the Christ was God with flesh on.

In a culture where the Roman gods were often taking on human form and behaving in all sorts of mischievous ways… John argues that the TRUE God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the creator of heaven and earth, also took on the form of a human. But this God did something different. No dalliances with women, or golden fleece in this story. The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, so that all of humankind could be restored to a right relationship to God.

That, my friends, is powerful stuff. As Paul writes in Philippians:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

It is powerful and poignant. But I still ask the same questions John tried to answer, “Why, and What does it matter to me.” It’s great that Jesus was God and came to save you and I from our broken, sinful lives. But what does it mean today. After all, Paul was right when he wrote to the Romans:

I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Jesus lived and died, was buried and rose from the grave, so that we might be free from the grasp of sin. Yet, we are not free. We struggle each and every day. Several times each day we have to hear the voice of Jesus reminding us “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

I am thankful for my salvation. I am thankful beyond words for God’s gracious forgiveness of my sins. But what I really need most days is God with flesh on. Most days I am like Thomas, needing to see the wounded flesh of Jesus. Most days I find myself longing for the opening to John’s theological treatise about Jesus to be true, here and now. Most days I need God to take on flesh and blood and move into the neighborhood.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. Am I?

—–

I remember a story, I think it was told by Anne Lamont, of a little boy who is afraid of the dark.

One night after his mother has put him to bed, as a particularly scary storm rolled in, she heard her young son crying for her from his room. As mothers do, she rushed to see what was wrong. As she sat on the side of the terrified young boy’s bed he begged for her to come and sleep with him. He sobbed, “I don’t want to be alone in the dark.”

Knowing she had an important meeting at work tomorrow and knowing that she wouldn’t get any sleep if she slept in her son’s room, she sought to reassure him. “You are not alone,” she said. “God is always with you.”

The little boy’s sobs turned into outright crying. Between the tears he wailed, “I need somebody with skin on!”

—–

We are all like that little boy sometimes. We all need God with skin on. But Jesus lived millennium ago and the disciples saw him ascend to heaven. So what are we to do?

The answer is both astoundingly simple and painfully difficult at the same time. We are to live into our name, Christian. Christian quite literally means “little Christ.” By nature of our faith and of our baptism, we are called to be “God with skin on” for those around us. And they are called to be “God with skin on” for us.

That’s why we are part of the family of God. It’s why we are a part of the community of faith. It’s one of the ways in which we live into the promises we make as we are baptized.

So, if you are wondering what you would like to resolve to do in the coming year, I have a suggestion….

I’m going to make 2015 the year of being God with skin on. And, while I’m at it, I’m going to be intentional about giving a word of thanks when someone is God with skin on for me. I can’t wait to see how God transforms my life.

Will you join me?

Worth-Ship

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Psalm 100 (NRSV)

Did you know that our word “Worship” is actually derived from the Old English word “Worth-ship?” My guess is you might not. And, even if you answered, “Well yes, Alex, I did know that”, you may still be wondering why I would even bring it up… My reason is this; our language has a huge impact on us, and on how we envision the world.

When I say I am going to worship on a Sunday morning, what does that really mean? Well, it could mean a whole host of things to each one of us. Worship is a pretty vague word, when you come to think about it… What I consider worship, some may consider dull and lifeless. What some think of as worship, others may call a “concert” or “motivational speech.” And there are yet others for whom the elements of worship are so strange to me that I find it appalling. (Take for example the handling of snakes or drinking of poison.) The truth is that worship is pretty hard to pin down.

The interesting thing is that the same is true of God. Faced with a bush that was on fire and yet not consumed, Moses asks God for a name, a name to tell the Israelites which god it is that is sending Moses to them. But, God doesn’t give Moses what he wants. Instead of saying, “I’m Baal,” or “I’m Zeus,” God simply (and profoundly) says, “I am who I am. Tell them I AM sent you.” I AM is a good name for God because by simply taking a name God would begin to be defined by humanity.

This is the very reason that some believers hesitate to write the name of God. Instead they choose to write G*d, or HaShem (which is Hebrew, and roughly translated means “The Name”). Once we name something we can, on some level, contain it. We give it height and breadth and depth. But not so with God.

But what does this have to do with worth-ship? I am glad you asked. The two roots, worth and ship, tell us a lot about what worthship is. Worth is pretty obvious, but ship… what does that mean? In the Old English it means “to shape.”

Simply put, our worship shapes us by that to which we attribute worth. If we worship money, money shapes who we are. If we worship fame, fame in turn becomes a defining factor in our lives. The same is true of God.

As we worship God, God can (and does) shape us. So, the next time someone asks you why you go to church why not say, “Because that is where God shapes me.” It’s probably not the answer they expect, and I am pretty sure it’s a good way to start a conversation and build a relationship. I hope to be shaped by God with you in the very near future!

Inseparable

Here are the audio and text versions of Sunday’s Sermon on Romans 8:26-39: Inseparable.

Inseparable

Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were both born in 1940 and grew up just 45 miles apart in Ohio. Jim and Jim had remarkably similar lives, though they had never met. Lewis and Springer were both married two times. If that wasn’t strange enough, their first wives were both named Linda. And… their second wives were both named Betty. Lewis and Springer both had sons named James Allen. Both owned dogs named Toy. As a matter of fact these two men had more in common than names, they shared the same habits. Both had a fondness for woodworking, preferred Chevy over Ford, and remarkably liked to vacation at the same beach in Florida. When Jim and Jim met in 1979, they were astounded by the similarities in their lives, and how they had lived so close to one another. Would you be surprised to know that Jim Lewis and Jim Springer also shared a birthday? The boys were identical twins, adopted shortly after birth and both named James by their adoptive parents.

There are many stories of this kind of similarity in identical twins. From twin sisters giving birth (naturally) on the same day. And the twin brothers in England who, hours apart broke their arms. The first, 2 year-old Mitchell, fell off his backyard slide and was taken to the hospital. After a check-up, he was sent home with a clean bill of health. Hours later, the boy’s identical twin, Elliott, tripped over the base of the same slide and was also taken to the hospital. Doctors found he had broken his left arm, and while he was being treated, Mitchell said his left arm was hurting too. Doctors x-rayed the limb in question and found it to be broken as well.

It is almost as though some mysterious force binds the lives of twins together. Even when they are separated at birth, they seem not to be all that separated at all. Which is all well and good, but not many of us are twins. Roughly 2 percent of the population in the US are twins, and only 2/3 of one percent are identical twins. So, what about the rest of us?

That’s where the apostle Paul comes in with his letter to the church at Rome. Just a few moments ago I read Paul’s words of comfort and assurance to people whom he had not met. Remember, by the time Romans is written, Paul has not visited the believers there. You may not have recognized this scripture in The Message, so let me repeat part of it in the New Revised version.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. We are more than conquerors. Powerful promises.

While these promises are not a blank check that allows us to do whatever we please, they are a profound statement about how we are loved by God. Paul doesn’t promise us that we won’t experience hardship in our lives. He doesn’t say that we won’t experience trouble or hardship. He doesn’t say that, for those who love God, there will be no persecution or famine. Even God’s faithful will have to contend with danger, may be so destitute as to be naked, and will experience the wounding of being cut by swords, both those made of metal and of words.

Paul doesn’t promise us that these painful experiences won’t touch our lives. However, we are promised that none of that can separate us from God’s love.

God loves us.

Not because of what we do.
Not because of what we have done.
Not because of what we will do.
Not even because of who we have been, who we are, or who we will become.

God loves us because of who God is.
God loves us because that is what God does.
God loves you.

Period.

But although the sentence stops there, the story does not. God loves you and me. AND God calls you, and me, into this messy community of faith we call the church. For better or worse, we are called to come together, to support one another, to learn with one another, and to sacrifice for one another. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but church can be a painful place. Some of that peril, sword and nakedness happens here. Because we are a group of sinners. Sinners seeking God, yes. But still sinners.

And we hurt one another. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, and through no fault of our own, our actions (or our inactions) hurt others. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us.

Rather, because we are loved children of God, we are called to be more. We are called to seek, and offer, forgiveness. We pray regularly for God’s guidance and wisdom so that we will not only receive forgiveness for our sins, but be able to forgive those who sin against us. That is not easy to do. It opens us up to that nakedness. It is perilous. And yet, it is part and parcel with being a follower of Christ.

I’m going to be honest with you this morning. I have some tough conversations that I need to have in the coming week. I need to seek forgiveness for some things I have done and said, and things that I have not done… And I am dreading those conversations. Because they are hard.

Is there backstabbing that you have done, or you have been a victim of? Is there some other kind of trouble in your life and relationships that is causing you hardship? Be honest with yourself.

As we turn to God in prayer this morning, I encourage you to make a plan to address those issues this week. How are you going to seek forgiveness from that person you’ve wounded? How are you going to offer forgiveness to the one who has wounded you? Choose one specific situation. There may be several, and we need to address them all, but let’s start with one. Will you see the person face-to-face, or give them a phone call? Where will you be at the time? What will you say? Be specific in your thoughts and plans.

And remember, we offer forgiveness because we have been forgiven. We are loving because we are loved.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Basics

Here is the sermon, “The Basics”  from February 23, 2014. If you are interested in the Facebook note mentioned, please let me know and I’ll make sure you get a copy. Sorry there is no text, this one was not what I had written for this morning, God had different plans. – Pastor Alex

Being Tempted – 2/17/2013

Here is the sermon from this past Sunday: Being Tempted – from Luke 4:1-13.

Sorry about the audio quality. I am not sure what happened, but will work this week to increase the quality for future recordings.

If you are participating in the Focus Group for my doctoral studies project, I have also posted the text of the sermon (which will only be approximate 🙂 ) and the questions from the memory aid as well:  February 17 Sermon.