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God-Given Passion: Sermon, 3/11/12 (3 Lent B)

3rd Sunday in Lent (B)

Exodus 20:1-7; John 2:13-22

How would you describe Jesus’ actions here? . . . When was the last time you let your passion lead your actions? When has your behavior come out of such conviction that you didn’t fully measure the consequences?

Usually we tend to think of those behaviors in negative terms—perhaps because most of our passionate responses would be out of anger or revenge. But eliminating road rage, bar fights, or politics, think about passionate behavior in terms of your faith.

That’s what Jesus is doing. His bizarre behavior is led by passion. He’s not necessarily upset by the corruption of the temple market—no indication it was corrupt. He’s not fighting social injustices. No one has insulted him or his family. The selling of sacrificial animals was a routine part of the culture. It was a lot easier to buy cattle or sheep than to bring them to Jerusalem for the Passover—not to mention feeding them, caring for them, cleaning up after them. It made religious life simpler to let that be done in the temple courtyard, and at the time of sacrifice simply purchase the required animal. And, of course, you couldn’t use the Roman denarii used everywhere else. You had to pay the temple tax in Tyrian shekels or half shekels. That money had to be converted, and there was a small but expected fee for that service as well.

This system had been in place for decades if not centuries. Everyone knew it, used it, and even appreciated it because it made it so much easier to fulfill their religious duties on these holy festivals, such as Passover.

Jesus is not driven by anger over an unjust system. He’s not necessarily appalled at the evil-doers in the temple taking advantage of the poor—there’s no indication of that. This isn’t really about justice or anger or fixing an abusive system. It’s his passion for what his Father is doing, and Jesus’ role in that.

The temple was a symbol for the presence of God among us. So there was more at stake for Jesus than maintaining an established religious system that was working pretty well. Rather, the presence of God had become a system of rules rather than a relationship. He knows he has come among us to open that relationship up between us and God, to bring that into the world regardless of whether people approve or not.

Jesus is driven by devotion to his call within his Father’s mission; certainly not diplomacy or keeping people happy. People were offended by his actions. They demand an explanation (which is really pretty tolerant of them). What sign can you show us for doing this? How can he legitimize this abhorrent and disruptive behavior?

I’m not promoting offensive behavior, but this gets me thinking: what part of God’s work in the world are we that passionate about? What about God’s mission is more important to us than considering whether some action or word is offensive or foolish?

By his actions in the temple, Jesus is reminding us that the most important thing is what God is doing, and our call in that—anything else is just a personal agenda.

We know what God is doing in Jesus Christ. We know that what God is doing is forgiving those who’ve offended, caring for those who are powerless, loving those no one else loves, giving to those who may abuse the gift. But that takes any multitude of forms. How can our passions line up with that?

For the people in the temple, the zeal was for preserving the church system that had been in place forever, and that was working quite well. The zeal was for maintaining a church where people could follow particular traditions, patterns, and norms in order to consider themselves justified.

For Christ, the zeal was for his Father’s presence, his Father’s mission, and his Father’s activity in the world.

I would invite you this Lent to consider your own zeal. Where do you exert the most energy? What do you get most excited about? What can you talk about for hours without stopping? And then, where might God be in the midst of that passion?

Take some time and consider what gets your blood pumping, whether it’s a religious thing or not. What are you willing to devote time to just because it is exciting for you? Baseball, travel, writing? Is it friendships, academics, music? Perhaps children, helping people, problem solving?

Whatever it is, consider the possibility that it is a God-given passion. Reflect on how God might be calling you to into God’s work through that passion. Be willing to imagine  and connect God’s forgiveness with your love for animals; outlandish generosity with your ability to make new friends; Christ-like mercy with a passion for sports. Where is God calling you in the midst of your zeal? Take some time, use your imagination, be willing to try some things. You never know what God is up to, and how God is calling you to participate!

Consider God’s call to you this Lent. By the power of the Holy Spirit, who has created enthusiasm and zeal within us, may living our new and zealous life in Christ be that important for us.

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Posted by on March 11, 2012 in Sermon

 

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Generosity: A Measure of Discipleship (3/4/12)

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)

Mark 8:31-38

Immediately before these verses, Peter had this great insight as to who Jesus actually is. You are the Messiah. But the next thing Jesus says to him, in our text today, is, Get behind me, Satan! Does that bother anyone else but me? Satan? Really? If Peter said something incorrect, why doesn’t Jesus just say, Good try, Peter, but that’s not quite right. Thanks for a really good effort, though. Let’s work on this together, OK? But, no, he calls him Satan. That doesn’t square with our common perception of Jesus as nice guy and good teacher.

I give Peter the benefit of the doubt, here. When someone you care about talks about dying, the natural human response is for us to not want that to happen. Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him so. It’s just human. And Jesus blasts him for it.

Because here’s the deal: what Jesus is saying about his coming death and resurrection is so desperately important that he simply can’t afford to be nice. There isn’t time. It’s like a child starting to run out into the street. You aren’t so worried about being polite, you simply grab them however you can and pull them back to safety.

That’s the sense of urgency here. The difference between divine things and human things is that important. It’s life and death. Get behind me, Satan!

So as far as Peter’s rebuking Jesus, just because something is a common or even an expected human response doesn’t make it good, right, or Godly. In fact, often the divine things fly in the face of common sense and human expectations.  “The last shall be first.” “Love your enemies.” “Leave the 99 sheep to go look for the 1 who is lost.” “Give to everyone who asks.” “God’s Messiah must be rejected, suffer, die, and be raised.” Jesus adds another one right here, those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Let’s bring this home: I don’t think Jesus is talking about losing your life as in dying, but more losing the things that we think will give us life. When someone talks about “living the good life,” don’t we usually think that means having lots of money, financial comfort and security, and surrounding ourselves with the good things money can buy? In our human culture, it makes sense to us that more money equals better life. So we talk that way, live that way, and all seem to agree. We do whatever we can to make more money and to keep more money. Because we believe that having more will give us a better life.

Then when Jesus throws the divine thinking on us, saying something about giving away so much that we have to adjust our good lifestyle, we either ignore him as “oh, that silly Jesus,” or, just like Peter we quietly take him aside and rebuke him. C’mon, Jesus. You know that can’t be true. I work hard because I only want to provide good things for my family. Surely you’re not saying that my children should do without, are you?

And Jesus replies, Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

But Jesus, I’ve got to provide for my kids. College expenses will be coming up. I’ve got to save for retirement, don’t I? That’s just being responsible!

And Jesus replies, For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. It’s that important.

Since so much of our culture, our identity, our sense of what life is about is tied directly to how we feel about money, I think that’s one of Jesus’ primary targets for us. We have accepted the notion that more money equals more life, but Jesus says that’s the type of human thinking that leads only to death. Get behind me, Satan. It’s that urgent.

When it comes to money, the divine thing in the face of our human thinking is generosity. The nature of God is that God gives us everything, constantly, continuously. Whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in God or not, whether we go to church or not, whether we are generous or not—God is generous to us. The gifts of creation are constant. As Martin Luther wrote in the explanation to the first article of the Apostles’ Creed,

I believe that God has created me together with all creatures. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. God does all this out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

Forgiveness and unconditional love are given to us day after day after day. And it’s not that God sits back and doles this out to us out of some excess reserve. The divine nature of God’s generosity means that God gives God’s own Son, the Son gives his own life, for our sake.

We’re still early in Lent, this season of deliberately changing our minds from human things that we believe give life to divine things that actually do. So let’s get specific about that. Jesus tells us in this text that if we want to become his followers, we would deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.

This Lent, why not make a conscious move from saving our lives to losing them? This Lent, why not try giving more and keeping less? Biblically, a general guide for generosity is giving away 10% of our income; at least in the Old Testament. The New Testament refers to giving away everything. But 10% is a pretty good gauge, I’ve discovered. So try it. If you’re already giving away 10%, try 15%. Outrageous generosity is a divine thing. See what happens when we set our minds not on human concept of having more, but the divine concept of giving more. Try it this Lent. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? It’s that important. It’s that urgent.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Sermon

 

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The Advantage of the Wilderness, 2/26/12 (1 Lent)

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

 This is quite the dramatic description of Jesus’ baptism. I wonder how we’d feel about baptism if this sort of thing that happened all the time? Picture it: we all gather at the church, everyone in their best clothes. Relatives have all been invited and even those who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years have shown up to support the ones being baptized. Those being baptized along with their parents have been practicing their promises. The Godparents are nervous, because they have promises to make too and don’t want to goof them up. Everyone sits in the reserved “baptismal family” seating, which is, unfortunately, at the front. Those parents of small children are saying silent prayers that their kids won’t choose this particular time to throw a holy tantrum.

The time of baptism comes, and all gather around the font. Water is poured, the Word is spoken, candles are lit, and promises are made. Just when everyone breathes a sigh of relief that all has gone so wonderfully well, suddenly the heavens are torn apart, the Holy Spirit resembling a dove descends on the newly baptized, and a voice booms from above, “These are my beloved children; with you I am well pleased.”

I have to admit, that would be cool, don’t you think? Pretty impressive and powerful, right? Obviously, God is doing something that would get our attention. That would be just amazing—so far.

But then, in this text Mark goes on. This remarkable scene at Jesus’ baptism takes a turn. Right then the Spirit, who up until now has been cute and quiet, like an innocent little white dove, takes hold of Jesus and hurls him out into the wilderness. That’s the verb used here. The Spirit doesn’t guide Jesus, or suggest to Jesus, or even lead Jesus. The Spirit drives him, throws him, violently casts him out into the wilderness all alone, where he had to deal with Satan and wild beasts for six weeks.

What would we do if that happened at our baptisms? Suddenly, baptism isn’t so fun. Thrown into the wilderness for forty days with the wild beasts, tested by Satan the whole time. If this is what happened, we’d probably rethink this whole baptismal thing. Forty days in the wilderness sounds pretty lousy. Wild beasts? Satan? Sure, some angels came and help him out, but is this what we really bargain for in baptism?

So what is really going on here?

In the Bible, the wilderness is a difficult place. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. It’s a place where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left. Have you been there?

You’re in the wilderness when you’re grieving the death of someone you love. You’re in the wilderness when you experience serious illness or injury. You’re in the wilderness when you try as hard as you can for as long as you can and still can’t find a job or save your children or even gain a foothold in your life. You’re in the wilderness when your best and most honest efforts still result in falling prey to an addiction or losing control. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

And in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, the wilderness is also a place where people in all times and in all places have been met by God. Maybe because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe because we’re so desperate that we actually seek God out. The wilderness is a place or a time in our lives when the saving power of God is real; because there is nothing else. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, we are changed. We have that opportunity in the wilderness to know what we mean to God; in the wilderness we come to know who we are.

If we aren’t thrown into the wilderness immediately after baptism, we’re thrown there eventually. No one chooses to go; we’re always thrown there. The advantage we have is that when we’re thrown into the wilderness, we go with the promises, the assurance, the clarity of who we are in baptism. We can come out of it knowing God more fully and trusting God more deeply.

On Ash Wednesday, we experienced the reminder that we will all die, that ultimately in the face of death we are all helpless. We were marked with a sign of that helplessness, a sign of wilderness on our foreheads: we were smeared with ashes, the dust of the earth out of which we came and to which we will return.

But more than that, this mark of death was shaped in the form of a cross. We were marked not just with death, but with the cross of Christ and the promise of life. We were marked with assurance of the presence of God no matter how deep our wilderness becomes. Even in the wilderness of death, God meets us there to lift us up to life.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of our helplessness in the wilderness and our utter dependence on God. Today we recall the reality that we are at times thrown into the wilderness. But most of all we have the promises of God, spoken at our baptism, that no matter how deep, no matter how dark, no matter how lonely the wilderness may be, God will meet us there. And that really is cool. That really is impressive and powerful. Because God really is doing something that not only gets our attention, but truly is amazing.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Sermon

 

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