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12.14.14 Christ God’s Love John 3:1-21 Sermon Summary

At the heart of all divinely inspired religion is a question of an intensely personal and spiritual nature. Christianity’s answer is summarized by today’s Gospel reading.

Summary Points

  • Some of the questions we humans seem to be asking
  • How fear drives us to the fundamental question of humanity
  • How God answers that question and deals with our fears
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Love

One of the virtues of religion is that it offers adherents answers to basic questions of identity, purpose, and meaning. Many of us are distracted from such questions by busyness, worries, or guilt. Nonetheless, God seeks to answer our deepest questions through religion.

When you look at our behavior as humans, you will find some other questions we seem to trying to answer. For example, we never tire of exploration—geographically, in space, by knowledge. The question might be, How far can we extend ourselves? Or consider our accumulation of things—material or intellectual. The question might be, How much can I possess? Or take our acts of kindness and generosity; How can I make the world a better place?

These questions do drive us, but they only reflect the fundamental question of humanity which is, Why would God be interested in me? Today’s readings suggest that we ask this question out of four fears, fears that God overcomes in Jesus Christ.

The first fear arises from the question of Psalm 8. Given how grand creation is, why would God be interested in me? “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars—what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (3-4). It is a question arising out of the fear that we are unimportant.

Ironically, Job asks the same question out of a different fear. He is in the midst of great suffering and asks, Why is God so interested in me? “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you?” (Job 7:17-20)

Or if you prefer the more terse and popular version: “I know, I know, we are your chosen people, but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” (Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof) This is a question that arises out of the fear of annihilation.

John 3 reveals two more fears. Jesus makes reference to Moses and the ancient Israelites in the wilderness. In response to their complaints, God sent a plague of poisonous serpents through the camp. When the people identified their sin, God offered salvation through a statue of a serpent. Jesus says God makes the same offer through him. The first reason from John 3 that we ask, Why would God be interested in me, is out of the fear of condemnation.

The second reason is a fear arising out of our confusion. Nicodemus is full of question: “How do you do these signs? How can one be born anew? How can these things be?” Jesus illustrates our lack of knowledge with the metaphor of the wind and the Spirit—we see their effects but don’t know their origins or destinations. We don’t understand, and so we can’t imagine why God would be interested in us.

These four fears lead us to the fundamental question of humanity: Why would God be interested in me? I am unimportant. I am weak in the face of overwhelming powers. I am unworthy of God’s attention. I don’t understand enough. Why would God be interested in me?

And the answer? Because God loves you. The biblical narrative is summarized by Genesis 1 and John 1. God created us in love through his spoken Word. And God redeemed us in love through his incarnate Word. “God so loved the world”—not just Nicodemus, not just the Jews, not just the religious—“the world, that he gave his Son.”

Karl Barth, who died this past week in 1968, the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas, said God is the One who loves in freedom. God is absolutely free, and yet chooses to love us. God’s love is free from conditions, which means we can’t earn it. And it is free from obstacles, which means we can’t lose it. This love is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And God’s love is perfect.

The same community that produced the Gospel of John wrote 1 John 4:8 which says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Though we fear we are unimportant, or we could be annihilated, though we fear condemnation, or have fear because of our confusion, God loves us. Because of this love, we can move beyond these fears to the fundamental question of our existence—the question God has already answered in love.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This Christmas, believe and be saved.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • As you examine your own behaviors, what do they suggest about the questions that drive you? How do these questions relate to the fundamental spiritual question?
  • How do the four fears of unimportance, annihilation, condemnation, and confusion show up in your life? How do they keep you from asking the spiritual question?
  • Some people find the answer to the spiritual question too simple. Theologians like Nicodemus are especially tempted to complicate things. How do you feel about the answer that God freely loves you, unconditionally and without obstacles?
  • If you believe in God’s love for you, what difference does it make in how you view and treat yourself and others?

12.07.14 Christ our Peace Luke 1:39-56 Sermon Summary

There are two different kinds of peace—one we understand, and one we don’t. This passage holds the key for experiencing the second kind.

Peace

Summary Points

  • Peace we understand, and how we try to get it
  • A crisis of faith when the ungodly have peace
  • How the great upheaval leads us to the peace that transcends understanding
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Zechariah and Elizabeth were an old, childless couple in professional ministry. I wonder what must their prayers been like in this stage of their lives? Luke tells us that while serving at the Temple, Zechariah received a vision that their prayers for a child would be answered, but he did not believe. As a result, Zechariah was made mute for the next nine months.

Elizabeth does become pregnant, and goes into seclusion for five months. And in the sixth month, Mary receives a revelation that she also is pregnant. She finds out about Elizabeth, and receives some encouraging news from her older relative.

There is a peace that we understand, and for which we long, and that the Bible does promise us . . . eventually. But the Bible speaks of another peace that transcends understanding. It promises us this peace also, but not in some far off future; this peace is available to us now.

The peace we understand includes the absence of conflict—no war or no fighting. We try to achieve and maintain this peace with power. And there is the peace that is the absence of anxiety—no worries about the present or future. We try to ensure it by riches. Then there is the peace that is the absence of doubt—no spiritual unrest. We secure it by domesticating the Spirit through reason and rationality.

This is the kind of peace we understand. But though we understand it, it can also distress the faithful. Just look at Psalm 73. The author is confounded by the “prosperity of the wicked”: “They have no pain, their bodies are sound and sleek, they are not in trouble.” (vs. 3-5) These people don’t even care about God, and yet they have all this peace. So the author of Psalm 73 fears, “In vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence.” (vs. 13)

This reality occasions a crisis of faith—why do the ungodly have so much peace? It is the question of Psalm 73. It might also have been Mary’s question.

When the author of Psalm 73 enters the sanctuary, he realizes another side of things. This peace, the peace we understand, the peace the ungodly have, rests on shaky ground. At any moment it can fall apart. It is like “a dream when one awakes.” (vs. 20) This peace feels so sure—until December 7, 1941; October 19, 1987; September 11, 2001; or a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. Then we have to find another peace, one that transcends understanding. That kind of peace is only found when our lives experience a great upheaval.

While the author of Psalm 73 seems old, Mary comes to the same realization although she is very young. The Psalmist went to the Sanctuary for the insight. Mary went into a different “sanctuary”—that of her womb. Talk about a great upheaval: unwed Mary had an unexpected pregnancy! When she learns about Elizabeth, she goes for a visit. Elizabeth assures her that this pregnancy is a blessing. She says to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” She spoke from personal experience, having known such blessing for six months.

Elizabeth testified to Mary, and together they testify to us. They tell us that the peace that transcends understanding comes from God’s Word spoken to us. It occurs in a great upheaval—when the proud are suddenly disoriented; where the powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up; where hungers of every kind are filled with God, and the emptiness of riches is exposed.

Paul writes about this blessed peace this way: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)

Do you want to experience peace this Advent—the peace that transcends understanding? Then let us follow the example of these women. Let us believe, as Elizabeth did, that there will be fulfilment. Let us magnify the Lord, as Mary did, making room in our lives for God’s Word. Then may we, like they did, rejoice in God our Savior—in the peace that transcends understanding, when the great upheaval occurs in our lives, and Christ is born again in us.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Who’s an “Elizabeth” in your life—someone you can go to when the great upheaval occurs?
  • Does your pursuit of the kinds of peace we understand—using power, riches, or reason—distract you from the peace that transcends understanding?
  • How do you manage the crisis of faith when seeing ungodly people prosper in peace? Where is your “sanctuary?” Where do you listen for God’s Word?
  • In what ways can you “magnify” the Lord this Advent, making a larger space for God in your soul.

 

11.30.14 Christ our Hope Romans 8:18-25 Sermon Summary

The essence of Christianity isn’t Christmas, its Advent.

Summary Points

  • Why Advent has become more important than Christmas
  • The role of suffering in the Christian life
  • Five strategies for increasing hope this Advent

This time of year the traditional conservative pundits start the lament about the “war on Christmas.” If Christians want to lament something, it should be the war on Advent, because Advent, not Christmas, is what Christianity is all about.

Advent reminds us that we live between the 1st and 2nd coming of Christ, between promise and fulfillment, between installment and completion, between guarantee and deliverance. Advent gives us the truth about our mixture of joy and pain in this life. Advent reminds us of the unique way Christian doctrine relates suffering and hope.

Hope As First CandleWhereas other religions deal with suffering by enduring it, escaping it, avoiding it, or overcoming it, Christianity embraces suffering and invites to hope. Lewis Smedes, in Keeping Hope Alive, writes, “We need to hope because God gave us the power to imagine the future, but gave us no power to control it.”

Our own imaginations of the future are powerful enough. Its why, when we are free, we are creative, inventive, and progressive. Nearly everything you enjoy is the result of someone’s free imagination. The power of our imagination is also why, when we are not free, we become criminal, defensive, and despairing.

But even more than “the power to imagine the future,” God has given us a vision of the future, his vision. It’s a vision of reconciled relationships, and healing for our souls and bodies. It’s a place where there is “no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain, where God himself wipes away every tear.” (Revelation 21:4)

Hope is necessary, and uniquely Christian, Smedes says, because this is the future God envisions for us, but we are incapable of achieving it.

Suffering serves as the reminder of both of these truths: that (1) There is a better future and (2) We depend on God to bring it about.

When Paul says that “all creation suffers,” he’s referring on one hand, to the created world. Creation suffers, for example, by the drought caused by over-farming, and by climate change resulting from volcanic eruption. Intersteller is just the most recent movie about abandoning earth because it’s suffering make it inhabitable for humans. In this arena of suffering, God promises a new earth, and only God can bring it about.

On the other hand, “all creation suffers” is a reference to the suffering of others besides us. All creation suffers with non-white Americans—young men of color, or immigrants from south of the boarder, for example. Creation suffers as the poor doing without nutritious food or adequate health care. All creation suffers in countries where tyrants rule over the powerless. In this arena, God promises justice, and only God can bring it about.

But then there is the matter of our personal suffering, which can either be ordinary or extreme. Ordinary suffering is like aging or common maladies. Extreme suffering results from victimization or severe or prolonged illness.

How do we maintain hope in our suffering? How do we keep the vision of the future alive? How do we keep faith in God strong? This is the Christian quest, task, and vocation. This is the essence of Advent.

Here are some strategies for keeping hope in God’s vision alive and faith strong.

  1. Remember God’s faithfulness in the past. God was faithful to ancient Israel, as the opening words of Psalm 85 recall: “You restored the fortunes of Jacob.” God was faithful to Christ, whose resurrection signaled the coming of the kingdom. And God has been faithful to you—you’ve suffered before, yet here you are.
  2. Express your desire for deliverance. Psalm 85 turns from remembrance to request: “Will you not revive us, that we also may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love; grant us your salvation.” Some Christians believe they shouldn’t pray to be delivered from suffering. That belief is not in the Bible. Even Jesus prayed to be delivered from suffering.
  3. Look for a purpose. You will not always find one—contrary to some teachings, not all suffering is redemptive. But if there is a purpose, you’re more likely to find one if you look for it. In Paul’s words, purposeful suffering is a reference to the “redemption of our bodies.” Christ suffered for a purpose—so might we.
  4. Meditate on God’s promises of a new heaven and a new earth, and of social justice, of the place where “righteousness and peace kiss one another,” and where creation is “set free from its bondage to decay.” It is in light of these promises that Paul won’t even compare the present sufferings to the future glory.
  5. In summary, to keep hope alive and faith strong, we can observe Advent. Read devotionals, schedule some silence and stillness, light candles, pray, read scripture or other uplifting literature, reconnect with nature, say no to the pressures of consumerism, and bear witness to Christ’s 1st and 2nd coming.

The whole creation is waiting for you to be revealed as a child of God. Let Christ be born in you this Advent, and may you be born again.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • What are some of the things you’ve been taught about suffering? Do they reflect the whole “counsel of scripture”? In other words, did you know the Bible itself has a number of ways to address suffering? Which ones minister to you?
  • What are the ways you’ve seen “all creation suffer”? In what ways are you suffering right now?
  • Which of the strategies outlined above, or others that have worked for you, will you be using to help you keep hope alive and faith strong?

11.23.14 Being Right or Being Left Matthew 25:31-46 Sermon Summary

What does it mean that Christ is King and Lord? This is perhaps the fundamental Christian question, bearing on both how we live now, and whether we will be with God for eternity.

Summary Points

  • Jesus’ redefinition of “Lord” and “King”
  • Two places to look for and find God
  • An insight into heaven
  • The warning and invitation of these passages
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Jesus as Lord (and King) is the original Christian confession of faith. The language is archaic for us. Who speaks of kings and lords today? Perhaps it is better to envision Christ as president, boss, or general. In any case, Jesus redefined kingship and lordship from images of power, possession, and privilege to depictions of service and sacrifice.

In the language of today’s readings: the king and lord is a shepherd. This image may no less lost to us since the “shepherd” motive is also a relatively foreign one.

Ezekiel is a long, complicated, and symbolic book. On one hand, it includes harsh and terrible judgments against the people of God. On the other hand, there are scenes of redemption, like the one included in today’s readings. God judges the shepherds of Israel, particularly the religious leaders, but also those whose luxurious living comes on the backs of the poor. These two, religious infidelity and lack of social justice led to the scattering of God’s flock—specifically, to the Exile, the context in which Ezekiel wrote.

The end result is that God himself must shepherd his people. He draws upon the image of “David,” the tradition’s epitome of the shepherd king. God promises to gather those who are scattered and lost. Particularly, God will seek those who are Lost, Strayed, Injured, or Weak.

I wonder how many of us view ourselves this way. Don’t we in fact pride ourselves on achievement? We project ourselves as having it all together. We never want to be lost. But God particularly seeks the lost, strayed, injured, and weak. And what is more, God judges the “by the book, straight and narrow, Hollywood hair, healthy, strong, have-it-all-together, fat sheep.” These are bullies. Ezekiel says they got that way by oppressing the weak sheep.

Consider this: If we try so hard to not be lost, strayed, injured, and weak, why are we surprised when God seems distant? God is near to the lost, strayed, injured, and weak! If we want to find God, this is where we must look first: within, and honestly, at those places where we are lost, strayed, injured, and weak.

There is a second place to look for God. Jesus reveals it when he revealed the kingdom—when he replaced David as the quintessential shepherd king. Jesus said we could find God among the Hungry, Thirsty, Foreign, Naked, Sick, and the Imprisoned. Among these is where Jesus promised to be. And how we treat them is how we treat Jesus. And furthermore, how we treat Jesus determines whether we are among God’s flock.

Here we have an insight as to what heaven is like. Heaven is the place where all needs are met, because all needs are acknowledged, and God, the shepherd king, meets the needs himself. Heaven is the intersection between our need and God’s meeting the need.

These passages us warn us, to be sure. But they also invite us. They warn us not to neglect the needs of the lost, strayed, injured, the weak, or the hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick, imprisoned—or any such vulnerable, needy persons. If we ignore this warning, we will not find ourselves in God’s company, because God is with them.

But these passages invite us also, to get in touch with our own needs. In touch with our sense of being lost, of having gone astray. Of being hurt, of being weak. In touch with our physical needs, symbolized by hunger, thirst, nakedness (if these are not literal concerns). With our social vulnerabilities of being the foreigner, the marginalized, the overlooked, the taken-advantage of. With our mental and emotional vulnerabilities that make us sick and imprisoned. These passages invite us to get us in touch with any need that creates the place where God ministers to us.

And as we become more aware of these places in our own lives, we will discover God there. And we will recognize these places in the lives of others. And we will discover God there also.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What contemporary language would make more immediate sense to us than “Lord,” “King,” and “Shepherd”?
  • How do you identify with the sheep who are lost, strayed, weak, or injured? Or with those who are hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick, or imprisoned?
  • Do you feel the force of these passages more as warning or invitation? How will you respond?

 

11.16.14 Preparations for the Judgment Matthew 25:14-30 Sermon Summary

There are a lot of different ways to think about God, and the source of this diversity comes from none other than the Bible.

Summary Points

  • Why the Lectionary is focused on judgment just now
  • Images of God in the judgment scenes and what they tell us
  • A helpful clue to dealing with God’s diversity in the Bible
  • How our perception of God determines our life
  • The lesson of the parable in our lives now and at the judgment
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

The existence of different religions is evidence enough that there are various ways to think about God. But even within a religion, like Christianity, variety exists. And it comes as a surprise to some that even within the sourcebook of Christianity, the Bible, there are many depictions of God.

At this time of year, the Revised Common Lectionary is walking us through passages related to God’s judgment. It is leading up to the end of the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King Sunday. And it is preparing us to enter the new year with Advent, when we focus on the coming of Jesus. Another way of looking at it is that it is preparing us for the end of our lives, and thus for the rest of our lives.

Today’s readings offer us various images of God in the last days. From the prophet Zephaniah we see a Warrior who plunders us. Zephaniah sees God conquering both our luxurious living and our idolatrous religion. This is a good image to have in mind as we approach Christmas. . .

Paul offers us two images: A thief who surprises us and a pregnant woman going into labor. The thief exposes our complacency; the laboring woman suggests that even when we might expect it, God’s arrival still comes as a disruptive surprise.

The image of God in judgment from the psalm is of an endurance athlete. God’s judgment can be experienced our whole lives long. By comparison to God’s judgment, our lives are short. In all these depictions, God’s judgment is certain, but it is also unpredictable.

Some people get nervous with so many images of God. They had hoped God could be understood in one simple way. But that’s not the biblical revelation, nor is it our experience. So how shall we think about various perceptions of God?

One helpful path is to recognize that some biblical depictions of God reflect truths about God, others reveal something of God’s actual nature. In both cases, the Bible’s intention is that we orient our lives around the presence of this God.

So, for example, from Zephaniah, where God is the Plundering Warrior, we are called to trust not in riches, nor in religion, but only in God. From Paul’s Thief and Laboring Mother, we are called to watch for God, live in the light, and endure trials with the hope of new life. The psalm’s final verse urges us to, “Count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” In other words, to keep the long view in mind.

In all these images of judgment, Paul’s words give us a comforting assurance: “God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5.9) This is a passage that, in my opinion, does not merely reflect a truth about God, but reveals God’s very nature. God is a Savior.

All of this leads us to Jesus’ parable about the slaves and the talents. Even within this single parable, the image of God is diverse. If Paul’s statement is true, that our destiny is to “obtain salvation through Jesus Christ,” what might that look like? According to Jesus, it is, “As if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves, and entrusted his property to them.”

There are two technical facts that are helpful to know. First, a talent was equal to about 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. We’re talking about entrusting a fortune to the slaves. And second, to bury treasure in the ancient world was common, acceptable, and prudent.

In this parable, there really are only two storylines: the one following the slaves who received five and two talents, and the one following the slave who received one talent. Common to both storylines is that the master entrusts property to the slaves. The story hinges on the differing perceptions of the slaves.

These are revealed in the storyline of the one-talent slave. I contrast to the other slaves, this one says, “I knew you were a harsh man, so I was afraid, and I hid.” And the master validates that perception: “You knew, did you? . . . Then should have invested.”

Remember that the third slave was justified in his action. What he did, burying the treasure, was a completely legitimate course of action to take with a treasure. What condemned him was his perception of the master. In Luke’s version of this parable, the master says, “I will condemn you using your own words.”

This parable contributes its diverse images of God and discloses two fundamental truths. First, we have some freedom to choose how we envision God, and how we envision God is how we will experience God. Second, how we envision God will determine how we will live our lives.

The first two slaves envisioned God as entrusting and abundant. They went and traded the talents, multiplying them, and as a result, entered into God’s joy. The third slave envisioned God as entrusting and exacting. He hid the talent because he was paralyzed by fear.

The truth about God is that God is entrusting and abundant. We’ve all been entrusted with something. It doesn’t matter whether it is five talents or two or one. What matters is our perception and our response. That’s how we realize God’s “destiny” for us. That’s how we endure God’s judgment upon our lives. That’s how we “obtain salvation through Jesus Christ.”

This parable calls us to find our talent, to go and play with it, and to enter God’s joy.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What images do you have of the “last days” and God’s judgment? How many of those images are biblically formed, and how many come from popular depictions? How do you think you will fare under God’s judgment?
  • What do the various images of God found in the lectionary readings for this day speak to you? Are there other ways you envision God as you think about God’s judgment in your life?
  • Does the invitation to see a distinction between reflection and revelation help you in understanding the Bible, or frustrate you? Why is that?
  • What are some of the talents with which God has entrusted you? Are you playing with them or hiding them? Do you think God wants you to enjoy them or will God be “a harsh man” when he summons you to account for them?

 

 

 

11.09.14 Waiting For God, Matthew 25:1-13, Sermon Summary

There are three obstacles to hearing this parable of Jesus, but the one main point is even more important today than ever.

Summary Points

  • How meaning can be lost by over-analyzing
  • How meaning can be lost because of our presumption
  • How meaning can be lost through anxiety
  • The simple and transforming point of this parable
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Hearing the parables of Jesus today is difficult as a rule, since they are metaphors from another time and culture. But if we can sort through some of the challenges, we may still benefit from Jesus’ wisdom. The parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is an excellent example.

One of the obstacles we have is that we tend to allegorize the parables into an incomprehensible complexity. We are tempted to make associations and then predictions about the future. It’s reasonable enough to identify the Bridegroom in this parable as Jesus given the context of the parable from the previous chapter. But then we are faced with a number of rabbit trails.

Who are the Bridesmaids? Why are there ten? What is the oil? And what then would the flasks be? Why is the Bridegroom so delayed? Why won’t the wise Bridesmaids share? What Dealer is open at midnight? Why not open the door? Why does the parable say, “Keep awake” instead of “have enough oil”?

Questions like these cause biblical scholars to wonder how much of this parable as we have in the gospel of Matthew goes all the way back to Jesus. How much has the gospel author added? Is the original understanding and meaning irrevocably lost?

Another challenge to hearing the parable today is that we think it doesn’t apply to us. We simply assume we are among the wise Bridesmaids. Whatever else the parable means—in the end we’ll be inside the wedding banquet.

After all, we’ve confessed Jesus as Lord, and “accepted” him into our hearts (a concept found nowhere in the Bible). We worship on Sunday; we have a goal to tithe. But we could very well be like the people of Amos’ day–highly religious with our worship days and present day ”sacrifices.” But the question from Amos confronts us also: does “Justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”?

We forget that like Amos, Jesus and Matthew’s original audience were the faithful of their day. They aren’t preaching to those outside the faith community, but to those on the inside. Amos warns that when God comes, it will be like running from a lion only to meet a bear, only to retreat to one’s house and be bitten by a snake. Jesus warns us not to be surprised by arriving late to the party. These are warnings for us, the church.

Given that, a third obstacle for not hearing the parable is that it paralyzes us with fear. We hear it like the bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” We are anxious that maybe we’re not busy with the right things. What if we’re not living right way? What if we die in a state of sin and are locked out?

These questions have a parallel in the church of the Thessalonians. They expected Jesus’ return to be imminent, within their generation. But as it drew out longer and longer, and some among their fellowship died, they wondered what happens to them in the second coming. After all, the dead aren’t just sleeping like bridesmaids. They can’t hear the “cry of command” or “trumpet blast.” They’re dead!

Paul’s answer is that the dead rise first. How appropriate that those who have no hope of hearing respond to God’s call. Paul’s conviction that God’s grace is effective even among the dead is completely consistent with the resurrection of Christ and Paul’s own encounter with the risen Lord. Paul’s confidence is warranted because the dead are “in Christ.”

Being “in Christ” is symbolized best by baptism. In baptism we dying with Christ in order that we may be raised with Christ and live a new life. It begins now in this life. It is characterized by hoping according to Jesus’ teaching, and following Christ as we seek and are led by his Spirit. Paul’s answer to the anxiety about our lives is that if there is hope for the dead, there is hope for us.

After we remove these obstacles to understanding Jesus’ parable today, we are left with an echo of the words of Psalm 70: “Let all who seek God rejoice . . . Help me for I am weak. . . You are my help and my deliverer, O LORD, do not delay.” The point of the parable, it seems, is this: To us who are weak and weary, Jesus says, “Keep awake, keep watching, don’t lose hope. I am coming.”

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are some other parables whose meaning is jeopardized when we over-allegorize, identifying too many characters and events in the parable to contemporary people and events?
  • Given that these warnings are addressed to you and the church today, how should we respond?
  • If hope never dies, not even with death, how are you willing to risk your life to follow Christ today and be prepared for the arrival of the Bridegroom?
  • What kinds of distractions are in your life right now that jeopardize your preparedness for Christ’s return?

11.02.14 Coming to Jesus Matthew 5.1-12 Sermon Summary

Jesus’ famous opening of the “Sermon on the Mount” clarifies our vision of life here and life hereafter. On All Saints’ Weekend, when we think about those who have died, it is appropriate to reflect upon our shared destiny in Christ.

Summary Points

  • What it means to be poor in spirit
  • How being poor in spirit is a blessing
  • How our promised destiny can form our life today
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

This is the weekend when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, preceded the night before with Halloween, and the day following by All Souls’ Day. The lectionary passages assigned to All Saints’ Day help us to reflect upon our common life in Christ.

So the passage from Revelation reminds us of God’s universal salvation which culminates in a vision of truly multicultural worship. The Psalm calls us to put our trust in God’s deliverance now and for the life to come. First John reminds us that our full redemption is yet to be seen, though God’s faithfulness makes it sure. And finally Matthew’s version of the “Sermon on the Mount” focuses our attention.

Luke’s version of this apparently stock-sermon of Jesus begins “blessed are the poor.” Matthew’s more well-known version adds “in spirit.” Of course Jesus’ original audience was poor—to a level few of us have experienced. But being poor “in spirit” is something to which we can all relate.

In the words of Psalm 42-43, it is described as having a “downcast soul.” There the author mourns being oppressed by an enemy, by some deceitful and wicked person. All of us are subject to oppression at times. For us it may be fear, anxiety, or work. It might be social pressures, deteriorating health, or bad relationships. Whatever our “enemy” which causes us to be poor in spirit and to mourn, Jesus says we will be comforted, and therefore we are blessed.

Poverty of spirit can result from all the Beatitudes. So, for example, meekness, which is refusing to resort to retributive violence, can cause poverty of spirit. So can hungering and thirsting for righteousness, which is the soul-deep desire for just and right relationships among all people. Being merciful, instead of “just” in the legal sense, certainly can cause poverty of spirit. As can purity of heart, which Kierkegaard defined as “to will one thing.” Being a peacemaker in a world of violence, rights, and war exhausts one’s spirit. And of course real live persecution (which does not include hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”) drains the spirit.

And yet, all of these conditions and the resulting poverty of spirit are “blessed” according to Jesus. What a strange definition. “Blessed” refers to the supreme happiness that can only be found in God. The reason it is a blessing to be poor in spirit is because only then do we realize that our ultimate and lasting supreme happiness is rooted in God.

To say it another way, we are blessed the more we are like God. God is meek, desires righteousness, merciful, and peaceable. And God has promised such blessedness to us. This is why Matthew tells us that Jesus went up to the mountain, and only after “sitting down” do the disciples gather around him. It is a foreshadow of Jesus resurrection and ascension, a depiction of the glorified Christ sitting on the mountain of God at God’s right hand. This, Matthew is reminding us, is our destiny in Christ—participation in God. Blessedness.

This reminder is God’s promise to us. And in the meantime, the promises are our assurances. Not only are we blessed because we end up with and like God, but even now, when we act like God, we experience God’s blessings. So when we pursue righteousness, meekness, mercy, and peace, we are blessed. Should we ever experience persecution, we are blessed. When we feel poverty of spirit, when we mourn, and as we become more pure in heart, we are blessed.

For all of these experiences are the foretaste of our perfection in Christ. This is the hope we have not only for those who have died whom we remember today, but for ourselves as well. And as we live according to this hope, it is the hope of the world as well.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Who are some people who have inspired your spiritual life? What qualities did they exhibit? How do these qualities related to the Beatitudes? How can you begin to emulate them?
  • In what other ways do we experience poverty of spirit? Does this occur, as with the Beatitudes, because they reflect the values of God’s kingdom?
  • How are you growing as a child of God who demonstrates the Beatitudes in your life? What next step might you take to cultivate just one of these spiritual qualities?

 

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