Sep 29

Wisdom and Prudence

Books about wisdom form a substantial part of our Bible. In the Old Testament, the wisdom literature includes Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. In the New Testament, we have James. Throw in the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch, all found in the apocrypha, which we don’t read as Scripture but which has influenced many Christians, including the Apostle Paul, and you’re talking about a good chunk of what Christians have turned to over the years. Continue reading

Apr 07

Two Simple Things

Such a simple act. In the middle of dinner—the middle, not the beginning, when things like this would ordinarily be done—Jesus takes off his outer garment. He lays it down, just as he is about to lay down his very life. He lays it down for his friends, it turns out, just as he will lay down his life for his friends. He kneels down, towel wrapped around his waist, basin in hand, and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. When he is finished, Jesus picks up his outer garment once more, just as he will take up his life again three days later, orders his disciples to wash each others’ feet, and the supper continues. All for the sake of a dozen pairs of feet. Continue reading

Feb 23

Unmasking Sin’s Damage

For the last few months, one of the items on the to-do list for Centre’s trustees has been the bell that sits at the top of our steeple. There are two ways to ring the bell, and, a while back, Marc Reeves disabled the way that involves the bell actually tolling, swinging back and forth, because of some concern about whether the bell was securely in its place. Now, before I go any further, let me say something very clearly: we’ve had an expert in bells examine ours recently, and while there’s plenty of work to do, Centre’s bell is perfectly safe. It’s not going anywhere. When you leave the service this morning, you can walk through the vestibule without ducking or hurrying through just in case. Continue reading

Nov 10

God on Our Terms

            A few weeks ago I heard a story on the radio about a young woman who has to be about the most committed environmentalist imaginable. She had visited her boyfriend’s family for a few days, where she was shocked to discover that his family did not compost their leftovers. She could not bring herself to put her food in the trash can, so she hid it for days. She was powerfully committed to making life better for the planet—but she refused to identify herself as an environmentalist. The journalist who interviewed this woman made a big deal about her age and the so-called millennial generation, but the situation was clearer and simpler than all that. This woman wanted to be an environmentalist on her own terms, and the name “environmentalist” was beyond her control. If she couldn’t control it, she didn’t want it.

            This woman is no different than so many other people in this country right now. Americans love to believe that everything is in our control. We like to believe we have the upper hand in every situation. Libertarian politicians and their followers tell us we would be so much better off if we just had a little more control over our lives. Voters go to polls to try to control a system of government and then immediately react angrily whenever that government does anything they don’t like—or pretend to be innocent bystanders when the government does something everyone knows is wrong. Welay down the terms and conditions of our participation. We pretend we are each a little king or queen, a little god or goddess.

            It’s not surprising that we carry this attitude into our churches, too. We hear the gospel preached, the release from bondage to slavery and idols made possible in Jesus Christ, and we respond, “Okay, God, I can give you an hour Sunday mornings—most of the time. And maybe an occasional committee meeting, as long it’s not more than once a month.” We hear the call of discipleship, and we say, “I’ll follow Jesus, but there’s going to be some boundaries here. No leaving the safety of my friends or my beliefs. No ‘ends of the earth’ nonsense; it has to be local. And forget about the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger; you can’t trust those folks. Take it or leave it Jesus, but those are my terms.”

            I really don’t know what’s more audacious: that we dare to lay down terms with God in the first place, or that our conditions are so—pathetic. One hour a week, three or four times a month, for the God who has crossed every boundary for our sake? Half-hearted commitments for the God who promises a new creation, free of sin and tears? Conditional love for the God who loved us while we were his enemies? We want to be Christians without the church, disciples without the cost, worshipers without the sacrifice, followers without the leader. We are lukewarm, and we still believe we have God under our thumb.

            Joshua knew about people like us. Israel has settled into the Promised Land; the people have, by the grace and power of God, overcome many obstacles and defeated much stronger nations. Joshua’s own earthly task and his life are coming to an end, so he sets before them a choice: in this new land will the Israelites serve the Lord, who delivered them from Egypt and carried them to the Promised Land, or will they worship the various so-called gods of the people they have defeated? Joshua offers them a choice: the Lord God, or some idol. And Joshua commits his own family to the Lord: “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

            Just like us, the Israelites recognize a good deal when they see one. Follow the God who gave them such sweet new digs? No problem! Who’d want to chase after those other gods, the ones who were just defeated, anyway? “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…; we will also serve the Lord, for his is our God.” Our God? Our God, the God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam? Or our God, the one who belongs to us, the one we can control?

Immediately Joshua realizes he has made a mistake. He has allowed the people to think Israel can follow God on her own terms. It’s now their choice; they decide whether or not to serve the Lord. Today they can decide yes; tomorrow they may change their minds. The Israelites—they’re just like us. Who would refuse that deal? I’ll show up at church this week, but next week my schedule is looking really busy! I’ll offer alms for the poor next month, but this month I have a ball game to attend! A God who gives us stuff? Who protects us? A safe God? That’s what we’ve wanted all along! Those are our terms; take it or leave it, God.

Because insisting on our own terms has worked out so well for us, right? Relationships on our terms with friends and family have always worked out, right? We’ve never caused pain for ourselves or others by doing things our way, have we? Our way never turns out to be the wrong way, does it? No. Of course not. A god on our terms? What could go wrong?

Do we really think that a god on our terms could deliver the captives out of Egypt? Do we actually believe that a god who would submit to our conditions would bother to send prophets and teachers, let alone a son, for our benefit? Would a god under our control have the power to raise the dead?

Joshua knew better, and when he sees the enthusiasm of the people of Israel, he knows he must act dramatically. From his mouth come some of the most chilling words in all of Scripture: “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn to you and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” Yikes, Joshua! “He will not forgive your transgressions or sins!” The words shock—and they are meant to shock. Joshua has been around for a long time. He has witnessed the Lord’s forgiveness over and over. But Joshua also knows better than to give God terms for his service. Israel now has a new choice to make: serve God completely or not at all. Serve God even when it seems like it might be against your best interests, or don’t bother starting down the path in the first place. The Lord is a holy God; you cannot serve him on your own terms.

We have all faced this choice at some point in our lives. You may be facing this choice today. I beg you this morning: release God from your terms. Lower the boundaries you have built up to keep God at arm’s length. Follow the God who delivers the captives out of Egypt. The God who sends prophets and teachers, even his own Son, for us and for our salvation. The God who cannot be contained by our terms. The God of Jesus Christ, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Nov 03

The Jordan River

            Rivers make great barriers. Rivers are dangerous and unpredictable, deep here and shallow there, calm on the surface but swift just beneath. Rivers don’t just stand between one side and another. They try to carry off anyone who would cross them, catch them up in their currents and hasten them to the sea. They dare any would-be trespassers: just try to get past me! The Potomac River once divided this country into north and south. The Mississippi marks for us east and west. The Rio Grande tells us in or out. Yes, rivers make great barriers.

            No river is mightier—and so no barrier is greater—than the river of death. Death is the strangest of rivers. At first glance, it looks more like a parched riverbed, dry, and empty, and lifeless. Approach death, stand close enough to its shores, and you realize that this strange river has a force behind it almost like no other. Like the whirlpool of a great rapid, its emptiness pulls you in, dragging you against your will.

            For the ancient Greeks, the river Death was the river Styx: as strong a barrier as you could want between the living and the dead. Hope for this life vanished at the far edge of the Styx. Few in our day take the Greek myths to heart as anything more than good stories, but for many of us, Death remains as insurmountable as the Styx.

            But it is not the Styx that lies between the Israelites and the Promised Land in Joshua 3. It is the Jordan River. All hope does not vanish at the banks of the Jordan. And when the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the waters of the Jordan do not sweep the people of God down into the Dead Sea. Instead, the Jordan parts, “the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap,” and Israel crosses from the wilderness into the Promised Land.

            This is the second crossing, the second baptism for Israel. The first was at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians hot on Israel’s trail. At the first crossing God washed away the idols and the oppression that had characterized life in Egypt. On the far shore of the Red Sea, the Lord claimed the Israelites as his people. At the second crossing God cleanses the filth from forty years of wilderness wanderings. On the distant shore of the Jordan, the Lord brings his people home.

            Not everyone could cross the Jordan at once, of course. No doubt some at back of the line must have watched their brothers and sisters cross the Jordan ahead of them and thought, “I wonder if the waters will hold back for me, too.” But they didn’t need to worry. The waters did not budge. Every Israelite crossed safely; “the entire nation” walked across on dry ground.

            Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this All Saints’ Sunday we find ourselves on the banks of Death. Others have gone before us, beloved friends and family members, cherished members of the body of Christ. They have crossed ahead of us, and we know one day we will follow them through the river. If you’re like me, you probably wish you could catch a glimpse of them on the far shore; you might long for even the briefest vision of assurance that they have crossed safely, a vision, also, of hope that you will one day stand with them. Do not be troubled. God does not carry us through life only to dump us by the Styx. The river that stands between us and the saints who have gone before us is the Jordan River, not a great barrier but a gateway to God’s eternal promises.

            Just like the Israelites, all of us must undergo two baptisms. At the first baptism, our own crossing of the Red Sea, God washes us clean of our sin and claims us as his people. The Father seals us with his Holy Spirit and makes us disciples of his Son Jesus Christ. This first baptism marks the beginning of our journey—not a journey we could ever undertake alone, but a journey with our fellow pilgrims and disciples, a journey as the church. At this first baptism God put to death our bent toward sinning and so saved us from the second death.

            But there remains, for all of us, a second baptism: death, the death of the bodies God has given us. The filth and grime from our imperfect discipleship pilgrimage must still be washed away. Having passed through the waters of the first baptism, we need not fear the waters of this second baptism. They will not overwhelm us. God holds them back with a mighty hand and will deliver us to safety on the banks across the way. Our great High Priest stands in the middle; his cross is the ark of the new covenant, the surety of our safe passage.

            What will we find across the Jordan? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, … saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and unto the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10). “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps 107:1).

            The multitude is the multitude of the saints of God. Their journey is over. They await the resurrection of their bodies, but already for them death and sadness are no more. The march of the saints is not what happens on the other side of the Jordan. The march of the saints is what takes us up to the Jordan—and leads us across. If we want to be counted in thatnumber, we need to put on our shoes now. We need to follow the well-worn paths of the saints, paths of prayer and praise, paths of virtue and peace, paths marked by the cross of Christ. These paths lead us up to the banks of the Jordan. And there the saints will discover that no river is a barrier to God, that not even Death itself can sweep past Christ’s cross to drown us.

            May we also be found in the company of saints. Amen.