Decisions

A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent; Numbers 21: 4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

It must be spring, our clocks sprang forward in the middle night, depriving us of an hour of sleep. It must be spring, snakes are all over the place. My first memory of a snake story is not wrestling with the identity of the snake in the Garden of Eden, nor the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones opens the secret chamber and on seeing the strangely rolling floor rolls over and says Snakes, why does it always have to be snakes. No, my first memory of snakes is the story of my mother and mother of our across the street neighbor going out to lunch. It must have been a special place because they wore long tight skirts with high heels. When they got back, they saw a snake in our front yard as they drove in. They didn’t know what kind it was but decided it was just too big, and besides, all the kids would be getting off the school bus before too long. So, she asks our neighbor to bring her an ax and she will cut its head off. Our neighbor brings her ~ a hatchet. Determined, and against all laws of motion and balance my mom is successful. They go home. Sure enough, not 15 minutes later all the school bus kids are romping down the street headed home. One of the boys, picks up the headless snake by the tail, begins swinging it around loudly asking Who killed the copperhead? If the snakes are not in our yards, they are all over this morning’s bible stories.

From Numbers, we read how the Israelites yet again grumbled about how hard the trip to freedom is, the miserable food and lack of water. God sends snakes, who bit many people, who die. The people go to Moses acknowledge their sin in complaining and ask him to intercede. He does. God tells him to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and anyone who looks at it will be healed and live. He does, they do.

The Gospel story begins with Jesus saying: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. It is interesting to know that in Bible days snakes or serpents were a symbol of both death and danger and fertility, life, and healing. (Harrelson). The story gets more complex when we learn the word for poisonous also means fiery, and also, saraph, or Seraphim, majestic beings who attend and protect God (Thomas Nelson Inc; Gaventa and Petersen). It gets evening more interesting when we are told God’s instructions to Moses are similar to homeopathic medicine that treats diseases with small doses of what in larger doses would be dangerous or fatal, and apotropaic medicine which is intended to ward off evil and bad luck (Keener and Walton). All that sounds a bit like a vaccine. All of it is interesting, but there is more to these bible stories.

In addition to all the serpent images, there are emotional images. Most of us recognize John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. even if we don’t know it is a bible verse. It is a feel-good line (Cruz). We can go a long time on the happy energy that comes from knowing how much God loves us. And then ~then we remember that “he gave” refers to Jesus’ crucifixion and that stirs up all kinds of questions. Yes, we know God loves us, but giving up his only son to die, who would do that? That reminds us of the story from Numbers and God sending snakes to punish them, and that many died when they were bitten. Did God, would God really send snakes to bite people who would die. Even though there is a lot that makes us feel good in the Gospel story it is very clear that if we don’t believe in Jesus we are already condemned (John 3:18). Does God, will God condemn us because we don’t believe, or we struggle to believe in Jesus? Did God, would God, will God really do that?

Both stories have snake images and emotional images in common. There is a third thing they have in common, decisions and consequences. Psalm 107 verse 17 reads Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; * they were afflicted because of their sins. It reminds us, that the story from Numbers is not the only one where Israel rebels against God. There is the entire book of Judges and its cycles of Israel’s bad decisions, then their crying out for help when they are in trouble, and God sending a hero, called a Judge, to save them. That is in verse 19 of the psalm. The bad decisions continue through all the books of history. In them, God sends prophets to help get Israel back on the right track. We have their stories in the Bible. Their language is often full of warnings of doom. All these stories, the story from Numbers, and the story from John’s Gospel account tell us about the consequences of bad decisions. And all of them also tell us about the promise of redemption. Psalm 107 verse 20 reads He sent forth his word and healed them * and saved them from the grave. That is what happens with the bronze serpent, we know is really a saraph a heavenly agent who brings life and healing. This is what happens when we remember that for John Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection – that thing he did on Easter, and Ascension – going back to God, is all one thing, and it is all about healing us, so we can have eternal life, which is not sometime in the future, but is right here, right now because we know we already live in God’s presence (Harrelson; O’Day). So, what we can now see, is that both the story from Numbers and from John are about healing (Lose; Hoezee; Gaventa and Petersen). But, this still does not answer the question about the consequences of bad decisions.

Here is the paradoxical, the strange, thing about the consequences. In Numbers, it is the image of a snake that gives life to those dying from a snake bite. In John it is Jesus dying, coming back to life, and returning to heaven, that gives life to those who don’t believe in Jesus the Son of God, who loves you more than you can imagine. It is what takes life that God uses to restore life. I’ll bet you, that when you make a bad decision, God will find a way to use that decision to bring you back to life in God’s presence. It is not a very good example, but it is kind of like a vaccine, a tiny little bit of something bad, can help keep you safe from a whole lot of something bad.

During Lent, we have been exploring how Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and what lentil soup looks like in the bible readings, and in our lives. This week I see how lentil soup is choosing what is false. It came to my mind Friday morning when I read an article about how a false story is reposted much faster and more often than a true story on social media. Researchers have learned that it is our choice and the not results of some automated effort to mislead people (Lohr). Recognizing the truth isn’t hard because we are misled. Recognizing the truth is hard because it is not what we learn from much of the world around us. We want to use John 3:16 to comfort people facing a crisis or in distress, but we do not want to do anything, even just stay with them (Helmer). This is the dark side of the prosperity gospel. Some preachers teach that if you just pray right, you will be right with God and all will be well, including your checking account. What this also means, but is left unsaid, is that if you or a loved one is sick, or poor or subject to any kind of oppression or abuse, you have somehow sinned and not right with God. Making the right decisions is hard,

  • because we are afraid,
  • because we have a secret that has to stay a secret,
  • because we are ashamed.

Making the right decisions is hard,

  • it can mean that what something is worth is not ultimately guided by how much something costs, or how much you can make,
  • it can mean saying the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, as powerful as it is, is not the final guardian of life, (who by the way is God) even if police can take guns away from certain dangerous people, or some teachers have guns in schools,
  • because the Tempter from Eden’s garden whispers in our ears so that we won’t see each other, see everyone, as the image of God we are, so that we won’t value every human life.

Making the right decisions is hard because there is no neutral position, God/Jesus demand we choose and then act on our choice (Cruz).

 But, making the right decision is possible, because, as John says, the light (Jesus) is in the world, and it will not be overcome (John 3:19, 1:5). Making the right decision is possible because we do not have to wait for Jesus to return because we are already living in Jesus/God/Spirit’s presence. Making the right decision is possible because God loves you so much, God sent Jesus to show us how, and sent the Holy Spirit to gently, continually, remind us. Making the right decision is possible because God is more patient than we are stubborn. Learning to, and practicing, making right decisions is a great replacement for lentil soup; it might just be a good Lenten discipline.

Amen


References

Cruz, Samuel. Commentary on John 3:14-21. 11 3 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 11 3 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Ben. “Snakes, Lent 4 (B).” 11 3 2018. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:14-21. 11 3 2018.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. After Effects. 11 3 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lohr, Steve. “It’s True: False News Spreads Faster and Wider. And Humans Are to Blame.” 8 3 2018. nytimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/technology/twitter-fake-news-research.html&gt;.

Lose, David. Lent 4 B: 3 Overlooked Elements of John 3:16. 11 3 2018.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Church. Sin and Salvation. 11 3 2018. <livingchurch.org>.

Thomas Nelson Inc. NKJV Strong’s. Nashville: Olive Tree, 1982.

 

 

 

Between Humpty Dumpty & The Looking Glass

 

A sermon for Proper 12: Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19), Luke 11:1-13

This morning we are somewhere between Humpty Dumpty and the Looking Glass. We all know the nursery rhyme; you may not know it is a parody on the ineptitude of the King’s Calvary

“All the King’s Horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

It was necessary to speak in metaphor and parody because to criticize the King was a hanging offense. With that in mind, let’s look again at Hosea. It is abhorrent that a prophet, a man of God, would associate with any woman not absolutely beyond reproach. Gomer does not qualify. It is not until we pay attention to their children’s names, that we begin to see the prophecy. I’m sure you remember that in ancient days peoples’ names were significant. This is especially true in the Bible. Think about how many times God or Jesus renames someone. The kids’ names are Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi. Jezreel is named after the city where the king’s great-grandfather killed off the family of the previous rulers, establishing his family’s reign. Lo-ruhamah means no mercy and Lo Ammi means not my people (Harrelson). The sequence would be heard

  •  no king,
  •  no compassion and
  •  no God (Bratt).

All this is happening because of Israel’s behavior. The King and the court have turned their back on God building alliances with other kingdoms. The Temple and priest have turned their backs on God, with empty rituals and shallow sacrifices. The merchants have turned their backs on God through economic injustice. The people have turned their backs on God through hedge bets to the Baals, the Canaanite god(s) of fertility to ensure the crops would be plentiful (Nysse) (Sakenfeld). Just so you will know how the story ends, the prophets are right. Israel, the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, is completely destroyed by Assyria. They never recover. Judah was not conquered by Assyria; however, later they were overrun and sent into exile by Babylon. As you know, they return from exile, reestablish Jerusalem and the Temple and live under a variety of foreign empires until Rome burns Jerusalem to the ground to suppress a revolt about the year 70. Israel as we know it today was carved out of the British colony of Palestine after WWII in return for Jewish support against the Axis forces. But I wander.

Now you would think that after the destruction of Israel, exile in Babylon, and being occupied all those many centuries lessons about fidelity to God would kind of be important. And they were; well sort of.

Fast forward to the end of the Gospel time. Jesus’ followers both Jew and gentile (which is really everybody not Jewish) broadly proclaim Jesus to be the incarnation of God, the perfection of Moses, the perfection of the prophets, and whose resurrection shattered the injustice of a corrupt crucifixion and secured for everyone who believes justice, and eternal life in God’s presence. This story runs smack up against Jewish traditions, which leads to Saul’s vicious persecution of Jesus’ early followers. Then Paul (note the name change) gets converted by a private audience with Christ in God’s presence. Understanding that God has done through Jesus what the people could not do through the Temple and Torah, Paul sets out on what the Pharisees always understood the next step to be, taking the light of God to all the nations of the world. Thus we find Paul in gentile lands proclaiming Christ in preaching, in person and through letters, Yes, he ran into difficulties. Certainly with Jews living in foreign lands. At first, they just objected; they remember their history. But there was also trouble with Jewish Christians, who believed that for gentiles to be truly Christian, they had to follow Jewish laws. There were also some converts who had been followers of Greek or Roman teachers who taught you had to follow an ascetic lifestyle that included a specific set of visionary rituals. Paul’s letter circulating through churches in and around Corinth is clear don’t be deceived by human philosophies and empty deceit, old traditions, or new festivals. Beware of shallow rituals and empty traditions; do not lose touch with Jesus (Walsh). For Paul, there was nothing beyond Baptism. Through Baptism

  • we acknowledge Jesus as the center of hope
  • we commit to proclaiming that Jesus’ death and resurrection changed the balance of the world, and of the cosmos.

Paul teaches that Jesus, God’s Christ, is the fullness of God on earth. Through Baptism we are now “In Christ” and therefore we are also the fullness of God on earth (Hoezee, Colossians).

So, here we are. Two thousand years later. A couple days away from the end of one political convention, a day away from the beginning of the next political convention, and if you read the news, you’d think we hadn’t learned a thing. A review of the world reveals a commitment to God in Jesus that is as corrupt as Hosea’s world and as shallow as Paul’s world. As I listened to folks around town or read social media, I hear a constant loud voice

“That if we’d only recommit to following God’s word everything would get back to normal.”

I don’t disagree. I’ve had enough of shallow rituals and empty traditions. There is only one small trouble; their faithful way of being in Jesus is my shallow rituals and empty traditions; and my, our way of being in Jesus is their shallow rituals and empty traditions. I’ve about had enough; have you had enough (Lewis)?

Well, we are not alone. Jesus’ disciples are at their edge, just like we are. Only, they had the advantage of seeing Jesus going off to pray anytime the journey got stressful, which was all the time. They also saw how refreshed and renewed Jesus was after his time away in prayer (Hoezee, Luke). And so they finally ask a really good question “Jesus, teach us to pray like that?” And he teaches them what we know as the Lord’s prayer. And for your information, yes, Matthew’s version is different, and we’ve added a classical Jewish form of Amen to the end, so relax it is the same prayer. Now, what exactly does Jesus teach them and us?

It all begins acknowledging that God’s named is hallowed; everything dedicated to God only makes sense if God is above all (Sakenfeld). Then the prayer moves to looking forward to God’s Kingdom being on earth, literally, and right now! And that is connected to God’s desire to be in a loving relationship with all creation, being accepted. Then the prayers of our seeking forgiveness of our sins, not when we forgive others, but when we have the grace of the Spirit to forgive others because it is the same grace that allows us to see and accept our sins and God’s forgiveness. And finally, we pray to be shielded from the time of trial (Whitley).

A couple, well a few points. Jesus teaches us to address God, not convicted of our shortfalls, but as he does, with the power of the Spirit to claim our heritage of being in Christ (Pankey, Father). It’s similar to Paul’s emphasis on being in Christ.

The word ‘daily’ is not so clear. We don’t really know what it means because this is the only place it is used. It might mean necessary, or continual. No matter the precise definition Jesus’ meaning is clear, follow the wilderness tradition of relying on God for today’s needs, trusting that God will also take care of tomorrow’s needs (Pankey, Bread).

Part of the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray is their observation that Jesus prays all the time. They realize prayer is not for special occasions or times of need. Jesus invites us to follow him in living all of life as prayer (Hoezee, Luke).

While it is not a part of the prayer proper, the parable that follows teaches us about God’s unreasonable grace. Actually, it is the hospitality God has always called people to live. The culture of hospitality expects a neighbor to help an unprepared neighbor offer hospitality to an inconvenient guest. So yes, God will answer our inconvenient, unreasonable prayers.

Except life reveals to us, it’s not that way, at least it doesn’t appear to be. At one time or another, all of us find ourselves at the point when we proclaim “How much more!?” Beware the prosperity gospel heresy of believing strong enough and it will be; magical deliverance from illness, or winning the lottery; it is false, it is not biblical, and it is dangerous. And I know that at the times we cry out:

  • “How much more pain and loss?” God answers “how much more strength will I give you.”
  • “How much more abandonment and rejection?” God answers” how much more will I be with you.”
  • “How much more disillusionment and disappointment?” God answers “how much more I will love you.” (Lewis).

The strength, the presence, and the love of God is always nearby, at least in the gentle ministry of the Spirit’s assuring whisper that the promise of the resurrection is true, you are in Jesus, God’s Christ. And just so we can remember, the next time we hear Jesus pray it is “Why have you forsaken me?” (Hoezee, Luke).

So this morning, as we stand between Humpty Dumpty and the Looking Glass with the endless variations of nihilistic ADHD narcissism flooding media of all sorts I’m reminded that we live in Christ in prayer, that the truth of God’s word is deeper than the surface of paper, that life lived deeply in God’s presence doesn’t reflect the empty rituals and shallow sacrifices the leaders of principalities and powers proclaim to be the way, and that there no end to God’s strength, presence, and love. I’m reminded that we live in the light of the King of endless mercy and infinite presence.

that we live in Christ in prayer, that the truth of God’s word is deeper than the surface of paper, that life lived deeply in God’s presence doesn’t reflect the empty rituals and shallow sacrifices the leaders of principalities and powers proclaim to be the way, and that there no end to God’s strength, presence, and love. I’m reminded that we live in the light of the King of endless mercy and infinite presence.

that the truth of God’s word is deeper than the surface of paper, that life lived deeply in God’s presence doesn’t reflect the empty rituals and shallow sacrifices the leaders of principalities and powers proclaim to be the way, and that there no end to God’s strength, presence, and love. I’m reminded

  • that we live in the light of the King of endless mercy and infinite presence
  • that life lived deeply in God’s presence doesn’t reflect the empty rituals and shallow sacrifices the leaders of principalities and powers proclaim to be the way, and
  • that there no end to God’s strength, presence, and love.

I’m reminded that we live in the light of the King of endless mercy and infinite presence.

 


 

References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 12CCenter for Excellence in Preaching Hosea. 24 7 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 24 7 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 24 7 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 12CCenter for Excellence in Preaching Colossians. 24 7 2016.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 11:1-13. 24 7 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. How Much More? 24 7 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Nysse, Richard W. Commentary on Hosea 1:210. 24 7 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “Father.” 24 7 2016. Draughting Theology.

—. Give us today our [daily] bread. 24 7 2016.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Stamper, Meda. Commentary on Luke 11:113. 24 7 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Walsh, Brian J. Commentary on Colossians 2:615[. 24 7 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Whitley, Katerina. “Lord, Teach Us How to Pray, Proper 12 (C).” 24 7 2016. Sermons that Work.